The forgotten Silk Road heritage of an historic Amman market

Exiled merchants were behind development of the Bukhari Market, a city landmark

Shoppers browsing in Bukhara Market, Amman. Photo: Khaled Yacoub Oweis / The National
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A storied market in Amman provides a glimpse into the city's Uzbek community heritage, where generations of small-business owners have watched the city change from an obscure town in the hills of north Jordan, to a modern metropolis.

Riding out a century of change that has transformed the shopping habits of millions of Jordanians, Bukhari Market remains a small outpost of local curiosity and character in an increasingly uniform city.

But for many inhabitants of the city, the origins of the market may come as a surprise.

A century ago, Uzbek merchants from the city of Bukhara, a renowned trading location of Silk Road fame, fled a Bolshevik assault, taking refuge in Palestine. When violence between Palestinians and Jews grew, they fled to Jordan.

They had to carry a family name, so many registered it as Bukhari in Jordan. Their descendants, who still run shops started by their forefathers in downtown Amman, also share a dry sense of humour.

On dirt ground in front of the Husseini mosque in downtown Amman, the Bukharis sold goods and practised trades before moving across the street in the early 1940s to start what is today one of Amman’s oldest markets. It is also one of the few eccentric places in the city.

The Bukhari Market is still the go-to destination to buy trinkets and arcane goods. Looking for ribbons? There are stacks from floor to ceiling of all colours and shapes and sizes. Also found are graduation balloons, wedding ornaments, all kinds of beads, even daggers.

Refugee entrepreneurs

Together with other immigrants, the Uzbeks were instrumental in the development of business in Jordan.

The parched, aid-dependent kingdom was established as the British protectorate of Transjordan in 1921. Its economy consisted mainly of grazing and subsistence farming until entrepreneurs from Palestine, Syria and elsewhere set up basic industries and retail businesses.

Watching the Bukharis take over trade in front of the Husseini mosque, Fawzi Al Mufti, a Circassian landowner, sensed a business opportunity and built a covered market opposite the mosque in the early 1940s.

The two minorities have the shared experience of being persecuted by Russians. The Circassians lived in the North Caucuses and were decimated under Czarist rule in the 19th century. They fled to the Middle East and were the first inhabitants of modern-era Amman in the early 1900s.

Until one or two decades ago the Bukharis constituted most of the shopkeepers in the market built by Al Mufti.

But members of the second generation started selling their businesses to other Jordanians because their sons chose to go to university or into other businesses, merchants at the market say.

At the entrance of the market Ahmad Abdulghani sells trinkets at the shop he took over in the 1980s from his father. He has no apparent heir but says that his main concern is his daily livelihood.

His father was one of the original Bukhari merchants who came to Amman from Palestine when the city was a backwater compared with Jerusalem, Damascus and other established Levantine cities.

A self-taught calligrapher, Mr Abdulghani carves names on to key chains with oriental motifs he assembles from components made in China.

He says Jordanian visitors who live abroad like to buy key chains engraved with the names of their relatives and friends and take them as gifts when they return to their places of residence, mostly in the Gulf.

While these wealthy visitors are regarded as the main customers among the thousands of daily visitors to the Bukhari market, Mr Abdulghani says they tend not to be big spenders.

“They don’t want to spend a lot, but for little money they can buy lots of key chains,” says Mr Abdulghani, who sells each of the imitation silver key chains for $3, included the engraving.

Sometimes he receives peculiar requests.

Mr Abdulghani says a customer once asked him to write “your snoring annoys me” on a keychain. He engraved “don’t touch me I am ticklish”, for another customer.

“My life is torture,” was a recent request.

“I keep a note of such phrases,” he says.

From souqs to malls

When they came to Amman, the Bukharis lived next to Raghadan Palace, the seat of the ruling King Abdullah, who founded Jordan together with the British. Some lived in the city of Irbid, near the Syrian border in Jordan's north, where there is also a Bukhari market.

The community are known for being deeply religious. Mohammad Bukhari, a prominent ninth century Islamic scholar, was from Bukhara, which contributed to the Bukharis gaining a certain respect in Jordan and the rest of the Middle East.

The Bukhari market in Amman has about 20 shops, but only four or five remain in Bukhari hands.

The father of Mahmoud Mohammad, another Bukhari shop owner, died last year, and Mr Mohammad's son is not interested in taking over, he says.

Mr Mohammad sells souvenirs, worry beads, and ornamental daggers still made in Jordan by two tribes, the Hoshans in the northern governorate of Irbid and the Mahbash from the southern province of Tafileh.

It is mostly Jordanians who buy the daggers, he says.

He says tour operators have been shunning Bukhari Market in favour of big retail shops in Amman and other cities, but that he still gets some customers from Iraq and the Gulf who like worry beads, which he mostly imports from Turkey and Egypt.

But Khaled Muhiyiddin, owner of another Bukhari shop that specialises in men's grooming products, says his son, Muhiyiddin, will continue in the business. He already helps his father to run the shop.

“He is 3G (the third generation),” Mr Muhiyiddin says. “My son wants to be here for our centenary, which would be in 2042.”

Updated: May 21, 2022, 11:32 AM