One of the things I hate about popular tourist sites is that access is often restricted. I understand this in the interest of historic preservation or safety or a combination of both, but it can be frustrating.
Therefore, I love when I stumble upon a site that I can explore with complete freedom. I experienced this when I climbed up to Amasya Castle in Turkey and when I visited the ancient Armenian capital of Ani in eastern Turkey. Checking out the ruins of old Albanian churches in Azerbaijan is another example.
Aside from the Ishratkhana Mausoleum in Samarkand, most of the sites I visited in Uzbekistan were regulated with ticket sales and guards and signs and ropes blocking off the places you just couldn’t go.
Then I discovered the 16th century Abdullah Khan Madrassah in Bukhara.
From the outside, it looked like many of the other madrassahs in Uzbekistan. But as soon as I entered, it felt different.
An elderly caretaker immediately greeted me, taking me by the arm and pointing out the detailed designs on the ceiling before explaining the history of the madrassah in Russian.
He led me into a side room with a complete model of Bukhara and showed me the location of just about every mosque and madrassah in the city. Then, he encouraged me to explore and pointed out that I could climb up to the second floor of the building. Hmmmm.
Now that sounded interesting.
A group of French tourists had entered the madrassah just before me, so I took my time walking around, trying to avoid them. I watched as they climbed the narrow stone staircase to the second floor and as soon as they descended again, I took my chance.
After snapping a few pictures of the courtyard from the balcony, I noticed another set of stairs leading upwards. By now, I was on my own and with no signs prohibiting the climb, I carefully ascended, coming out on the roof.
Knowing that the madrassah was around 400 years old, I tiptoed from the top step onto the roof, half expecting it to collapse below me. While the roof offered a nice look down into the courtyard of the madrassah, my view of the rest of the city wasn’t too impressive. I was too nervous to stray far from the stairs, unsure if I should even be up there in the first place.
After less than five minutes, I carefully made my way back down.
When I returned to the second floor, I realized that multiple corridors led away from the balconies facing the courtyard, giving me access to nearly the entire second level.
I took my time exploring every nook and cranny, while also stepping very cautiously as part of me still imagined the floor simply giving out underneath me. Thirty minutes later, I returned to the main courtyard, a sweaty, dusty mess.
As I departed the madrassah, I thanked the caretaker profusely, grateful for the unique chance to explore such a timeworn building.