In the spring of the year of the Hijra 1260, at the edge of the Black Desert of the Karakum, there emerged from the swirling sands a most unusual figure. The stranger was draped with a black robe and a scarlet hood, his pale face shaded by a broad black hat. In his hand he brandished a tattered book as though it were a scimitar.

An unseasonal snow had just fallen on the desert, carrying uneasy tidings. But the border that the man in black now crossed was a stark one. As he rode down onto the rich earth of the river lands, the red dunes gave way to greening fields of winter wheat, the parched wastes to a garden landscape spangled with pools, the gray of the stunted tamarisks to the pink of blossoming apricots and pomegranates. A crowd began to gather as he passed — a microcosm, as he wrote that night, of this kaleidoscopic heart of Asia:

Shouts of “Selaam Aleikoom” from thousands rang upon my ear. It was a most astonishing sight: people from the roofs of houses, the Nogay Tatars of Russia, the Cassacks and Girghese from the deserts, the Tatar from Yarkand or Chinese Tartary, the merchant of Cashmere, the Serkerdeha or grandees of the king on horseback, the Affghauns, the numerous water-carriers, stopped still and looked at me; Jews with their little caps, —the distinguishing badge of the Jews of Bokhara—the inhabitants of Khokand, politely smiling at me; and the mullahs from Chekarpoor and Scinde looking at me and saying, “Inglese Saheb;” veiled women screaming to each other, “Englees Eljee,” (English ambassador;) others coming by them and saying, “He is not an Eljee, but the Grand Derveesh, Derveesh Kelaun, of Englistaun.”

This Derveesh of Englistaun was in fact an Anglican clergyman, as any Englishman of that age (the Gregorian year was 1844) would have instantly recognized. Trusting in the authority of that persona, or at least in its deterrent weirdness, he had covered the last two hundred arduous miles dressed in “full canonicals” with open Bible in hand. The presence of a parish priest in such a place as this was uncanny enough. But neither the label nor the costume began to do justice to the preposterous life of Joseph Wolff. 

Born a German Jew, Joseph had marked himself early as a flouter of norms. At seven he had confronted his father about the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, causing the older Wolff to fret that his boy was “continually walking about and thinking, which is not natural.” By eleven he had left home, flung himself into Christianity, and resolved to “preach the Gospel in foreign lands,” a goal proclaimed with sufficient zeal that his cousin chased him out of her house with a poker. By twenty-one he had somehow established himself at the Vatican as a special favorite of the Pope, alternately shocking the cardinals by “caressingly patting” the pontiff, and enchanting them with speeches that left them gushing “Per Bacco! Che voce! Che occhi!” (“By Bacchus! What a voice! What eyes!”). This went on until Wolff’s relentless free-thinking — including notable attacks on celibacy and papal infallibility — at last exhausted the holy patience, and he was relieved of his vestments and escorted away briskly to Vienna. 

Thus began his career as a professional wanderer. Motivated especially by evangelizing the Jews and tracking down the lost tribes of Israel, Wolff over the next two decades made his way from Bombay to Abyssinia, Yemen to New York, enduring all types of calamity and disarming everyone in his path. He survived cholera, typhus, imprisonment, enslavement, a devastating earthquake, a pirate attack, an attempted poisoning, and an unclassifiable brush with death in the Hindu Kush, when a tribe of fanatics threatened to “sew him up in a dead donkey, burn him alive, and make sausages of him,” unless he converted to Islam on the spot. Wolff gallantly refused, preached briefly upon the Quran’s exhortations to hospitality, and was released — naked, and stripped of all possessions, to walk six hundred miles through the snow to Kabul. 

He also endured the disbelief of the English gentry, when he laid romantic claim to one of their own, the Lady Georgiana Walpole of the line of the first Prime Minister — a presumption fully on par with caressing the papal shoulder. Wolff won over her brother by formally renouncing all interest in the family fortune, leaving the third Earl of Orford, one suspects, in much the same state of bemusement as the fanatics of the Hindu Kush. As her reward Georgiana had the pleasure of receiving a steady stream of letters from places like Merv, in which her husband reckoned the likelihood of death and embraced the will of God. 

