In the heart of Central Asia, a city steeped in antiquity and allure awaits intrepid travelers: Bukhara. This ancient jewel, with its enchanting architecture and a history that stretches back over 2,500 years, beckons the curious wanderer to explore its UNESCO sanctioned treasures. Unveiling a tapestry of historical conquests and cultural efflorescence, Bukhara is a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of kings and the ebb and flow of empires

The Silk Road's Timeless Beacon

Bukhara's rich heritage and strategic location along the Silk Road drew the attention of countless conquerors. First among them was the Persian King Ahasuerus, followed by the indomitable Alexander the Great, the formidable Genghis Khan, and the illustrious Emir Timur the Uzbek. An age-old Jewish presence in Bukhara traces its origins to the days of Mordechay and Esther, part of Ahasuerus's "twenty-seven countries". Some even speculate that the city's name itself, Bukhara, derives from the Hebrew word "Bekhor," meaning "firstborn."     i

A Nexus of Islamic Culture

Bukhara, historically a cradle of Islamic culture and religion, stands as a testament to its glorious past. Within the labyrinthine streets of the old city, nearly 150 public buildings, resplendent madrassas adorned with mesmerizing blue ceramic tiles, and a profusion of azure domes and earthen minarets create an enchanting panorama. From bustling markets fragrant with spices and embroidered fabrics to the tranquil teahouses and grand mosques, Bukhara captivates the senses

Kalon Square: The Heart of History

Begin your journey in Bukhara at Kalon Square, nestled at the epicenter of the old city and adjacent to the bustling marketplace. Two remarkable madrassas encircle this square, each telling a story of endurance and faith. The Mir Arab Madrasa, standing for five centuries, remained a sanctuary even during the stringent Soviet era when religious practices were curtailed

Opposite, the Kalon Mosque awaits, its monumental courtyard welcoming 12,000 devotees. This sanctuary boasts an astonishing 288 domes and 208 columns. Don't miss the nocturnal transformation of these madrassas when they are bathed in vibrant, colorful lights, bestowing an ethereal charm upon the square

Po-i-Kalyan: Towering Triumph of the Ages

Standing proudly at the square's edge is the Po-i-Kalyan minaret, aptly named "Foy Kaline," which translates to "foot of the greatest of all." Soaring to a height of 47 meters, it once reigned as Asia's tallest structure. Even in the face of earthquakes and World War I bombings, it stood resilient, thanks to its ten-meter-deep foundations fortified with a mixture of cement, plaster, eggs, camel milk and hair. Adorning its facade are 14 distinct decorative bands, each more captivating than the last. The minaret, particularly illuminated at night, exudes a golden aura, an experience not to be missed. Ascend its 105 steps to the rooftop, a climb that rewards with unmatched views

The Kalon Tower played a trio of pivotal roles: a call to prayer for the mosque, a guiding light for Silk Road caravans in the night, and a grim site of execution where condemned criminals met their fate plummeting to the square below

Madrasas Abdulaziz Khan and Ulugh Beg: Artistry Beyond Measure

The facades of Madrasas Abdulaziz Khan and Ulugh Beg are festooned with intricate mosaics, showcasing not only geometric designs but also a symphony of avian and botanical motifs. Abdulaziz Madrasa even boasts a stunning depiction of a Chinese dragon. Inside these hallowed halls, carved reliefs, luminous white mosaics, and resplendent painted ceilings await your admiration. Two minarets capped with turquoise ceramic domes grace the edifice, creating an enchanting ensemble

A Tale of Joseph the Dream Solver

Uzbek folklore weaves a charming narrative about Joseph the Dream Solver (Son of Jacob), whose exceptional beauty mesmerized the denizens of Bukhara. As Joseph strolled through its streets, women were so captivated by his allure that they inadvertently nicked their fingers while cutting meat, lost in rapture. A story that resonates across cultures, blending history with timeless legend

Ark of Bukhara: A Monument to Ages Past

The Ark of Bukhara, a monumental structure dating back to the fifth century, is the city's oldest edifice. Encircled by imposing walls, it once housed dignitaries, including the Emir. Within its confines, a small museum offers insights into Bukhara's history. Yet, the true beauty of the Ark lies within, where the Juma Mosque soars to new heights

These are the crown jewels of Bukhara's heritage, but the city itself possesses an atmosphere of tranquil charm. Its winding stone streets, akin to the ancient alleyways of Jerusalem or Acre, add to the old-world allure. Houses adorned with red and yellow gas pipes for heating and cooking, tranquil water canals, and 140 ornate pools provide respite from the scorching sun

Ducks and swans serenely glide across the placid waters, while cafes and benches invite moments of reprieve. Vine arbors cast dappled shadows, where locals gather beneath black canvas domes, sipping green tea, smoking hookahs, and indulging in games of backgammon. The city exudes an abiding serenity, a testament to time's gentle embrace

The Bustling Bazaars of Bukhara

In Bukhara, commerce and trade have thrived for centuries. The bustling markets, brimming with exotic wares, beckon you to explore their treasures. One such market, situated on the road leading to Foy Kallon Square, welcomes travelers with its vibrant array of goods

At the entrance to the old city, another market unfurls beneath a grand, covered structure reminiscent of Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, albeit grander. Nestled at the base of the city walls, the main market pulses with life, offering an authentic taste of Bukhara's mercantile spirit

Bukhara's Jewish Legacy

In the annals of Central Asia's history, Bukhara's Jewish community stood as a beacon of resilience and influence. Even today, Jews from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and beyond are often referred to as "Bukhari Jews," a testament to the enduring legacy of this ancient Jewish community

