The Watch

Traditional Houses in the Old Jewish Mahalla of Bukhara

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Located along the Silk Road and the edges of several former empires, the Uzbek city of Bukhara has been home to an isolated part of the Jewish diaspora for over a millennium. Some claiming descent from fifth-century exiles from Persia, the Bukharian Jews have resisted several waves of persecution and assimilation through the development of their own distinct Jewish culture. In the sixteenth century, Bukhara became the heart of Jewish life in Central Asia, as Jews continued to settle here while being divided between areas controlled by other ethnoreligious majorities. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Jewish community of Bukhara numbered around 8,000 or 12 percent of the city’s population, and was the largest among a network of Jewish minorities in Uzbek cities including Tashkent, Samarkand, Kokand, Andijan, Marghilan, and Navoi. Bukharian Jews were active in establishing trade connections with the Russian Empire, and held positions in law, medicine, and local government. Some Bukharian Jews were also well-known musicians, actors, and dancers, who together contributed to preserving folklore. Following the Russian Revolution and throughout the Holocaust, Jews from Eastern Europe continued to immigrate to Bukhara to avoid persecution.

Ethnolinguistically distinct, the Bukharian Jews speak a Tajik dialect of Farsi, and maintain a long tradition of resilience through trade and crafts including textile dyeing and woodworking. The foremost example of this woodworking tradition is preserved through the Bukharian houses, themselves a living exceptional example of vernacular architecture within a medieval urban design of narrow streets and a system of mahallas, or neighborhoods. Beyond merely being a form of community expression, they illustrate a close relation with the environment since the use of earthen materials is an answer to the harsh desert climate. The traditional houses are located throughout the historic center of Bukhara, itself listed as a World Heritage property in 1993.

However, mass emigration of the Jewish community has led to disrepair of these houses. Only around 200 Bukharian Jews remain in the old mahalla, as the vast majority of Bukharian Jews left Bukhara for Israel and the United States following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, with the largest diaspora community settling in the neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens in New York City. Due to this mass exodus, the traditional houses are now subject to alterations insensitive to their historical significance and are under threat of disappearance. The 2020 World Monuments Watch calls for documentation and valorization of the rich history of Jewish life in Bukhara with the aim of creating sustainable urban design standards for the adaptive reuse of the Bukharian houses.

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