The Covered Bazaars of Bokhara
August 2012 – Bokhara, Uzbekistan
The One that Got Away!
I had finished reading Travels into Bokhara: The Narrative of a Voyage on the Indus Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. (1834) by Sir Alexander Burnes not long before I reached the Amulet Hotel. The hotel had originally been built as a madrasah for Islamic students to study philosophy and religion in the early 19th century by the famous merchant, Sayed Kamol. Now the student’s cells made quite adequate hotel rooms.
I was there for the usual reasons, Arabian Nights tales of the fable covered bazaars filled with ikat silks and aromatic spices and the magical Bokhara carpets; that and to see the “Bug Pit” at The Ark Fortress, where Colonel Charles Stoddart and Captain Arthur Conolly had been imprisoned for so long before word of the disastrous British Retreat from Kabul in the 1st Afghan War reached Emir Nasrulla Khan. After that the British officers were no longed deemed necessary pawns in the Great Game – which, coincidentally, was a term coined by the unfortunate Captain Conolly several years before they beheaded him in the main square.
Bokhara is the generic name applied to carpets produced by several different Turkoman tribes, since that was the Silk Road city where they were sold. Probably the most common Turkoman tribe to be associated with the term Bokhara was the Tekke. The field had a very distinctive gul design.
This was a very nice carpet, maybe late nineteenth century, very tight and the warp threads were white wool, unlike the modern carpets, which use gray wool. I already had a Tekke in my collection and this was was a bit big to carry overland to Afghanistan. I was sure I could find something equally nice in Kabul. As it turned out, this one was one of the better carpets I saw on the trip…but not the best. That’s the one that got away!
There were once five main vaulted and domed bazaars (toks) in Bokhara. 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, and precious metals were sold.
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 in the relative coolness of the shadowed archways, and where Bokhara’s most valuable books and manuscripts were sold in a series of 26 stalls. This bazaar in Bokhara also holds the tomb of the holy man Khoja Ahmed I Paran.
The third bazaar was called the Tok-i-Sarrafon or Moneychanger’s Bazaar. Here resided the Punjabi moneychangers, dwarfed in their stalls by huge piles of coins and notes. They would exchange Afghan, Persian, Russian, and other local currencies into the golden tilla, silver tenge, and bronze pul used throughout the Bokhana bazaars.
Sir Alexander “Bokhara” Burnes undertook a three year intelligence-gathering mission to Central Asia in 1829. His best-seller: Travels into Bokhara. Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. Also, narrative of a Voyage on the Indus from the Sea to Lahore(London: John Murray). 1834. 3 Vols. In Volume 1 he described the covered bazaars as he viewed them upon entering the city for the first time:
Thus I was amazed when I saw a beautiful example of the rare Yomud kepse-gul on a carpet hanging outside a shop in one of the covered bazaars. I formed an instant attraction, and desire for it grew every time I passed the shop. I often took tea with the owners and talked carpets and travel. Yet never daring to enter into a full-tilt bargaining session over the carpet. Once started, such a commitment meant that I had to purchase it if my price were met. It was early in my trip. I knew I had a long walk over the Friendship Bridge to Afghanistan and could not afford to carry the extra weight and bulk of a large carpet. Yet again and again I was drawn back to the shop, to the carpet and to my warring desires to own that carpet. In the end the practicalities of overland travel won out over my lust for rare possessions. Also, I assumed that I would encounter a carpet in Kabul of similar beauty and rarity. Alas, I overestimated the carpet dealers of Kabul. Too many years of war and too few customers had decimated the carpet trade.
I still look back on the photos I took and kick myself for not buying this carpet when I had the chance. I won’t explicitly tell you the shop’s name or in which covered bazaar to look, but the clues and hints I have left should be enough for an ardent carpet enthusiast to track down the shop. Maybe the carpet of my dreams is still there? I don’t know, but don’t doubt that they could have others of an equal calibre.