Noble Bukhara Teems With Life

BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- In the center of the legendary city of Bukhara, visitors sit under the shade of gnarled 16th-century mulberry trees feasting on shish kebab while geese flap their wings and try to grab fish in a pond.

Merchants hawk silk and black lacquered boxes from stalls in nearby sand-colored Islamic schools, or madrassas, whose soaring portals are framed with turquoise and sky-blue tiles set in intricate geometric patterns.

Uzbekistan is restoring Bukhara, a stop on the ancient Silk Road trading route that became an Islamic center of learning so famous that residents still call the place "Bukhara-i sharif" f noble Bukhara.

Restorers desperately want to maintain the city's vitality and avoid the mistakes that turned the historic center of Samarkand, a Silk Road city 240 kilometers to the east, into a gleaming but lifeless museum piece.

"In Bukhara we are trying not to repeat what was done in Samarkand," said Nasim Hakimovich Sharipov, chief architect for Bukhara from 1970 to 1997. In Samarkand, he said, "the mosques and the madrassas are now naked."

The task is huge.

With about 200,000 people, Bukhara has almost a thousand mosques, Islamic schools, covered bazaars or other historical sites, all of which are in varying stages of decay.

The Soviet Union began a major effort to restore the city in 1968, and Uzbekistan's government quickened the pace after it gained independence in 1991.

"The goal of all of the people of Bukhara is to see how it looked in the past," Sharipov said during an interview in his small, cramped office in the side of a dilapidated medieval mosque.

In the corner of the room is a photograph of the city's main landmark, the Kalyan minaret, a 45-meter-high tower with a flat top that dominates the skyline. The picture shows the minaret after the Soviet army stormed Bukhara in 1920 f the right side of the top sheared off by artillery fire, the sides of the tower marred by big holes from cannon shells.

Restoration experts are rehabilitating buildings using mud bricks similar to those used in medieval times and still seen in hundreds of inhabited homes in the old city.

Cement has been used to shore up crumbling buildings, but Sharipov says it is used sparingly.

Faded tiles have been retouched and, in some cases, replaced.

In some areas the work has not been precise. Bricks used to fill the holes in the Kalyan minaret are a slightly lighter sand color than the tower, leaving obvious signs where the artillery rounds slammed into the minaret.

Much work still needs to be done.

In the Abdel Aziz Khan Islamic school, which is on UNESCO's list of the world's 100 most endangered heritage sites, cracked and worn tiles line rooms where students once studied.

At the top of one dome, in an alcove where teachers and their students once met, red and blue stains mark the spots where mosaics decorated the walls. A huge stork's nest sits atop the school's minaret.

In contrast, the buildings of Samarkand have been largely restored, although it has been left devoid of city life.

Decades ago, workers cleared the fabled Registan, the central square that in ancient times was home to a vibrant market selling silk and porcelain from China and where Islamic warriors displayed the spoils of their conquests. Except for tourists, the only life in the area now is the trucks that rumble down the highway in front of the Registan.

The three great schools that bracket the Registan are gleaming with restored tile work. The 33-meter portal of the Shirdar Madrassa is framed by two lions in the rays of the sun.

Next door is the Tilakar Madrassa, where workers recently repainted gold and blue vases bursting with flowers on the walls. Some 2 kilograms of gold leaf were used to restore the gilded Koranic verses that line the blue walls inside the building.

"Wow! This is how it was," said Shahram Vakilian, a Peace Corps worker from Woodbury, New York, during a recent visit.

But he quickly added: "Samarkand has more of an artificial museum feeling. Bukhara has more of a city feel."

Some architects say Bukhara retains a more human feel because its buildings are less ornate and therefore were not resurfaced as extensively by restorers.

Others point to modern Samarkand's more vibrant economy and say central Bukhara might be more devoid of life if its residents could afford to move.