For over 2,700 years, a vibrant Jewish community has thrived in the historic city of Bukhara, where stories of endurance, resilience, and cultural treasures echo through the centuries. This enclave's storied past, juxtaposing triumph and tribulation, is etched into the very fabric of its streets and buildings

The Age of "Dimi" and Transition

During the Muslim period, Bukhara's Jews, like their counterparts in other parts of the Islamic world, were labeled "Dimi." This classification relegated them to the status of second-class citizens, subject to a series of stringent regulations. They faced special taxes, known as "Jizya," and were required to display a flag symbolizing their surrender on their homes. The wearing of distinctive hats further emphasized their distinct identity. This challenging treatment led many Jews to outwardly adopt Islam while preserving their Jewish faith in the sanctity of their homes

A New Dawn: Exodus to Freedom

In the 1970s, a pivotal moment in history transpired as the gates of the USSR creaked open. This watershed allowed Jews from Bukhara to embark on a journey of liberation and transformation. Many chose to immigrate to the State of Israel, while others ventured to America, each family charting its unique path to a new beginning. Prior to this exodus, around 35,000 Jews called Bukhara home. Today, only a small community of approximately 200 individuals remains within the city

Machala: A Living Testament

Within Bukhara, a neighborhood known as "Machala," and the lakeside neighborhood of Labihouz, were the primary residential areas for the Jewish community. The central thoroughfare, SARRAFON Street, resonates with the footsteps of generations. Here, two-story, earth-colored brick houses line the streets, harking back to bygone eras. The head of the Jewish community bore the title 'Kalontar' and was entrusted with overseeing tax collection and the establishment of Jewish schools

Journey to the Synagogues of the Past

Once home to thirteen synagogues, the city now retains only two. Notably, the ancient 'Mola Mani' synagogue, dating back half a millennium, stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of Bukhara's Jews. Located within the heart of the neighborhood, at 20 Sarrafon Street, it serves as a cherished symbol of faith

Its origins are intertwined with the construction of the globally renowned Liabi Khauz square, a central gathering point. One of the Wazirs of Imam Qoli Khan, five centuries ago, embarked on the construction of a grand mosque, the Honko Nadir Diwan Bigi. Adjacent to this sanctuary lived a Jewish widow. The Wazir, keen to excavate a well on her property, offered to purchase her house at any price. The Jewess resisted his entreaties

Seeking assistance, the Wazir appealed to the Khan, who, curiously, happened to be his uncle. The matter was brought before the College of Miracles, which concluded that her house could not be confiscated, as the Jews paid the "Jiza" tax and, therefore, were entitled to certain rights. Undaunted, the Wazir ordered a canal to be dug from the "Shokrod" river, strategically passing by the widow's residence, ultimately causing it to flood and its foundations to crumble. Reluctantly, she conceded, relinquishing her home in exchange for a plot of land to construct a synagogue. This selfless decision saw the construction of the 'Mola Mani' synagogue, her dwelling for the remainder of her life

Before the construction of this synagogue, Jewish worshippers would congregate in the Makhak-i Attari mosque, though separate corners were designated for each faith. To this day, an inviting Jewish experience awaits at the 'Shalom Inn,' conveniently located at the entrance to Machala

The Sabbath brings together about fifty worshipers, a mix of locals and visiting travelers. Access to this Jewish Heritage site requires prior arrangements by calling 998-91-3123209, with the caveat that communication is primarily in Russian and Uzbek

Legacy Preserved: Tsadik Levi's Home and Chabad's Synagogue

Adjacent to the synagogue's entrance stands the former residence of a Jewish resident named Tsadik Levi, who emigrated to Israel with his family. This dwelling has been repurposed, hosting a "Jewish Museum" and souvenir shop. On the ground floor, a spacious hall showcases Bukhari carpets and photographs of the community's revered rabbis. An adjoining room reveals a striking Star of David design

Stepping further, antique doors from Baghdad grace the side room, evoking a connection to distant lands. An internal exit leads to an ornamental garden, attesting to the owner's affluence, in a timeless demonstration of the city's living history

Chabad's synagogue, 'Ohel Yitzchak,' stands proudly at the inception of Koama-Mahala, welcoming all to partake in its vibrant congregation

A Legacy of Leaders and Zionism

Throughout much of the 19th century, Rabbi Yosef Maman, a Shadar from Tzefat, assumed the role of spiritual leader for Bukhara's Jews. Following his tenure, Rabbi Ya'akov Meir arrived, leaving an indelible mark on the community. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he ascended to the position of Chief Rabbi of Israel. His influence encouraged the Jews of Bukhara to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael and imbued them with a sense of Zionism even before Herzl's time. These pioneers who settled in Israel founded the vibrant Bukharim neighborhood in Jerusalem, originally contemplating naming it "Rehovot", inspired by the Biblical verse: "He named it Rehoboth, saying: 'Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land'" (Genesis 26/22).          i

Remembering the Departed: The Old Jewish Cemetery

A visit to the old Jewish cemetery in Bukhara is a pilgrimage to the past, where more than 10,000 tombstones stand as solemn witnesses to the city's Jewish history. Above the entrance, a striking blue dome adorned with the Star of David emblem heralds this sacred site. Beyond the entrance, a memorial commemorates the Bukharian Jewish soldiers who valiantly served and made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II

Moments of Reflection: Vatikin Prayer at Sunrise

A profound moment of personal reflection awaits those who rise early to partake in the Vatikin prayer at sunrise. In the stillness of the morning, while the city remains ensconced in slumber, worshippers find solace in their prayers, steeped in tradition. My pursuit of knowledge continues with the study of the Daf Yomi, cementing the role of faith in the enduring legacy of Bukhara. What a memorable holy experience

The author was a guest of the Uzbek Ministry of Tourism and the airline Qanot Shark



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