Wolff was ugly, hopelessly nearsighted, couldn’t swim or cook a meal to save his life, insisted on sleeping on the floor, habitually referred to himself in the third person, and lived under an inexhaustible charm. On this latest journey to Central Asia — which would prove to be his last — his gambit of embracing his image as exotic “mullah” worked terrifically. Between his robes and book and his still-incorrigible habit of “continually walking about and thinking,” he managed time and again to disarm the natives of their tribalistic suspicions, and to elicit from them a confounded respect for the “higher matters” to which he was clearly devoted. The Turkmen nomads of the Karakum, a people infamous for their plundering, slave-taking raids and that Wolff himself repeatedly condemned as “covetous,” “treacherous,” “rapacious,” “perfidious,” and “stupid,” were sufficiently cowed to escort him safely across the desert. Rumors spread and grew about the “Derveesh of Englistaun” as the unlikely party advanced, and Wolff found himself being asked if he were really two hundred years old, spoke seventy-two languages, and had mastered all the sciences on Earth. 

And yet privately, parting the crowds upon his final approach, he confessed to “considerable misgiving.”  Small wonder, as he had been warned of his folly at every step of the journey, and had lately seen multiple servants abandon him out of mortal fear. This place, the legendary oasis kingdom of Bukhara, was not quite like any of his destinations past, and the errand on which he came went well beyond the missionary’s usual agenda. The stakes were not “merely” spiritual and individual, but geopolitical. And the fate of two missing Englishmen, a subject of anxious debate throughout the Empire, might hang in the balance.

Now, on the banks of the Amu Darya — a frontier recognized and feared since the time of Alexander the Great — a group of Jews appeared with a warning. “Joseph Wolff, Joseph Wolff, Joseph Wolff!” came the cry. “You are a son of death as soon as you enter Bukhara. For God’s sake do not go on!” 

Wolff went on. 

The history of Bukhara is as vast, as bewildering, as startlingly lush and brutally harsh as the landscape that surrounds it. Going by a host of exotic names (Transoxiana, Sogdia, Khwarezmia, Mawarannahr, Turan, Khorasan, Turkestan, “Oozbeck Tartary,” and so on), that landscape has been occupied by a constantly revolving cast of Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, and Russians, along with such hazier peoples as the Bactrians and the Kushans; and it has served as a mixing bowl for faiths from Zoroastrianism to Judaism, Manichaeism to Buddhism, Nestorianism to Islam. There was civilization here for centuries before the first cities arose in Europe, and there was enlightenment here at times when Europe was plunged into darkness. 

The land occupies a paradoxical position, walled off by towering mountains and forbidding deserts, yet offering a frail, tantalizing thread to bind the great civilizations at the far ends of Eurasia. For over two thousand years, accordingly, it has served as reflector for some of the West’s most lurid and conflicted fantasies. Bukhara has been variously an emblem of brilliant cosmopolitanism and of decadent isolation, of liberal tolerance and of fanatical repression, of opulence and of barren deprivation. 

Unbeknownst to Joseph Wolff or to anyone at the time, on his trek through the Karakum he had passed within a few miles of the spectacular buried ruins of Central Asia’s first city. This was four-thousand-year-old Gonur Tepe with its canals and colossal citadel, where fire worshippers may or may not have brewed opium tea, carved exquisite animal figures from lapis and gold, and shipped their wares as far as Sumer and the Indus. Later came new empires that stretched their fingertips towards the strongholds of Asia. Alexander made his furthest advances here, suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a Sogdian warlord. Two centuries later, the Han diplomat Zhang Qian penetrated further west than any Chinese explorer before him, reporting back on the sophisticated crop systems and trade routes devised by the people of Bukhara and Samarkand. 

The grip of outsiders on this territory, both imaginative and political, was always precarious. But their forays helped lay the groundwork for the continental superhighway known as the Silk Road. For centuries the bazaars of Bukhara were stuffed with goods bound from one ocean to another, and its middleman merchants grew rich on their trade. These included such treasures as walrus tusks from the Arctic and sapphires from Ceylon, along with still more precious packets of knowledge: the recipe for pounding hemp and mulberry bark into paper, and that for mixing sulfur and saltpeter into an enchanted powder, used for the fearsome fire-arrows of the Chinese. From Central Asia itself came such benign contributions as the apple-tree, but also such sinister ones as the Black Death, passed to the Mongols from the rodents of the desert, and from them to the rats of Europe. 

It was thanks in large part to the Silk Road that by the time of Bukhara’s apogee in the ninth and tenth centuries, the city could lay claim to being the greatest on Earth. Under the Persianate Samanids, who made their capital here, the place was indeed far more than a simple city: it was the very “cupola of Islam,” Qubbat ul-Islam, a peerless seat of wisdom where the light was said to shine not down, but up. The Arab traveler Ibn Hawqal sets the scene:

In all the regions of the earth there is not a more flourishing or a more delightful country than this, especially the district of Bukhara. If a person stand on the Kohendiz (i.e. the Castle) of Bukhara, and cast his eyes around, he shall not see anything but beautiful green and luxuriant verdure on every side; so that he would imagine the green of the earth and the azure of the heavens were united. And as there are green fields in every quarter, so there are villas interspersed among the green fields.

