A massive fortress 20 meters deep in historical layers dating back to the 4th Century BC, the Bukhara “Ark” is the epicenter of history in this crossroads of the silk road city in central Uzbekistan. While not the most picturesque monument in Bukhara, the Ark is certainly the most historically significant. Behind the relative safety of the walls of the citadel lived generations of Emirs, their chiefs and advisors, servants, and where citizens of Bukhara looked for safety. When Genghis Khan and his mongol horde were bearing down of the city in the 13th century, the citizens of Bukhara took refuge here as the city was burned to the ground. The Ark fell then just as it did 800 years later to the Red Army, providing a false sense of security to the inhabitants of this silk-road stronghold.
The Ark also rather famously hosted a particularly gruesome chapter of the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, when in 1838 Colonel Charles Stoddart arrived in Bukhara to attempt to arrange an alliance between Emir Nasrullah Khan and the British East India Company against the Russians. Unfortunately the Colonel unwittingly committed diplomatic faux pas after faux pas and was eventually thrown into the dungeon. Months later, Stoddart agreed to convert to Islam to avoid execution. He was reprieved the dungeon and instead placed under house arrest.
Finally, in November of 1841, Captain Arthur Conolly arrived in Bukhara to unite Central Asia under British rule, Christianize the region, and abolish the slave trade. The Khan politely refused. It soon became apparent to the Emir that he was being used as a pawn in the Great Game between the British and Russians, and in January 1842, following the defeat of the British East India Company garrison at Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War, threw Stoddart and Conolly into an Ark prison cell.
On June 17, 1842, the Khan ordered that Stoddart and Conolly be brought to Registan Square where the two men were forced to dig their own graves. Publicly declaring the Khan a tyrant, Colonel Stoddart was the first to die, beheaded by the executioner’s sword. Conolly, like Stoddart before him, was offered the chance to live by converting to Islam. Conolly refused, and was also beheaded.
Despite outrage in the British press, the two men’s deaths amounted to nothing. Russia eventually took over Central asia as Khan after Khan capitulated to Russian rule. The British lost the Great Game in Central Asia, and the territory of what would eventually become Uzbekistan remained under Russian, and then Soviet rule, until 1991.
Today the Ark remains an imposing presence in Registan Square. The battlements of the Ark Citadel have been extensively refurbished since bombardment by the Red Army in 1920. Today visitors enter the complex through the massive fortress gates flanked by two towers on either side. Tourists can visit a museum featuring the dungeons where Stoddart and Conolly were imprisoned (although no mention will be made of their plight), and walk the open air hall of the audience chamber where Stoddart failed to dismount his horse in the first of his many diplomatic gaffes.
The odyssey of Stoddart and Conolly may only be the most recent chapter in the two-plus thousand year history of the Ark, but it certainly won’t be it’s last. As evidenced by layer of upon layer of rebuilding, having been destroyed and refortified so many times, the fortress today rises above the ancient Registan Square as the primary citadel of many empires, until its final bombing into ultimate submission by Red Army aircraft. Predating even the Samanid Mausoleum by several centuries, the Ark, with its Zoroastrian pre Islamic-era origins, is steeped in layer upon layer of historical significance, and will no doubt outlast the current era and be witness to many more chapters of human history before finally succumbing to the harsh climate of Central Asia.