A thousand miles north from the plains of the Ganges and through increasingly dessicated tracks of rangeless mountain scrub, India’s Mughal emperors, once the simple masters of the Fergana Valley, lived in the rather more straitened circumstances available to Central Asian warlords. Uzbekistan was once a part of a vast and unforgiving Asian terra incognita known as Turkestan, the land of the Turks. The Turks in this case were not those eponymous mediterranean and Ottoman sort that we think of, although their ancestors had also once lived in Turkestan, but the many-nationed nomads of the steppe. The center of this vast ethnic chessboard was today’s Uzbekistan, where we headed just before our trip to India.
I had been once on my own to the ancient city of Samarkand (more on that another time), but this time we travelled to the ancient entrepot of empires, Bukhara, a city so distant from any sea that it floats instead on sand. Bukhara is actually well-watered by the Syr-Darya River, but this river and the green creepers it sends out into the adjoining lowlands only stretches for a few miles before running out in the hot wasteland of the steppe. Bukhara sits on a spit of this semi-arable land. An ancient city, it does not hide its age under paint. The houses are made from kiln-fired bricks, and, where these ran out in centuries past, from mud bricks, and the color is that of the soil just above which its ancient houses rise.
Bukhara’s only decoration is the majestic majolica tiles that hang precariously from its ancient bastions and mosques. These brilliant blue tiles wrap around the tapering layers of minarets and form the cornices of the iwans and the great mosaic space of the pishtaqs that frame them. Bukhara is a city in blue and gold, and so, it matches those two undulating celestial attitudes that encompass it…in the day the arching vault of the blue sky vanishes into the brilliant hues of towering domes…and at night the muddy bricks of the city turn to gold, and the city vanishes into the sunset.