Bukhara: A Step Back Into Ancient Uzbekistan
Published: October 23, 2013 (Issue # 1783)
BUKHARA, Uzbekistan — It was June 17, 1842, when two British army officers, Captain Charles Conolly and Lieutenant Colonel Stoddart, were dragged from the Emir’s citadel in Bukhara through the baying mob.
There, in the shadow of the giant sandstone fortress, they were forced to dig their own graves. Painfully malnourished, their clothing and hair riddled with vermin and lice, both men were unrecognizable as the heroes of Victorian Britain as they had once been feted.
Both had spent the preceding years housed in the citadel’s legendary Bug Pit, a six-meter-deep hole into which buckets of scorpions, maggots and whatever filth the jailors could lay their hands on would be poured daily. Stoddart’s offense was just that — a violation of protocol. He had made the mistake four years earlier of riding his horse into the Emir’s fortress to deliver a letter signed by India’s Governor General — instead of by the Emir’s equal, Queen Victoria. Conolly’s mistake was to think he might rescue Stoddart.
Thankfully, Bukhara now offers a more civilized welcome to international travelers. Woefully neglected by various Soviet leaders, either unwilling or unable to compete with Bukhara’s reputation as the most holy of cities, the ancient former Uzbek capital has been restored to much of its former glory.
One of the seven holy cities of Islam, Bukhara is perhaps to Muslim minds what Constantinople was once to Christian ones. Within its towering city walls stand 48 mosques, 24 madrassas, or Muslim schools, and nine mausoleums. The wonders of ancient Bukhara can appear near limitless and, wandering its hot summer streets, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history. There is little in the collective experience that prepares the visitor for Bukhara. Its soaring minarets and perfectly preserved historical structures seem to jar with the 21st century, appearing more at home in legend than the modern day.
However, to make too much of Bukhara’s past is to overlook its present, which certainly bears consideration. The Bukhara authorities reported an increase in gross regional product of 109.6 percent in 2009 and 2010, the most recent figures available. An impressive achievement, but one that has to be balanced against Uzbekistan’s corresponding rise in Time Magazine’s list of the most corrupt countries in the world, from 68th in 2002 to sixth last year.
Similarly, concerns over the level of corruption within Uzbekistan as well as the country’s human rights record are also pretty grave. Government sponsorship of forced child labor to collect the region’s rich cotton harvest is an issue that doesn’t appear to be going away. New York-based Human Rights Watch has described torture as “endemic.”
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