Site History and Significance
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 two millennia. Bukharian Jews, some claiming descent from fifth-century exiles from Persia, have resisted several waves of persecution and assimilation through the development of their own distinct Jewish culture.
A Growing Population and Culture
In the sixteenth century, Bukhara became the heart of Jewish life in central Asia, as Jews settled there 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, while others were well-known musicians, actors, and dancers. Following the Russian Revolution and throughout the Holocaust, Jews from Eastern Europe continued to immigrate to Bukhara to avoid persecution.
A Legacy of Craft
Bukharian Jews maintain a long tradition of resilience through trade and crafts, including textile dyeing and woodworking. The foremost representation of this woodworking tradition is preserved in the Bukharian houses, exceptional living examples of vernacular architecture within a medieval urban design and a system of mahallahs, or neighborhoods. Beyond being merely a form of community expression, the houses illustrate a close relation with the environment as the use of earthen materials is a response to the harsh desert climate. The traditional houses are located throughout the historic center of Bukhara, which was listed as a World Heritage property in 1993 by UNESCO.
A Joint Effort Toward Conservation
Less than 200 Bukharian Jews remain in the old mahallah. The vast majority left Bukhara for Israel and the United States following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Due to this mass exodus, the traditional houses are now under threat of disappearance and are subject to alterations insensitive to their historical significance. The houses were included on the 2020 World Monuments Watch to encourage the documentation and creation of sustainable urban conservation standards for the adaptive reuse of the Bukharian Jewish Houses.
Following the site's inclusion on the Watch, WMF and the International Institute for Central Asian Studies (IICAS), in partnership with the Bukhara State University, launched the Traditional Bukharian Jewish Houses project. Through the use of digital technologies for documentation, the project aims to develop the necessary inventory, documentation, and condition assessment of these unique historic houses. The project is also intended create best practice conservation guidelines and enhance community awareness of traditional techniques while fostering collaboration and knowledge exchange between different stakeholders.
World Monuments Fund safeguards cultural heritage around the globe, ensuring our treasured places are preserved for present and future generations.
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WMF’s work at this site was made possible, in part, by support from the David Berg Foundation and Tianaderrah Foundation / Nellie and Robert Gipson.