He goes on to extol the people of the city for “their culture, their knowledge of religion and their legal expertise, their religious spirit, their loyalty, their good manners and perfect social relationships, their absence of bad instincts, their zeal for good works, their excellent intentions and the purity of their sentiments.” Prominent among those people were a handful of intellectuals who produced, during this forgotten Golden Age, a body of work without which modern science would be inconceivable. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote a medical textbook that was authoritative in Europe until the eighteenth century, and pioneered the radical idea of geological processes unfolding over vast stretches of time. Al-Biruni designed precursors of the clock and astrolabe and estimated the Earth’s radius to within ten miles, a feat not surpassed in the West for over five hundred years. In the astonishing correspondence that survives between these two polymaths, they spar over everything from cultural relativism to the scientific method, from the evolution of life to the speed of light.

Then the window closed. The Turks replaced the Persians, a series of internal power struggles ensued, a new brand of illiberal Islam took hold, and Genghis Khan provided the coup de grâce to an already enervated culture. Enraged by the treatment of three peaceful Mongol envoys (one was beheaded and the others shaved), Genghis unleashed an apocalyptic campaign of vengeance that left Central Asia in a smoldering ruin. In his approach to Bukhara in 1220, his army somehow snuck undetected through the desert and confronted the city with a terrifying array of catapults and Chinese mortars. Once inside, they torched everything in sight and massacred 30,000 of Bukhara’s men, piling their skulls into pyramids outside the gates, while Genghis himself gathered the survivors into the Great Mosque to address them from the pulpit thusly: “I am the Flail of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

By 1334, when the great traveler Ibn Battuta visited what remained of the town, Bukhara was already regarded as ancient history:  “This city was formerly the capital of the lands beyond the Oxus [i.e. the Amu Darya]…all but a few of its mosques, academies, and bazaars are now lying in ruins. Its inhabitants are humiliated and looked down upon…because of their reputation for fanaticism, falsehood, and denial of the truth. There is not one of its inhabitants today who possess any theological or scientific learning or makes any attempt to acquire it.” 

The city rebounded in the sixteenth century under the Shaybanid dynasty, a line of ethnic Uzbeks who pieced together elements of Turkic, Mongol, and Persian culture and government, and its skyline sprouted afresh with elegant minarets and turquoise domes. But by the time the first Westerners began to return — Wolff’s time — the prevailing image of the Emirate of Bukhara was one of shocking degradation. Reports surfaced of prisoners being stitched into sacks and hurled from the top of the great minaret; of public beheadings where the heads were dropped onto sizzling plates for the audience to watch them contort; of black pits full of biting vermin, where enemies of the state were dropped and left for the flesh to be slowly eaten from their bones. The city ran on slave labor, enlisting Turkmen raiders to whisk Persian children from their villages or Russian fishermen from their boats, and drive them by the hundreds in chains across the desert. Its citizens were oppressed by a violent fundamentalism, while its rulers lived a life of hypocritical indulgence. The few nineteenth-century Europeans who penetrated the Emirate fumbled for strong enough words to express their outrage, resorting to phrases like “shameless sink of iniquity” and “bottomless pool of vice.” 

All of these imputations found a convenient focal point in the person of Nasrullah Khan, the infamous Emir of Bukhara. Claiming power in 1827 after murdering as many as five of his brothers, he renounced his father’s relatively benign style of pious detachment and imposed in its place a regime of paranoid brutality. Armed with a “mixture of cunning and stupidity, of pride, vainglory, and profligacy, of blind fanaticism, and loathsome vices” — claimed one observer — Nasrullah “afforded the world an example of how many atrocities a prince of Mohammedan Asia can commit, and what amount of tyranny a people enslaved by religious bigotry can endure.” The Emir reigned for some thirty-three years — an eon by the standards of Central Asia — and was bloodthirsty to the last, rousing himself from his deathbed to witness the execution of his own wife (whose brother had launched a rebellion). “This poor woman, the mother of two children, trembled, but that did not move the dying tyrant: he had her beheaded before his eyes, and gazing on the blood of the sister of his principal enemy, he breathed out his detestable soul.”

If the high dudgeon of the Victorians seems in these cases even higher than usual, it is perhaps because the character of Bukhara was by this point no longer an academic subject. After centuries of neglect, the attention of empires was once again turning to the enigmatic keystone at the heart of Asia. As Bukhara and its neighbors went — said the breathless British press — so would turn that epochal cold war known as the Great Game. 

