BUKHARA was one of the three famous oases on the western end of the famous caravan route, the Silk Road, to and from China. Samarkand and Tashkent were the other two. Textiles and their raw materials were a very valuable part of the trade. One can imagine cotton being sent east from Egypt and silk west from China, where it was considered precious enough for the Chinese to guard the secret of its origin for 1,000 years by threatening anyone divulging the secret with summary execution.
Bukhara was once called "The Noble," a city of mosques and mina-rets when it was the center of an important khanate under the Islamized descendants of Genghis Khan. Today it is undistinguished, having lost, along with many of its architectural monuments, the lingering glamour cast by Venetian Marco Polo's 13th-century accounts of his travels along the Silk Road.
While some historians feel that Bukhara was founded in the 1st century AD, the actual date is unknown. The city is first mentioned in Chinese chronicles of the 5th century.
For centuries, the city was a busy trading center peopled by a mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Arabs, Russians, Turkmens, Persians, and Chinese. The Russian czar added the area to his empire around 1868. The interesting buildings crumbled, and only one tall minaret remains.
After the Russian Revolution, Bukhara became the center of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Ethnic nomadic traditions were repressed, and industrialization was implemented. The two rivers that ran through the dry steppes were diverted to irrigate large-scale cotton growing, with the result that now the water level of the marshy Aral Sea has been significantly lowered and the environment degraded.
In 1991, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan, where Bukhara is located, joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, and there has been an increasing desire to acknowledge and learn about its cultural heritage.
Textiles have always been a very important part of this heritage. The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., has mounted a striking exhibit of traditional weavings from the area. These are not ancient, as they are deemed to have been worked during the period between the annexation by the czar and the formation of the Soviet Union, but tribal patterns have changed little over centuries and therefore can be accepted as representative of traditional local design and execution.
THIS exhibition introduced me to many designs of the region. My previous acquaintance was only with the knotted pile rugs called "Bokhara" in older references. (Other phonetic spellings of the name also appear.) These "Oriental" rugs were extremely popular in Europe and the United States, especially during the latter part of the last century and the beginning of this one.
Their patterns were neat, tight geometrically stylized motifs whose backgrounds were usually deep and glowing reds. They were woven by the more-or-less nomadic tribes who roamed the estimated 85,000 square miles of what was then referred to as Turkestan. …