Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Jacobi’s Stay in Bukhara: December 5 to 6, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Sarrofon Archway and Dome (the money changers dome), Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932.

Bukhara holds an important place in the history of Islam. Before the Soviets destroyed much of Bukhara in the 1920s, the city’s splendor revolved around an astonishing array of Islamic monuments: 360 mosques, 280 madrassas (Islamic schools), and 84 caravanserais (roadside shelters with shops for traders) (Marozzi 372). By the time Lotte Jacobi arrived there in December of 1932, it had become the capital of the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic; its Islamic monuments were either in ruins or had been repurposed by the Soviet authorities for their secular needs. The historic center of Bukhara is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Lotte Jacobi, A Tractor Station in Front of Sitora-i Mokhi Khosa (the Summer Palace of the Bukharan Emirs), Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932

Once a major site for trade along the Silk Road, Bukhara is located around 140 miles (225 km) west of Samarkand on the Zeravshan river in its surrounding oasis. Its history goes back to the Bronze Age, and it was later part of the vast Persian Empire, which Alexander the Great conquered in the 4th century BCE. In the 8th century CE, the Arabs brought Islam to the area, and under the Samanids in the 9th century, the city became the cultural center for which it is still famous today.

Referred to as the “Dome of Islam,” the city produced some of the most well-known Muslim scholars, such as Imam al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi (d. 1389) (Marozzi 366). Imam al-Bukhari produced one of the most well-respected comprehensive collections of hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (366). Furthermore, during the Mongol period, Bukhara was the most important center of Sufism in Central Asia. Bakhauddin Nakhshbandi was a contemporary of Timur (r. 1370-1405 CE) and Central Asia’s greatest Sufi leader (367). 

Lotte Jacobi, Inner Courtyard of the Kalyan Mosque (part of the Po-i-Kalyan Complex), Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932

Timur had a personal connection to the city of Bukhara, as his mother was born in Bukhara and he spent his childhood in the city (Marozzi 370). Bukhara was the second city of Timur’s empire—Samarkand was the capital—but Bukhara was the religious center of the empire (370). One of the most impressive pieces of architecture in Bukhara is the free-standing minaret of Po-I Kalyan, or “the Great One,” also known as the Minaret of Death.” Built by the Seljuks in 1127, the structure (151 ft/50 m) towers over the city of Bukhara, making it easy to identify the city from a distance.

Lotte Jacobi, Shadow of the Tower of Death (Kalyan minaret), Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932

Lotte Jacobi, Tower of Death (Kalyan minaret), Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932

In 1511 the Uzbeks took over the region of Transoxiana, inheriting much of the land and cities previously controlled by the Timurids. The leader of the Uzbeks, Shaybani, made Bukhara the capital of his empire, the Shaybanids (Stierlin 112). The Shaybanids drew on the style of Timurid architecture, referencing Timur’s structures in their own buildings. The Kalyan Mosque built by the Shaybanids, between 1512-1539, has a layout similar to Timur’s Bibi Khanum mosque in Samarkand. Both complexes are symmetrical with axial structures and are entered into through a large pishtaq, a large arched opening with a rectangular frame (113).  

In the 1920s Bukhara came under Soviet control and became the capital of the Uzbekistan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. The Soviets’ priority under Stalin was to industrialize the region. Anti-Soviet movements grew stronger in the 1930s with the emergence of a well-educated Central Asian intelligentsia. In 1937, in response to anti-Soviet demonstrations, a strict policy of atheism was imposed by the government; the Sufis of Bukhara, who strongly opposed the Soviet government, were a specific target of this policy (Benjamin 2). By this time, both Bukhara’s gloried past and new transition under the Soviets were evident. Egon Kisch reported that “From the Minaret of Death we can see the electric power plant,” as well as “the new theatre, the new hotel, the new parks, the new schools, the new clubs, the new houses, and the new life—and the old life as well” (Kisch 66-67).

Lotte Jacobi, Jewish Woman from Bukhara, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, ca. December 5-6, 1932

The preservation and restoration of the Islamic monuments in Bukhara have had an unfortunate history. In 1918, Vladimir Lenin signed a new decree on the preservation of historical monuments in Bukhara. However, the classification system used to identify buildings for preservation was guided by Marxist ideas about religion; for this reason, many religious structures were demolished instead of preserved. For example, in 1917, it was recorded that there were 360 mosques in Bukhara, but by 1940, only four of the 35 buildings identified for preservation were mosques, demonstrating the strong bias against the preservation of religious structures. New standards for historic preservation were instated in the 1960s. The new government policy stated that “ancient heritage must now be an integral part of the modern idea of the town.” This policy made 55 hectares of the old city of Bukhara eligible for preservation (Benjamin 4-5). However, the shoddy technical practices, use of modern materials, and lack of interest in historical accuracy have made monuments more a backdrop for an idea of an Islamic city than a restoration of the Islamic mecca Bukhara once was (Rutkouskaya).

During her brief stay, Lotte Jacobi photographed a number of Bukhara’s Islamic monuments, many of which were in ruins when she visited the city in the fall of 1932. These monuments have undergone extensive restoration since the late 1960s. Her photographs also depict scenes of daily life on the streets of the city.

Map & Cities

Contributors: Marina Schneider, Eleanor Hight

Works Cited:

Benjamin, Craig. “Soviet Central Asia and the Preservation of History.” Humanities, 7:73, (2018): 2-8.

Kisch, Egon Erwin. Asien gründlich verändert (Changing Asia). 

Marozzi, Justin. Tamerlane Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. Cambridge, MA, 2004.

Rutkouskaya, Hanna. “Bukhara: The Case of Urban Amnesia.” AKPIA Travel Grant Report, June 27, 2012. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. https://web.mit.edu/akpia/www/travelrutkouskaya.pdf

Stierlin, Henry. Islamic Art and Architecture. London, 2002.