The Great Game: such was the quintessentially Victorian label pinned to the century-long clash of wills, unfolding upon the inflamed British and Russian imaginations as much as on any physical battlefield, during which those two empires (alongside that of Genghis) became two of the three largest ever known. The seeds of the Game had been planted near the turn of the century, when Napoleon had floated a half-baked scheme to team up with the Tsar and invade British India. Though it never got off the ground, the “Russian Threat” had been firmly embedded in the London consciousness, and the ascension in St. Petersburg of the narrow-minded, belligerent Nicholas I had dredged it up with a vengeance. The new Tsar wasted little time in snatching land from Persia and the Ottomans, stoking fears that he would next advance through Central Asia to menace the British imperial doorstep. 

Strategists in London and Calcutta, as well as in St. Petersburg, began talking up the importance of maintaining a buffer zone, an uncolonized swath of desert and mountains that would keep the two global powers at arm’s length from each other. The sincerity of this stance of restraint remains a matter of debate; certainly it provided a convenient rhetorical cover for the colonialist urge. But in any case, the trouble was that this swath was of course already inhabited, by people who were both entirely mysterious to the two powers and (as it turned out) entirely eager to play them off of one another. The job of engaging with them — with such alien-seeming entities as the Khanate of Kokand and the Great Horde of the Kazakhs — fell to one of the most colorful casts of spies, diplomats, and amateur adventurers ever assembled. The circumstances were tailor-fit to the Victorian fantasy of the gallivanting hero, of manly exploits in exotic lands. 

It was a compelling ideal, and it compelled even such an unlikely hero as Joseph Wolff. But Wolff’s trip was not a mission of outreach; it was a mission of rescue. The Game had taken a dreadful turn.

Pivotal to the whole sticky question of Central Asia was the matter of the slaves. Persia had always been the main contributor to the notorious slave markets of Bukhara and the neighboring Khanate of Khiva, with tens of thousands of Persians allegedly in bondage in each kingdom. But lately their ranks had been supplemented with some hundreds of Russians, seized from farms at the edges of the steppes, or from fishing-boats on the Caspian. St. Petersburg trumpeted its outrage, and wasted little time in taking action: all Khivan merchants in Russian territory were taken into custody in 1836, and held there until the Khan agreed to release all Russian captives. Yet when the promised delivery arrived from the desert, it contained only twenty-five old men. The Tsar was apoplectic. 

Behind the rage, however, there was a recognition of a strategic opening. The bad behavior in Central Asia offered the pretext that St. Petersburg had long sought for an imperialist invasion. Britain caught on quickly, and the specter of an armed Russian expedition to Bukhara and Khiva — potentially extending the Tsar’s frontier by a thousand miles in one fell swoop — sparked a consuming fear. So as Russia laid the groundwork for that expedition, London set about attempting to thwart it. It settled upon a way of doing so that was exquisitely Victorian. A British officer of unimpeachable character would be dispatched, alone, to each kingdom. Wielding the moral authority that was his birthright, he would persuade the potentate to free the slaves. Russia would have no choice but to express its gratitude and withdraw the invasion; and thus the bomb would be defused. What ensued was a fascinating, and fateful, experiment in the power of personality. 

Tapped for the mission to Khiva was one Colonel James Abbott, who’d risen to prominence amidst Britain’s disastrous meddlings in Afghanistan. The starry-eyed Abbott fit the profile of the Victorian hero: “Made of stuff of the true knight errant, gentle as a girl in thought, word and deed…at the same time a brave, scientific and energetic soldier, with a peculiar power for attracting others, especially Asiatics to his person.” Unfortunately, his diplomatic skill seems to have been on par with his ear for poetry. (Of the valleys of Pakistan he would later write: “The wind hissed as if welcoming us / The pine swayed creating a lot of fuss…I bid you farewell with a heavy heart / Never from my mind will your memories thwart.”) Abbott spent two months in Khiva and never quite convinced the Khan that he was not a Russian spy, let alone convincing him to free the slaves. Leaving empty-handed, he was kidnapped by Kazakh brigands, had two of his fingers sliced off, and finally staggered in from the wilderness and set about writing a terrible ode to the Queen. 

The Tsar had not been idle. Impatient to put the unruly Uzbeks in their place, by 1839 he could stand it no longer and ordered an armed expedition. This required ignoring a precedent that could hardly have been more ominous. A century earlier, fired up by reports of gold in the sand of the Amu Darya, Peter the Great had dispatched seven thousand men under Prince Bekovich across the steppes. The Khivans had lulled the Russians with the pretense of surrender, tricked them into dividing the army into five pieces, massacred them in their camps, and boastfully forwarded the prince’s severed head upriver to Bukhara. 

