Home > Uncategorized > The doom that came to Bukhara, or: how to lobotomize a dreaming city

The doom that came to Bukhara, or: how to lobotomize a dreaming city

If you’re a poetically-inclined prince there’s no finer place to be than sipping sherbets in the leafy teahouses of Bukhara at its height, in the time of the last Abbasid Caliphs.* It is said that the city called to great souls then from across the Abode of Peace so that they enriched it with all the treasures of their own lands, their courts-in-exile making a world-within-the-world that was the envy even of mighty Baghdad.

If you’re a more practically-minded prince then the brain-drain that the Dreaming City caused was a right royal pain – something to be overcome, competed with or destroyed. But this gets you into a war with a numinous quality. What makes a city dream?

If you listen to the poets they’ll tell you about the majestic courtyards of Bukhara’s mosques, the awesome height of its grand minar and the sweep of its peerless Registan parade-ground at the foot of its hulking citadel.


So if you’re an upstart barbarian lord like Tamerlane** then you seek to outdo Bukhara in each of these particulars – to make your own capital higher and wider and sweepier and consequently more magnetic – to strain against the limits of stone and sinew and eye (only to watch in fury from your hidden tomb as your own descendents abandon war for irresponsible dreaming in the trap you built for them). Or perhaps you trample its mosques and minars into dust, fill its registan with your battle-tents, only to find that in a generation or two all has been rebuilt, grander than before, its cracks and crannies testament to a history enriched by just such moments of horror. Or you seek to strip-mine the city for its sacred geometry, replicating it in perfected form or tearing it up and transplanting it wholesale to your own cities, trusting the architecture itself to carry its charm into your hands, only to find that such emulation serves to canonize the original.

But if you’ve learned from Marx that things stand on unmajestic foundations then you seek to do your damage elsewhere. Then perhaps you know exactly what you’re doing when you celebrate those majestic spaces by freeing them from the untidy tangle of streets and souks, squalid sewers and kinked alleyways and nested, complicated, concealing, dingy low dwellings that surround them.

Then you might conclude that the best and most lasting way to destroy the memory of a city is to remove all the untidy people and convert it into a museum.

That’s how Bukhara stands now, its sacred precincts laid bare as eggshells in the scoured waste of a new highway system, cleaned up and clarified and made ready for study: pre-dissected for the benefit of the magical researcher. And there’s something terribly wrong about the storefront city that’s left behind.


It’s not haunted, quite – no personal shades have been allowed to cling to its walls or empty spaces. But it still dreams – dreams that no longer call to poets and princes, but to something else. Something blank and inhuman and cold. And it still speaks to the cities around it, but now it infects them with a gaze of the void that stares back into the jealous hearts of those Emirs that resented its magnetic presence, when it was alive.

Still the sages of the Great Tatar declare it an exemplary piece of preservation work: they’ve even suggested it as a model for similar projects in urban theurgosurgery – to no less an urbomancer than the Dragon Emperor himself, as a remedy for his own accursed, ancient, magnetic megalopolis, Old Kashgar.

* Tenses get so muddled where time travel might be involved. When Rhialto the Marvellous visited Bukhara shortly after its “clarifying regeneration” he affected the guise of a local elder or Aksakal. He was not able, however, to conceal his naturally flamboyant self-esteem, so that he was quickly identified among the Tatar’s rather less colourful functionaries and persuaded to leave with undignified haste.

** Intriguingly more properly Timur-i-leng (Timur “the lame” so I’m told, although I’m suspicious of the derivation)… which might help explain why his burial place has never been positively identified.

  1. March 6, 2012 at 9:21 pm

    I would suspect the truth is this: Timur’s name (as you imply) results from him being a man of Leng. However, his one digitigrade and cloven-hoofed appendage made him walk with a pronounced limp, giving rise to the “lame” part.

    Good post. 😉

  2. Ben
    August 29, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I think what has happened to Burkhara is better than the fate suffered by either Samarkand or Khiva, what with Samarkand massively modernized and much of the old pushed aside and museumed, whereas Khiva still has people living in it, but has descended into ruin. Growing up, Samarkand you got looks for touching things, whereas Khiva you literally could do whatever you wanted, which was fun, but probably not good for it. I remember Bukhara as being a balance of that, and by aiming for a museum straight up rather then modernizing and then museum-ing like Samarkand, it seems better.

    And Uzbeks never say Tamerlane, it’s always Amur Timur.

  3. Ben
    September 4, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    Poetic license is good. I just missed out on it when last I read this.

    What were you doing in Bukhara?

    Khiva is, ah, a “living museum,” I guess is how you would say it. The people still live in everything, run their shops out of where they have been for a long time, but there are plaques around and you pay a entrance fee to some of the places, which hopefully goes to the upkeep of it all. But no one is actively protecting it. It’s better off then the ancient villages and fortresses out in the desert, those are full of trash and falling apart. Samarkand has some of it’s original fabric left, yes, but it has been overtaken by the tourist aspect, and the modernization of the city. Tashkent, they just do whatever they want there, at least in Samarkand the history provided a core for the city. And Samarkand gets the tourism, the exposure and support it needs, so it’s fabric is doing ok.

    Yes, the stories are changing. The political and economic state and it’s relation to tourism plays a major part in the efforts of the government. My sister just got back from a summer in Samarkand and says it is no different from Tashkent now, major modernization and such. And that both are no different then, say, other cities with ancient origins that have modernized with a mind more towards upgrading rather then upkeeping and saving. I think that the efforts to push the people out of the cities, to museum these cities, is part of the governments push to control the population by restricting access and history, to keep everyone on the party line.

    I’m from the US, spent most of my childhood and teen years in post-Soviet Central Asia, nowadays doing a lot of GIS and cultural geography projects for the Air Force.

  4. Ben
    September 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Merv, I was there before I really became interested in history and buildings so all I don’t really remember much of it. Nope, have not been back in a while due to several circumstances. Your job sounds quite interesting.

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