bukhara bazaarsFrom the Tok-i-Zargaron, the bustling commercial heart of the city snaked southwards through a street of shaded stalls, fortress caravan serais in Bukharaand domed Bukharan bazaars to form one of the most colourful and cosmopolitan trading grounds in the Islamic world. From dawn to dusk an endless procession of supercilious camels, heavily-laden donkeys and creaking arbas crashed through bursting streets in a chaotic exchange of insult and barter.

Turbaned Tajiks crouched in the dust, sparks flew from open workshops, deals were struck by secret handshake under outsized sleeves and agreements were sealed in wax by the rings of robed merchants. Saddles, ropes, gourds, skins, metal ewers, tobacco, tea and spices spilled out indiscriminately from dimly lit and cavernous stalls, melons hung individually from roofs and a small army of barbers, bakers, blacksmiths, tea boys and shashlik sellers hustled to serve myriad local needs.

Yet behind the commercial chaos lay a tightly organized system of control, for taxation was a serious business in Bukhara, especially after the 16th-century boom in Bukharan-Russian trade. A sliding scale ranged from the traditional one-fortieth tax rate proscribed by the clergy for Muslim traders to an almost 20 per cent rate for Christian Russians. Emergency war taxes were regularly imposed, lastly by Mozaffar to fight off the Russian invasion, and under Subkhan Kuli Khan (1681-1702) taxes were even demanded seven years in advance.

Five main vaulted and domed bazaars (toks) in Bukhara, covered busy road intersections, each monopolizing a separate trade to facilitate tax collection and each referred to simply by number. The structures were utilitarian but complex as they straddled convergent trade arteries and all were accessed by entrance arches high enough for a laden pack camel. The northernmost and largest of the three remaining toks is the Tok-i-Zargaron (1570), or Jeweller’s Bazaar, where gold, coral (especially valuable so far from the sea) and precious metals changed hands. At the northern end of the Bukharan bazaar stands the affiliated Zargaron Mosque, positioned so that busy merchants were forced to waste as little valuable haggling time as possible en route to prayer.

South of the Bukharan bazaar lay the huge Indian Caravanserai (now an empty square to the left) which sheltered a ghetto of resident Hindu money-lenders, forbidden to live with their families or other Muslims, and led onto a closed street of stalls or dukkans and caravan serais in Bukhara, constructed and rented out by rich merchants with a vested interest in the prime sites. Goods changed hands in over 40 bazaars, 24 caravan serais and also six tims (shopping arcade with only one entrance), of which only one, the Abdullah Khan Tim, remains.

The Abdullah Khan Tim was built in 1577 and was one of the most elegant trade halls in Bukhara where silk and wool was sold by Afghan traders, instantly recognizable by the tail of silk trailing from the left side of their turbans, in 50 stalls ranged around the cool central dome. Other tims dealt in killims, velvets and cotton. Continuing south down the main Shah Restan thoroughfare, the road was hemmed in on both sides by a wall of stalls shaded by mat coverings to produce a dark cool tunnel of trade.

The second main bazaar to have survived is the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon, or Cap Maker’s Bazaar, where gold embroidered skull-caps and karakul fur hats were displayed out of the heat of the sun and where Bukhara’s most valuable books and manuscripts were sold in a series of 26 stalls. The bazaar in Bukhara, an especially complicated structure due to the irregular layout of its five main spokes, shelters the tomb of the holy man Khoja Ahmed I Paran.

Bukharan trade was serviced by a wide array of auxiliary buildings eager to profit from the densely assembled crowd of potential punters and included craft shops, hotels and baths, examples of which are all located next to the Tok-i-Tilpak. The 16th century ‘Bozori Cord’ bathhouse (hammam or hammom in Bukharan dialect) just to the north of the bazaar in Bukhara, one of an original 18 in the city, still provides its essential social service, though these days mostly for tourists, who should make an appointment (a bath is 5,600 sum, the same again for a massage). Avicenna in his Qanun expounds the medicinal values of regular bathing and aromatherapy massage, a theme later expanded into an eleventh century code of public etiquette, the Kabus Name. The baths are sunk deep into the ground to preserve heat and form a series of halls clustered around a central skylit chamber.

Just opposite the baths lies the 16th century Bozor-i-kord Mosque, transformed from place of prayer to free-market boutique/art gallery, and the Museum of the Blacksmith’s Art, a family of blacksmiths who have plied their ancient trade on this site for generations. At the side of the small museum do not miss the small door that leads off to the courtyard of the tiny Kulita Caravanserai. This unassuming bazaar ensemble is completed by the Magok-i-Kurpa Mosque (1637), the two-storied prayer halls of which now house several workshops.

From the Tok-i-Tilpak Furushon continue south along the old bazaar road to the soviet square formerly named after Mikhail Frunze (he addressed a mass rally here), past the row of four battered caravanserais and Magok-i-Attari Mosque to the right to reach the Tok-i-Sarrafon or Moneychanger’s Bazaar. Here resided the Punjabi moneychangers, dwarfed in their stalls by huge piles of coins and notes, who would exchange Persian, Russian, Afghan and local currencies into the bronze pul, silver tenge and gold tilla that circulated as legal tender in Bukharan bazaars. It seems they had a busy life— under the rule of Imam Kuli Khan alone (1611-1641) Bukharan currency was devalued 57 times. The bazaar in Bukhara was also home to Afghan and Armenian moneylenders armed with traditional tallysticks who, when left unpaid for too long, were wont to carve the embarrassing figure on a debtor’s doorpost.

Also located around the bazaar in Bukhara is the Sarrafon Mosque (now a fashion shop), Sarrafon Baths (now the Hammom Restaurant), Nagoi Caravanserai (a craft and puppetry centre, see page 284) and Shah Rud canal. The southern end of Bazaar Street in Bukhara continues south to peter out around the ruined Jurabek Caravanserai, and east to the Saifuddin Caravanserai, another handicrafts centre.

Today modern businessmen echo the call of ancestral traditions: metal chasers haunt the Jeweller Bazaar; dressmakers and their looms revive the sale of silk in the Abdullah Khan Tim; booksellers, embroiderers and Karakul milliners have set up shop in the Capmaker’s Bazaar although free marketeers in the Moneychanger’s Bazaar have been curbed by government policy.