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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Letter from a Traveling Russian Art Student

August, 1893
Dear Respected Konstantin Abramovich,

Another strange thing: there are many old buildings here, said to have been built during the Middle Ages, which have a very strange element that seems to be unique to Bukhara. The buildings are one to three stories high, and were built with an awareness of the aridity and heat of the region (both of which are vicious I assure you). The houses are made of clay and have no external windows. Like other such houses in the region, the interior is both impressive and well thought out. Each house has two adjacent yards with rooms that sit along the perimeter. The first yard, the “tashkari” is intended for official arrangements and guest welcoming, the second, the “ichkari” is only for family members. Needless to say, I have not progressed to this inner yard. Nor will I, as I am a foreigner and not likely to marry into such a situation as a man—and a poor Russian one at that. It is rumored that the rich families have an additional yard—the “sais-khana”. (pg. 97)

The architecture here is diverse and captivating. Some buildings I have already described to you. But you must understand, what I have described is only a small sampling. You know how I adore the European architecture Peter The Great brought to Russia, but I cannot help but imagine what could have been if the early Bukharan architects—many of whom were descendants of humble cattle raisers and farmers—had settled in the heart of Russia. A very different culture we would have indeed. And perhaps more trade at that. I do not yet have a strong grasp of what has enabled Bukhara to be such a vibrant center of culture, religion, architecture, and (most importantly) trade… It has been explained to me that it is more to do with their optimal location along the river and the Silk Road trade route than anything else. I, however, am suspicious of this simple explanation. I am a hopeless romantic and have taken to thinking that there is something in the air here—something spiritual is lingering amongst the clouds of spices, dust, and raw pigment. Perhaps it is something about the religion of Islam which they so fervently take to? I do not know.

The buildings here! The decorative architecture! The techniques! All impeccable! Never before have my senses been so awakened by architecture! You of all people know my aversion to the medium!—But that is just the thing, here I am able to see it as a medium, not a requirement of classical study. The temples which I have been frequenting, dating back to the ancient religion of “Zoroastrianism”, are testaments to themselves! The palace of the rulers is adorned with carved stucco and grand mural paintings. These relics are found just outside of the city itself. However, the countless monuments and mausoleums within the confines of the city attest to a strong tradition of expressive brickwork, wood-carving, terra-cotta forms, and even glazed tiles! All of these various techniques and textures seem to be seamlessly strewn together by means of geometry. But don’t be fooled! I can hear you thinking—we have geometry in Piter! We have columns, and tiles and stucco! We even have a tradition of beautiful woodcarving. This is all true. This is why I do not wish to compare Bukhara to our beautiful homeland cities in such a way that would offend you. I only wish to share with you my rekindled excitement about the potential of architecture. (Kirchenko, 180)

Forever your devoted student and loyal training artist,
Forever curious,


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