For centuries the oasis city of Bukhara has shimmered beneath the sandy layers of the central Asian desert like an ancient jewel. Now the Soviet Union is spending tens of millions of rubles to dust off this city's surface and many others in an effort to restore some of the country's ancient cultural luster.
The onetime center for Muslim theology, just north of the Soviet border with Afghanistan, stands out as a reservoir of medieval architecture. Restored monuments blend with the city's sunbaked brick and mud-plastered homes, which rim narrow, winding dirt streets.
Today, a long-range project under a special article in the Soviet Constitution is aimed at "restoration and preservation of monuments connected with the history of the Soviet Union and peoples of its republics," according to Intourist, the official Soviet tourist agency.
The Char-Minar Mosque, with its four blue-tiled domes (one topped with a large clump of twigs depicting a stork's nest), is just one remnant of an Islamic past dating back more than ten centuries.
But the stork's nest, communal water wells, and maze of city streets are only the physical landmarks of the past. The atmosphere, too, reflects ancient traditions. Berobed, turbaned men are so commonplace that a visitor realizes he alone is the oddity.
Automobiles are rare and seem out of place. Tourist-laden taxis lumber around city streets while occasional sightseeing buses snake their way along the few roads that can accommodate them.
One of the several restored madrasahs (muslim schools) is still being used as an active Islamic theological school.Several minarets have been preserved. And the city's main landmark, the Kalyan Minaret, is undergoing extensive restoration.
The monuments stand as testimony of Bukhara's rich but turbulent past. Founded in the first century, the city was already a bustling trade center when captured by the Arabs in the early 700s. Several centuries of Turkish and Persian control followed.
The region first came under Russian influence in 1868 when it was made a Russian protectorate. Members of the ruling Mangyt dynasty, however, continued to occupy the ark fortress (ruling residence) until the 1920s when the last remnants of the empire were overthrown by Red Army troops.
Today, as a center of Uzbekistan, the city is taking on the trappings of industrialization. The region produces 67 percent of the Soviet Union's cotton, half of its rice, and yields the famed karakul sheep pelts. It also sits atop major natural gas deposits. But the steel and concrete structures that have accompanied recent growth only form a modern shell around the city's ancient core.