From the discordant designs and alien red majolica of the front gate, go swiftly past the emir’s wine cellar (now a book shop) and servants’ quarters of the fiault birun, or outer courtyard, and into the main reception halls of the inner damn courtyard, site of the First Congress of the Bukharan Soviet on 6 October 1920 and present-day Museum of Applied Arts in Bukhara.
The bed chambers of the emir lie in the northwest corner of the courtyard, next to the lime-green ganch iwan, and still contain the emir’s bed, while the wedding-cake-white ganch and mirrored glass of the next door reception room give it the name White Hall. From here a small corridor decked with Persian and Turkomen prayer carpets leads to the emir’s games room, banquet hall, secretary’s office and tea room.
Quirky cross-cultural items to look out for include a mechanical calendar, statue of Peter the Great, early Russian fridge, a mirror that multiplies 40 times, a 16th century Chinese sugar bowl and photographs of the last two emirs. Nearby is a recent statue of local craftsman Shirin Muradov, who decorated much of the palace.
Further into the complex, to the left, stands the Octagonal Palace and Bukhara Museum of National Costume. Starting from the southern entrance and walking clockwise, room one has a display of thin yaktab summer robes with Russian influenced collars, a horsehair paranja and a 1928 photograph of the emir’s unveiled concubines, room three holds examples of gulduzi gold embroidery, including one robe entirely covered in two years’ worth of work, and the central octagonal dining room contains the robes of the emir and his wives.
Other rooms hold skullcaps that were traditionally worn underneath one’s turban, munisak wedding robes and Aladdin-style slippers with curled toes. Robes in Central Asian society were a major indicator of wealth, a signal of a woman’s marital status (married women had their sleeves sewn together), a traditional gift given to foreign visitors and even a form of tax payment.
Further south lie the harem quarters, pool and viewing platform, from where it is said Alim would savour the view of his naked concubines frolicking in the waters below and toss a ripe apple to the beauty who had most captivated his heart. Once chosen, the fortunate girl would be washed in donkey’s milk (the emir found the odour strangely arousing) and delivered to his bed chambers. The liberation of the harem was one of the Soviets’ more pleasing duties:
“The storming of the harem took place under strict vigilance and nothing unpleasant happened. The begums, of course, behaved like scared rabbits, but the sight of the husky young men scrambling for them must have made some impression on them. Able-bodied young men seeking their favour was a new experience to women whose erotic life naturally could not be satisfied by a senile old man. At the end it was a pleasing sight—the secluded females allowing themselves to he carried away by proud men.”
M N Roy (quoted by Peter Hopkirk)
Today the building houses a Museum of Needlework, with examples of contrasting suzaine needlework from Urgut and Shakhrisabsz and a mock-up of a traditional house with a beshik cradle and sunduk chests. South of the pool is the site of the emir’s zoo, famous for its peacocks and elephant, later transferred to Moscow.
After the fall of Bukhara, Alim Khan fled his palace for Afghanistan. His wife and children were taken to Moscow by the Soviets, where his second son became a major-general in the Soviet army, until the League of Nations ruled that the emir’s family should be allowed to join him in Afghanistan. The emir harboured brief hope of regaining power through logistical support of the basmachi movement, but finally died in Kabul in 1952.
The palace is situated in the northern suburbs of the city and is serviced by bus Nos. 9 or 17.