The Last Emir of Bukhara in Exile Across the Border
Updated: Jul 21, 2022
“… While the people of Bokhara were asleep… They set fire to the city and threw bombs from aeroplanes,” read the opening lines of a letter penned by the last ruler of Bukhara and addressed to the British authorities in October of 1920.[i] Describing the bloodshed and destruction wrought to Bukhoroi Sharif (or Noble Bukhara) by the Red Army, the letter described an arduous trek from Bukhara to Dushanbe, thence to Qurghan fortress and Kulob, and across the border into Afghanistan’s Khanabad. “I wanted to cross into Chitral from Badakhshan and to stay at Delhi for one day in order to recite Quran and send benediction to the soul of my great-grandfather the Amir Taimur [sic], thereafter, leaving for London for an interview with my brother, the King,” revealed the Emir, “but God did not fulfil my desires.” This was one of the first, yet not the last, pleas that Sayyid Mir Alim Khan would make to the agents of the British Empire. “A virtual prisoner,” the latter would later label the exiled letter writer.
The Emir of Bukhara
Empire-wide turmoil had forced the Bukharan Emir out. By the time of the February Revolution in Saint Petersburg, Russian Central Asia had already witnessed a series of devastating upheavals. The formal start of the 1916 revolts has been traced to the uprising in Khujand on 4 July 1916, when the local population rebelled against the administration’s attempt to compile lists of workers for labour battalions.[ii] Days later communities across the Samarkand province rose; revolts spread to Tashkent, Andijan, and Jizzakh, and reached Semirech’e, where staggering levels of violence were recorded. By the fall of the Tsarist rule in 1917, the region had, thus, already been in disarray. The subsequent attempts at alternative forms of governance concurred with the Bukharan Emir’s decision to end the protectorate status and declare independence, precluding any attempt at a takeover. The shaky independence ended after two years with the Red Army’s arrival which led to a form of carpet bombing seldom witnessed before. The destruction of the Old City forced the Emir to “abandon the city, leaving Bokhara to its fate”.[iii]
The place of the Bukharan Emirate in the broader history of the Russian Empire is a peculiar one. Once an important trading partner with many missions sent and received, in the 1860s the Bukharans witnessed the arrival of the Tsarist military at their frontiers. The Bukharan Emir’s vocal proclamation of a holy war against the Russians swiftly turned into a quiet agreement to become a vassal state. However, a protectorate, with nominal powers and no formal relations with foreign states, managed to amplify its strength under the Russian regime and expand into different, previously challenging, directions, notably (re)incorporating Shahrisabz and Hissar.[iv] Half a century later, as the Romanov dynasty fell to Bolshevik forces, so did Bukharan Emirate’s ruling house, the Manghits. The fate of the last Romanovs has been retold many times, forming numerous popular rumours and conspiracies about the surviving royals.[v] However, the dynastic fall in the imperial periphery has garnered less attention (yet stories of the Emir’s gold and wealth to-date accumulating interest in a Swiss bank continue to circulate).
An aerial photograph of Bukhara during the Red Army's bombing in September 1920.
Upon reaching Afghanistan, the Emir hoped to continue onwards to his next destination. He mentioned his plan to go to London via Bombay, yet in the same letter he explained that he had visited the Emir of Afghanistan, who had “prevented me from going to Mecca.”[vi] Painting this as a repugnant move by his fellow Muslim ruler, Alim Khan’s frustration became more palpable as “three hundred Bolsheviks came into Kabul and raised their flag.” The letter exposed the Bolshevik government’s alliance with the Afghan Emir, purportedly costing Moscow over £100,000 a year. Ironically, this is the exact same amount that the Emir of Bukhara had requested – yet, unsuccessfully – from the British authorities as a loan to resist the Bolshevik forces.[vii]
Having extracted valuable insights into ongoing regional affairs, the Emir’s request to travel was denied. “Will do what he can to prevent this,” said the Viceroy of India to his colleagues behind the scenes.[viii] Simultaneously, the anxious Emir sought support from Japan, China, US, Turkey, Persia and the League of Nations, or “the lovers of peace and respecters of justice throughout the world,” as he portrayed them, but to no avail.[ix] He remained unwanted in Afghanistan, equally undesirable across the border in British India, yet unable to return to Bukhara. The Political Officer in Sikkim, Frederick M. Bailey, reported that despite the Emir’s army having some successes in advancing to re-capture Bukhara, the ruler was prohibited to leave Kabul by the Afghans.
The ministerial correspondence reveals the disdain felt by the British and Afghan authorities towards the Emir, their desire to free themselves of the caring responsibilities, yet wishing to exercise control over his movements, just in case. Their attempts to dissuade him from any visit to India continued for years. “His presence here [in India] would be embarrassing and probably expensive eventually, more especially as it would be calculated to attract further Bukharan refugees to India,” claimed the Viceroy, which he feared, could irritate the new Russian government.[x] However, the harsh reality required a diplomatic veneer with a “damping an answer” stating that should the Emir continue to seek asylum, it could be granted only if “he abstained from all intrigues against Russia, restricted himself to a fixed residence” under constant surveillance and control.
