The large park just to the west of the historic center of Bukhara is typical in the post Soviet sense. Tacky carnival attractions, overgrown in some places, unscrupulous looking characters hiding in the bushes, a few snack vendors thrown in for good measure. Without knowing exactly what you’re looking for, you might not even realise this park also hosts one of the finest surviving examples of 9th century Central Asian architecture, and final resting place of Ismail Samani, greatest conqueror of Central Asia until Genghis Khan and Amir Timur.
The mausoleum was actually built for Ismail Samani’s father, Ahmad ibn Asad, but both Ismail, and Ismail’s grandson, Nasr II who became emir at the age of eight, are also buried here. Construction of the mausoleum was started in 892, the same year Ismail took power, but he would never see it completed.
Ismail Samani was ruler of the powerful Samanid empire at the height of its power, with a territory stretching from modern day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and to the Arabian Sea. During his reign, the capital of the empire was relocated to Bukhara and made into one of the great cities of the muslim world. Intellectuals, scholars, doctors, and artists were brought to the city turning it into a great center of learning. It was because of Ismail’s efforts that during this time the first translation of the Quran into Persian was completed. Under his reign, the Samanid empire consolidated its power, and conquered northern Iran setting the stage for the restoration of Sunni Islam in the region.
Despite being such a champion for Sunni Islam, the strict religious law prohibiting the construction of mausoleums over burial places was ignored by Ismail, who simply followed the example of a mid 9th century calif who was buried in the same way. Thanks to his decision, today we are left with an outstanding and well preserved structure, the oldest monument of Islamic architecture in Central Asia and the only surviving example remaining from the Samanid Dynasty. The mausoleum is also believed to be the earliest known departure from the orthodox religious restriction prohibiting construction of burial structures.
The Samanid empire entered a period of decline after the reign of Ismail Samani, and the city of Bukahara was conquered first by the Karakhanids, and then the Khwarazmian Empire during the high middle ages. By the time Genghis Khan arrived in the year 1220, the mausoleum was already lost, buried in mud on the western edge of the city. As the Mongol Horde burned Bukhara to the ground, the Samanid Mausoleum was spared only because it had already been lost and forgotten two empires and 300 years removed from the crisis at hand. It wasn’t until 1934 that Soviet archaeologists discovered the structure in a meticulous two year excavation, and revealed to the world the finest example ever discovered of the Sassanides architectural style.
The trek to the rather depressing park on the western edge of town is worth the effort if not for this outstanding architectural wonder, then for the remnants of the Shaybanid era (15th century) city wall just beyond, and lunch at the classic McDonald’s knock-off on the other side. The artificial lake which straddles the park today provides drainage for what was once a swampy low lying area of Bukhara that so well preserved the mausoleum in mud, protecting it from a thousand years worth of decay and erosion.
The mausoleum as it appears today is largely unrestored except for the dome. The intricate terracotta brickwork provides mesmerizing photo opportunities totally unique compared to the blue mosaics and domes of the rest of the city. As the last remnant of a great empire, this architectural masterpiece seems a world apart from more “recent” architectural wonders left over from the Timurid era. A blatant violation of religious law at the time of its construction, the Ismail Samani Mausoleum is 11 centuries later, still in a class of its own.