It was as capital of the Samanid state in the 9th and 10th centuries that Bukhara – Bukhoro-i-sharif (Noble Bukhara), the ‘Pillar of Islam’ – blossomed as Central Asia’s religious and cultural heart, and simultaneously brightened with the Persian love of the arts. Among those nurtured here were the philosopher-scientist Ibn Sina and the poets Firdausi and Rudaki – figures with stature in the Persian Islamic world that, for example, Newton or Shakespeare enjoyed in the West.
After two centuries under the smaller Karakhanid and Karakitay dynasties, Bukhara succumbed in 1220 to Jenghiz Khan, and in 1370 fell under the shadow of Timur’s Samarkand.
A second lease on life came in the 16th century when the Uzbek Shaybanids made it the capital of what came to be known as the Bukhara khanate. The centre of Shaybanid Bukhara was a vast marketplace with dozens of specialist bazaars and caravanserais, more than 100 medressas (with 10, 000 students) and more than 300 mosques.
Under the Astrakhanid dynasty, the Silk Road’s decline slowly pushed Bukhara out of the mainstream. Then in 1753 Mohammed Rahim, the local deputy of a Persian ruler, proclaimed himself emir, founding the Mangit dynasty that was to rule until the Bolsheviks came.
Several depraved rulers filled Rahim’s shoes; the worst was probably Nasrullah Khan (also called ‘the Butcher’ behind his back), who ascended the throne in 1826 by killing off his brothers and 28 other relatives. He made himself a household name in Victorian England after he executed two British officers.
In 1868, Russian troops under General Kaufman occupied Samarkand (which at the time was within Emir Muzaffar Khan’s domains). Soon afterward Bukhara surrendered, and was made a protectorate of the tsar, with the emirs still nominally in charge.
In 1918 a party of emissaries arrived from Tashkent (by then under Bolshevik control) to persuade Emir Alim Khan to surrender peacefully. The wily despot stalled long enough to allow his agents to stir up an anti-Russian mob that slaughtered nearly the whole delegation, and the emir’s own army sent a larger Russian detachment packing, back towards Tashkent.
But the humiliated Bolsheviks had their revenge. Following an orchestrated ‘uprising’ in Charjou (now Turkmenabat) by local revolutionaries calling themselves the Young Bukharans, and an equally premeditated request for help, Red Army troops from Khiva and Tashkent under General Mikhail Frunze stormed the Ark (citadel) and captured Bukhara.
Bukhara won a short ‘independence’ as the Bukhara People’s Republic, but after showing rather too much interest in Pan-Turkism it was absorbed in 1924 into the newly created Uzbek SSR.