The ponds and pools called ‘hauz’of Bukhara are wonderfully beautiful. In the evening, after the muezzin has sounded from the minaret the call to prayer, the men of the city gather around the ponds, which are bordered by tall, silver poplars and magnificent black elms, to enjoy a period of ease and leisure.

Carpets are spread, the ever burning chilim is passed from mouth to mouth, the samovar steams away, and lightfooted boys hand round the shallow bowls of green tea. Here the meddahs, or story-tellers, the musicians and the dancing boys assemble to display their craft. And perhaps a conjuror or a juggler comes, performing the most amazing and incredible feats of skill. An Indian snake charmer joins the throng and sets his poisonous snakes to dance, while over all reigns the peace of a Bukharan evening. No loud speech breaks the spell; items of scandal and the news of the day are exchanged in discreet whispers. So it was centuries ago in Bukhara; so it is today. There are things which not even the Soviets can alter.

Gustav Krist, Alone Through the Forbidden Land, (1937).

lyab-i-hauzThe pool and chaikhana of the Lyab-i-Hauz in Bukhara is the modern centre of traditional Uzbekistan. A place where the very soul of Central Asia lies mirrored in a piala of steaming green tea or in the reflected symmetry of a resplendent portal, where cloudy eyed white-beards contemplate the march of time and take shelter from a land in transition.

The chaikhana is not only a way of life in Central Asia, it is also an escape and an antidote to life in Central Asia. It is the essential lubricant to friendship, trade and travel.

Its professionals are a hard core of regular nine to fivers, equipped with personal teapots, pialas and backgammon sets and brandishing gleaming arrays of heroic Soviet medals. Many took part in the World War II and are a wonderful source of local oral history. In few places does the name Churchill elicit such mad affection. Sadly, in recent years the locals have largely been transplanted by tourists and the wooden teabeds replaced with plastic seats.

During the early years of Soviet transformation red posters adorned the walls of the Lyab-i-Hauz Chaikhana in Bukhara, one of a series of Red Chaikhanas which Anna Louise Strong noticed on her 1932 trip to Central Asia, wondering with some concern whether it was possible “that the East may lose its leisure, and drink its tea with one lump or two of propaganda?”

The cool waters of Lyab-i-Hauz in Bukhara and bevelled steps of the hauz, or pool, date from 1620. Lyab-i-Hauz was the largest of Bukhara city reservoirs, fed directly from the main canal or Shah Rud (Royal Canal) which still bisects the old town. From here professional water-carriers would deliver large leather bags of water to wealthy clients. Today the hauz lies idyllic, but during the time of the emirate it was an idyll afloat on a sea of its own filth. Reshta worms, ‘blue sickness’, water fleas and dead dogs infested the stagnant water supply until the Soviets drained, restored and refilled it in the 1960s. The mulberry trees that line its shore date from 1477.

The building reflected in the waters of Lyab-i-Hauz Ensemble is the Nadir Divanbegi Khanagha. Commissioned at the same time as the pool by Nadir Divanbegi (Divanbegi was a government post equivalent to Finance Minister or Grand Vizier), the two are compositely linked. The khanagha consists of a central cruciform local mosque surrounded by a series of four hujra cells set on two floors which would offer accommodation to mendicant holy men. Today the high portal sparkles and the richly decorated mihrab is swamped by souvenirs for sale.

The Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah closes the eastern side of Lyab-i-Hauz Ensemble and dates from the 1630s. When the Imam Kuli Khan passed the newly-built splendour of its facade, he commended the Divanbegi upon the madrassah and his religious propriety. The minister bit his lip, for he had actually built it as a caravanserai and lucrative source of personal income, but the khan had spoken and no-one could recind the words of Allah’s chosen deputy.

The portal was rebuilt and corner towers added, as befitted a religious seminary, but to this day Nodir Divanbegi Madrassah still lacks a traditional layout, equipped with neither mosque nor lecture hall. The famous tympanum mosaic depicts two fantastic but irreligious simurgh birds with two white does clasped in their talons, flying up a Mongol-faced sun in a heretic frieze, perhaps commissioned in a fit of secularism by a bitter Divanbegi.

Today Nodir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara cells overflow with colourful handicrafts, while the courtyard hosts a nightly song and dance troupe. Between the Nodir Divanbegi Madrassah and khanagha in Lyab-i-Hauz Ensemble, a statue of Khodja Nasreddin, the wise fool of Central Asia, sits on his donkey.

The Kukeldash Madrassah (1568), lying to the north of the hauz, is the largest in Central Asia (60 by 80 metres/196 by 262 feet) and the religious magnet that spurred the construction of the ensemble. Its construction is linked to the general and statesman Kulbaba Kukeldash who sponsored many civic projects during the rule of Abdullah Khan II. Its heavy brick facade conceals some elegant interior tilework and complicated vaulting systems.

The Kukeldash Madrassah today houses two souvenir shops, but previously housed the local records office, and at one time was partly remodelled as a women’s centre, the ultimate Soviet sacrilege for such a male-only bastion.

To the south of the Lyab-i-Hauz Ensemble spreads the Bukhara Jewish Quarter of the old town. Jews have been an important minority in Bukhara since their forced migration from Merv and Shiraz in the 14th century, representing one of the farthest-flung corners of the diaspora. Their pivotal role in the growth of international trade, especially with the Russian Volga, and their domination of certain industries such as cold silk dyeing belied their relatively small numbers, but unfortunately for the Bukhara Jews economic prosperity was rarely converted into political or social influence.

Compelled to wear square caps of fur and pieces of rope around their waists to remind them that they could be hanged at any moment, Bukhara Jews were also forbidden to ride within the city walls—a prohibition that even extended to one of the first of the city’s rich merchants to buy a motor car, only to find himself compelled by law to leave it parked outside the city gates. Bukhara Jewish evidence was inadmissible in court (as was women’s) and as non-Muslims Jews were subject to an extra infidel tax. But there were few forced conversions and although some Bukhara Jews, known as chalas, found it expedient to embrace Islam, most kept their distinct cultural integrity. In 1832 Burnes estimated the Bukhara Jewish population at about 4,000 and described them as a remarkably handsome race, admitting that he had seen ‘more than one Rebecca in his peregrinations’.

The main synagogue lies only 300 metres (330 yards) south of the Lyab-i-Hauz Ensemble in an unassuming, almost underground location that enabled it to escape major Soviet repression. Its Hebrew Torah and seven-branched menorah are decorated by Uzbek khanatlas silk and almost all local Bukharan Jews today speak Tajik and Russian. Those, that is, who have not already taken advantage of Israeli financial support and left for Israel. Further south on the edge of town lies the Bukhara Jewish Cemetery, where chiselled Hebrew gravestones reflect a lost people and where the stars of Lenin and David mix uneasily.