The Emir refocused, rerouted, and sought permission to visit Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. This triggered a rather bizarre attempt by the British officials to permit him to travel via any territory outside their direct rule. Instead of the route via Bombay, a common path for many in Central Asia, some suggested he travel via Kandahar, to Persian Baluchistan, somehow reach Bandar Abbas and from there to Jeddah, despite there, by their own admission, being no direct route from Bandar Abbas to the Red Sea. This complicated route was likened by a British official to travelling “to Rome from London, to take a train to Scotland, cross by boat to Belfast, proceed by train to Cork and Queenstown, take a boat to Lisbon, another to Gibraltar, a third to Naples and so on by train to Rome.”[xi] A different suggestion was made that the Emir’s family be detained in Kabul during his absence, to ensure that he returned to his place of exile. After months of deliberation, as the pilgrimage season was ending, a more convenient option naturally surfaced that led the Emir to receive a letter from the British that read, “My friend! It would be best for you to postpone your journey till the next pilgrimage season.”[xii] Such rejections continued to pile up on the Emir’s doorsteps.
The grave of the last Emir of Bukhara at the Shuhadai Salahin cemetery in Kabul
Two decades into his exile, Alim Khan passed away outside of Kabul Qalai Fatu. The Emir’s memory and his years in Afghanistan demonstrate the challenges of navigating the changing borders of mobility and exile. It reveals the fallen monarch’s intimate experience with the geopolitical changes happening within and around Central Asia. Yet, the story of his lineage, notably its connection to war and mobility, did not end there: his daughter, Shukria Raad Alimi, was forced to flee Afghanistan with her family months after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Her route, in parallel to many descendants of the Emir, would include parts of South Asia and Europe, before, eventually settling in North America. His three sons, who were trapped in Bukhara during the occupation experienced a different fate: they narrowly escaped a brutal Romanov-style execution and were taken to Moscow. Soon after, the eldest, Sultanmurad, was suspected of having British connections, and shot; the youngest, attempted to escape via the Afghan border at the start of the World War II and, too, shot; the middle one, Shahmurad, in contrast, became a Soviet general, yet, reportedly, remained deeply pained by the loss of his family. Under alleged Bolshevik pressure, he penned a public letter to his father, exclaiming, “living thus among my comrades I began to hate you…”
Shahmurad’s public rejection came alongside refusals of different political authorities to grant the Emir support and control over his own mobility. In another noteworthy denial of one of his many requests, the British Minister at Kabul had turned to poetry to explain the imperial positions:
“I am confident that Your Highness will accept that it [rejection decision] is final, since as Saadi has said:
The hand can not grasp that which has Has not been allotted and that which Is appointed will reach one wherever he is.”[xiii]
A copy of the rejection letter sent to the Emir Source: British Library, India Office Records.
Malika Zehni is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge's Faculty of History. Her research explores the intersections of mobility, bureaucracy and borders in colonial Central Asia.
[i] British Library, India Office Records (IOR), L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 256 1922 [ii] Aminat Chokobaeva, Cloé Drieu and Alexander Morrison (eds.), The Central Asian Revolt of 1916 (2020), p. 4. [iii] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 256 1922. According to the accounts of Bolsheviks involved in the military takeover of Bukhara, over 12 thousand shells were fired. For more on this see, V. L. Genis, Razgrom Bukharskogo emirata v 1920 godu, Voprosy istorii, issue 7, 1993. [iv] James Pickett, Written into Submission: Reassessing Sovereignty through a Forgotten Eurasian Dynasty, The American Historical Review, Volume 123, Issue 3, June 2018. [v] These include a miraculous survival and escape of Tsarina Anastasia and ritualistic nature of the royal murders. [vi] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 256 1922. [vii] Although other forms of support had been previously and allegedly provided to the Emir by the British. [viii] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 4925. [ix] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 103. [x] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 2381. [xi] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 3389. [xii] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 45. [xiii] IOR, L/PS/10/950 Part 1, File 3068. The cited verse comes from Saadi Shirazi's Golestan (Chapter 8), which in the original Persian reads: به نانهاده دست نرسد و نهاده هر کجا هست برسد
Alam Khan, A. O. B. & Muqim Bay,Y. (1921) Tarikh-i huzn al-milal-i Bukhara. Paris: Dar Matbaʻah-i Baradaran-i Mizun-i Nawdar Paris tab' va nashr gardid. [PDF] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002362443/.
Siege of Bukhara (1September1920). https://yustysya.livejournal.com/30958.html
The last Emir of Bukhara's tombstone