UNESCO says Uzbekistan broke promises over Bukhara development

UNESCO says Uzbekistan broke promises over Bukhara development
Mock-up of the project as imagined by its creators. / Uzbekistan National News Agency
By Eurasianet March 22, 2024

UNESCO says that Uzbekistan’s government has broken its promise to refrain from doing demolition and building work near historic zones in the city of Bukhara pending joint agreement on a master plan.

In an emailed response to queries from Eurasianet, a spokesperson for the United Nations agency, part of whose mandate focuses on the preservation of internationally important heritage sites, said on March 21 that it has not yet received a master plan to review.

“UNESCO understands that it should be completed by September 2024,” the agency said.

Meanwhile, a draft management plan 2023-2028 for the hallowed historic area was submitted in December and is still under review by ICOMOS, an advisory body to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, the spokesman wrote in the email to Eurasianet.

In flagrant defiance of pledges given by the Uzbek government, construction workers earlier this year began demolishing buildings in the buffer zone abutting the historic section of Bukhara, sparking a furious reaction from heritage activists.

That work is the first step in implementation of Bokiy Bukhoro (Eternal Bukhara), a contentious project devised by the government that will see dozens of buildings torn down across an area of 326,000 square metres. Those vacated sites are to be filled with high-rise hotels designed to accommodate thousands of tourists at a time.

UNESCO told Eurasianet that it sent a letter to the Uzbek government on February 8 to seek clarification on its plans for this project, which will also entail the installation of a would-be ethnological tourism centre.

“A reply has not been received yet,” the agency said.

Alerte Heritage, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the protection of Central Asia’s architectural cultural heritage, has been a particularly vocal critic of the Bokiy Bukhoro initiative.

“The only publicized project is catastrophic in every respect and above all in its design,” Alerte Heritage said in a statement on Facebook last month. “Knockoffs like these might look amusing in Las Vegas or Macau. But a fake ‘Orient’ in visual proximity to the historical core of Bukhara is doomed to … repel citizens and scare away tourists.”

Bukhara is in theory protected against hasty development due to its status. It was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1993 in recognition of a distinctive cityscape that showcases advanced and uniform urban design and architecture dating back to the Sheibanids, a Turko-Mongol dynasty that descended from Genghis Khan and ruled large swathes of Central Asia.

Officials, however, have argued that Bukhara’s infrastructure, much of which is of Soviet vintage, needs improvement to cater to the needs of tourists.

Neither President Shavkat Mirziyoyev nor his daughter, Saida, who often present themselves as advocates for the conservation of the country’s cultural heritage, have made any statements regarding this issue.

This article first appeared on Eurasianet here.