Wandering Jew: Bukhara, the ancient silk way city

The capital of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, once an enviable destination of many a traveler, still has plenty to offer.

Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, Uzbekistan (photo credit: il Zhumatov / Reuters)
Kalyan ensemble in Bukhara, Uzbekistan
(photo credit: il Zhumatov / Reuters)
Bukhara, the capital of the Bukhara Province of Uzbekistan, has been inhabited for at least five millennia and is over eighty-five per cent Muslim. The city is located on the Silk Way, a historical network of interlinking trade routes across the Afro-Eurasian landmass.
The Jews of Bukhara are an ethnic and linguistic group in Central Asia, claiming descent from 5th-century exiles from Persia. During the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, control of Bukhara was transferred between many different Arab rulers. And Jews were given the status of dhimmi, or “protected unbelievers.”
The town of Bukhara became a center of Jewish life in Central Asia in the 16th Century. And during this time a Jewish Quarter (Maḥalla) was established. The Quarter was eventually divided into three parts; Makhalaie Kukhna (Old Town); Amirobad, where Jews predominantly resided, and Makhalaie Nav (New Town).
Throughout the centuries Jews experienced persecution under the Mongolians, local Muslim authorities, and then the Russians.
The Jewish population of Uzbekistan peaked in the 1970s at around 20,000. However, over the years, the numbers have significantly declined due to the country’s poor economic environment, and the nationalistic tendencies of the government. Most Bukharan Jews have settled in the US, and the Ashkenazim have largely settled in Israel, Russia, and Germany.
Today, the Jewish Quarter is known as the "Old Maḥalla," and its streets are indistinguishable from any other Muslim neighborhood. Yet, a small Jewish community, who follow a traditional way of life, can be found here.  To get around the Quarter all you will need is your feet as it is so small.
Start the day in the Jewish Quarter and head to 20 Tsentrlnaya Street in the Old Town, where the main synagogue stands. To note, the Quarter is somewhat of a labyrinth, with winding alleys so hiring a guide for a few dollars is worthwhile to save time. Once found you’ll come across some large wooden doors, which will most likely be shut. At this point you will have undoubtedly attracted some attention and an elderly man will come with keys to open the building. Entering into the well-kept white courtyard you’ll find the walls adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and photographs. Behind the Uzbekistan silk curtains there are ancient Torahsfrom over 500 years ago. The synagogue dates back to the 16th century, and although still in use, the number of people who attend has sharply declined in recent times.
A local Jewish school is situated behind a doorway with a rather nondescript sign, which reads, Shehebar Sephardic Center, in English and Hebrew. Stepping inside you’ll enter into a small run-down courtyard. The school has a little over a hundred students, all from families that have been in Bukhara for generations. Also here is the Sephardic synagogue, which was given permission to be reopened in 1945. This small synagogue is decorated with velvet and gold hangings, and there are Torahs dating back several hundred years.
After spending the morning exploring the centuries-old Jewish Quarter there are, as you might expect, no specific kosher restaurants. Nevertheless, there are a couple of restaurants that are full of the charm of the East. Firstly, Doston House, 5, K. Kalon Street is an Uzbek guesthouse in the old town, which was built by a Bukharian Jew at the end of the 19th century. They serve traditional food such as Palov or TandirKobob on an open-air terrace, and the average cost for lunch is $8 per person. A second option is Minzifa, in the Old Town 1st trading dome. Here they combine traditional food with English speaking staff, and live music. The average cost for lunch is $8 per person.
After lunch, another point of interest in the ancient community’s history is The Bukhara-Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is located in the Old Town and consists of several sectors. Walking around there is the odd star, or bunch of flowers scattered between the many bare white tombstones.
The last stop of the day, and not strictly a Jewish site, is Central Asia’s oldest surviving mosque, Maghoki-Attar. It is an interesting site because until the 16th century Bukhara's Jews are said to have used the mosque in the evenings as a synagogue, and to have possibly worshiped alongside Muslims. This perhaps explains the Bukharan Jewish custom of saying "Shalom Aleyhim" ("Peace be with you") after morning prayers, a custom not found amongst European Jews. The Mosque is at a lower level than the surrounding streets, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Walking around the mosque there are women making carpets in the traditional way so if you are on the lookout for a luxury souvenir then look no further. Of course, silk rugs and carpets don’t come cheap so be prepared to bargain.
The Mosque is situated on Mekahtaranbar Street, north of the Taqi-Sarrafon Bazaar.
To end the day, under the spellbinding Arabian night sky, head to Silk Road Spices Tea House on 5 HalimIbodov Street. This lavish tea-house serves up many varieties of tea - a rich Uzbek custom. And whilst here remember to look up at the sky, for you will never have seen the stars glistening as brightly as they do in Uzbekistan.

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