We’ve actually visited this major shrine twice since moving to Uzbekistan. First in October of 2015, and then again in March 2016. Located about 30 km outside Samarkand in the village of Hartang, the Shrine of Imam al-Bukhari is a major pilgrimage site in Uzbekistan, but is not usually on the typical tourist trail. We were lucky to have a taxi driver who wanted a bigger fare (further distance) who told us this was a not-to-miss sight near Samarkand after having already hit all the major monuments in the city proper. We weren’t disappointed, and were even more pleased to go back for a second look when we met up with some local friends several months later.
To visit this complex as a foreigner is a unique experience. As the site is a new memorial complex architecturally speaking, there is not the same amount of interest from western tourists. The vast majority of visitors are religious pilgrims and locals who come to pay their respects to the great Muslim scholar. As a foreigner you will need to pay extra to gain access, but the caretakers are very welcoming to visitors.
Born in the year 810, Imam al-Bukhari is a particularly well renowned Muslim scholar, having authored the hadith collection of Sahih al-Bukhari which is regarded as one the most authentic and complete systems of Islamic legal theory, especially among Sunni Muslims, and consists of over 7,275 tested traditions arranged in chapters. Many Sunni scholars consider this work of al-Bukhari second only to the Quran in terms of its authenticity.
This work was completed after al-Bukhari had been absent from Bukhara for 16 years on an extended pilgrimage to Mecca during which time he went through all the important centers of Islamic learning. Dedicating his entire life to study and knowledge acquisition, al-Bukhari authored many more works on law, and biographies, or isnad, of previous authors of hadith. After a lifetime of travel and study, al-Bukhari died in the village of Khartank near Samarkand in the year 870.
As one of the major pilgrimage sites in Uzbekistan, and together with the Shakhi-Zinda and Rukhabad mausoleums visited within a single day is said to qualify as a “mini-Hajj” among the devout. The complex of al-Bukhari is spread out over a vast area of about 10 hectares (25 acres), but is not particularly historic. Today’s memorial complex was completed only in 1998 on the occasion of the 1225th anniversary of Bukhari’s birth (according to the lunar calendar).
According to tradition, when Bukharai died in the year 870, he was buried in a modest cemetery in the village. It wasn’t until the 16th century under the Sheibanid dynasty that the first memorial complex was built, and survived until the early 20th century. The establishment of Soviet power in Central Asia led to the banning of religious practices and the memorial complex quickly fell into disrepair. By the 1950s the 16th century shrine of al-Bukhari was in a state of total ruin.
In the final years of the Soviet Union and following Uzbek independence, renewed interest by Muslim scholars led to a revival of the site’s importance. Artisans were brought from all corners of Uzbekistan to construct the new complex on the orders of President Karimov, and the project was completed within less than two years.
The new memorial shrine is today one of the finest examples of modern Central Asian architecture featuring a mosque for 1500 people, an administrative building, library, museum, and the new mausoleum with its impressive 17 meter ribbed blue-tile dome. Among the interesting items on display are the only surviving examples of original Bukhari texts, and a ceremonial Quran from the Kingdom of Bahrain. The only vestiges of the original complex are a grove of 16th century trees that once shaded Bukhari’s modest grave.