Muslim Couple Preserves Remnants of Jewish Life in Uzbekistan

Few Bukharan Jews Remain in Central Asian Land

On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.
Jacopo Jakuza Romei/wikimedia commons
On the Silk Road: The famous Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

By Alanna E. Cooper

Published December 30, 2013, issue of December 27, 2013.
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As the sun set over Bukhara, Uzbekistan on a recent Friday evening, I joined the local community in welcoming the Sabbath. This was my first time back to the historic spot on the Silk Road since I first visited in the 1990s. At that time, Uzbekistan had just gained independence in the wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and the country’s 35,000 local Jews were migrating en masse to the United States and Israel. I was a doctoral student in cultural anthropology, witnessing the end of one of the world’s longest chapters in Diaspora history.

Today, 15 years since my last visit, an estimated 70 Jews remain in Bukhara. The city’s synagogue is still able to draw a minyan on Friday evenings, but just barely. Listening to the worshippers’ soulful prayers drift across the synagogue courtyard, I wondered who would come to occupy this space in the future.

Historians conjecture that Jews arrived in Central Asia along trade routes in the years following the Babylonian Exile more than 2,000 years ago. When they are all gone, will any physical signs remain to mark the memory of the vibrant, ancient community that once was?

Perhaps Akbar House — a tourist destination in Bukhara’s old Jewish quarter — serves as a premonition of what is to come.

I had visited Akbar House in 1997 at the suggestion of a friend. Back then, the home did not have a sign, let alone a name. My friend, who was born and raised in Bukhara, knew I was looking for souvenirs to bring back home to the United States and suggested I visit Mastura and her husband Akbar, who might have something appropriate for sale. I walked through the winding alleys of the mahallah (neighborhood) to their house so I might see their merchandise.

In those days, the couple was among the growing number of Muslims who had bought houses in the neighborhood as the Jews were emptying out. Why they chose to move there, I do not know. Mastura showed me traditional jewelry, hair adornments, amulets, and artifacts used by the region’s nomadic peoples.

Casually, and offering a very soft sell, she explained that the pieces were valuable antiques collected from many local peoples. I was a student with little disposable income and I left without purchasing anything. The event was unremarkable, and I forgot about Mastura and her husband altogether until my recent return to Bukhara this past October.

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