bakhauddin nakhshbandi ensembleIf you sow the seed of good it will grow into seven ears and then yield seven hundred good deeds. Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi Ensemble Bukhara’s holiest complex is a place of shrines, stories and superstitions, of burgeoning faith and parallel Islam. It is also the burial place of one of Sufic Islam’s founders and holiest saints, Khazreti Mohammed Bakhauddin  Nakhshbandi (Baha-al-din, Uzbek: Bahovuddin) (1318-1389).

Bakhauddin (“The Decoration of Religion”) was born a few kilometres from the present complex in the town of Kasri Orifon into a family of metalworkers, from where he took the name Nakhshbandi (“Engraver of Metals”). He came under the early influence of Abdul Khaliq Gijduvani and as a married man spent 12 years in the employ of Tamerlane’s nephew Khalil Sultan after which, according to the Encyclopedia of Islam, he devoted himself to “the care of animals for seven years and road-mending for another seven”. This last vocation is not quite as bizarre as it may sound, for Nakhshbandi espoused a life of hard work, self-reliance and modesty, encouraging all his pupils to learn a trade as he himself had done. His 11 principlesof conduct were based on a retreat from authority, spiritual purity and a rejection of ostentation or ceremony, principles that were stretched to their limit by the Nakhshbandi brotherhood’s early rejection of communism in the 1920s and subsequent tacit support for the basmachi revolt.

The shrine itself is steeped in superstition. Pilgrims circle and kiss Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi’s tombstone, tie rags, money and wishes around the tree said to have sprouted from his staff and cook offerings and sacrifices in the specially-built mass kitchens after these wishes have been granted. The site is also permeated with the holy Sufic number seven; in the seventh month the saint came into the world, in his seventh year he knew the Koran by heart and at the age of 70 he breathed his last. In the nearby museum a display of seven lambskins refers to the traditional seven tenge fee to the site and in Central Asian funerals male friends of the deceased jostle to carry the coffin for the expected seven steps.

The spiritual focus of any visit is the large mazaar encasing the black tombstone of the saint, traditionally known as the Stone of Desire, and the 20 graves of past pilgrims that include the Khans Abdul Aziz and Abdullah II. The holy courtyard is enclosed by the Abu’l Faiz Khan Mosque (1720), now used as a women’s mosque, and the Muzaffar Khan Mosque, built 150 years later. The architectural centre of the complex is the huge khanagha built in the same year as the tomb (1544) by the Uzbek chief Abdul Aziz Khan; a cool, cubed building equipped with 48 hujra cells and crowned by a huge 30-metre (98-foot) high dome.

In 1993, on the 675th anniversary of Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi’s birth, the complex was restored and revamped with Turkish and Pakistani money and unveiled in a great show of international Muslim brotherhood. The event marked not only the reconnection of Uzbekistan with the international Muslim community, but also formalized the rebirth of official religion, a process that had started under perestroika and will continue to underscore the new Islamic orientation of an independent Central Asia. Further renovations took place in 2003 to celebrate the 685th anniversary of Nakhshbandi’s birth.