The new expedition numbered five thousand soldiers and ten thousand camels. It set out from the frontier post of Orenburg in late November, at the onset of what would prove to be the harshest winter in recent memory. By the eighteenth of December the thermometer had hit thirty-five below. The camel drivers mutinied. Six hundred men came down with scurvy. A fleet of relief ships sent across the Caspian got stuck in the pack ice and were set on fire by Khivan scouts. After the loss of a fifth of his men and many thousands of his animals, General Perovsky finally ordered a retreat, having made it roughly halfway to Khiva.  

Meanwhile, as it anxiously awaited word from Colonel Abbott, London had decided to send in backup. Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear, supposedly a distant cousin of the Bard, did not suffer from Abbott’s romanticism. On accepting his mission and gamely suiting up in Afghan dress (featuring a pair of “preposterously wide” red pants which he dubbed his “petticoat”), he journalled with typical blitheness: “This is certainly a delightful part of the world to one fond of excitement…In short, the chances of distinction are so great, and the hazard so slight, that the heart of even a wren would be gladdened by the prospect.” 

Perhaps crucially, Shakespear seems also not to have suffered from qualms about overstepping his authority. Having quickly won over the Khan with his forthright charm, he planted the notion (on dubious grounds) that the British could be counted on for help against the Tsar, while pitching the release of the slaves as a shrewd diplomatic investment. It worked, and Shakespear startled even himself by taking charge of a caravan of four hundred and eighteen newly liberated Russians. Even that number proved not quite final. Tipped off that a nine-year-old girl was still being held captive at the Khan’s court, he gallantly rode back to Khiva alone and insisted on the release of “little Shureefa,” noting that “I have seldom seen a more beautiful child.” His exploits earned him a knighthood in London and improbable adulation in St. Petersburg. Tsar Nicholas, his scheme thwarted, was left to stew in silence.

The mission to Bukhara, to say the least, had not gone as well. A Colonel Charles Stoddart had been chosen for the task, and had departed Herat, Afghanistan, in 1838. Nothing more was heard from him for three years.

As British imaginations ran wild, troubling rumors arose about Stoddart’s fitness for the job. The Colonel was “a mere soldier,” as a former friend and benefactor in London wrote: “a man of the greatest bravery and determination, with a delicate sense of a soldier’s honour; but he was a man of impulse, with no more power of self-control than an infant. To attack or defend a fortress, no better man…could have been found; but for a diplomatic mission, requiring coolness and self-command, a man less adapted to the purpose could not readily have been met with.” Bukhara was no place for the impulsive, to put it mildly. Had Stoddart done something to offend the Emir, and if so, what price had he paid?

Reinforcements were clearly needed, as had been the case in Khiva. The man who volunteered, Captain Arthur Conolly, was such a walking embodiment of the Great Game that he was widely held to have coined that very phrase. In a letter to a friend who was just accepting a post in Afghanistan, his ideals are on full display:

You’ve a great game, a noble game, before you…If the British Government would only play the grand game — help Russia cordially to all that she has a right to expect — shake hands with Persia — get her all possible amends from Oosbegs — force the Bokhara Amir to be just to us, the Afghans, and other Oosbeg states, and his own kingdom — but why go on; you know my, at any rate in one sense, enlarged views. Inshallah! The expediency, nay the necessity of them will be seen, and we shall play the noble part that the first Christian nation of the world ought to fill.

Captain Conolly, who often traveled incognito under the alias “Khan Ali,” united inimitably under one hat the three imperial personae of the diplomat, the missionary, and the adventurer. “Glowing with the most intense longings after the civilisation and evangelisation of the human race,” as a contemporary recalled, he viewed his Empire as “designed by Providence to break down the huge walls of Mahomedanism which begirt the shining East, and to substitute civilisation, liberty, and peace, for barbarism, slavery, and strife.” He had already published a popular, rollicking account of a trip made through the Karakum at the tender age of twenty-two, which featured a thrilling escape from Turkmen kidnappers. 

As he penned the words above, Conolly was himself en route to the Khanate of Kokand, yet another Uzbek state to the northeast of Bukhara. A year later he would find himself diverted to the latter kingdom, hoping to confirm his countryman’s survival, and prepared to stage a rescue if necessary.

He arrived in November of 1841. Colonel Stoddart, to his great relief, was indeed alive and safe — for the moment. The harrowing account he gave Conolly of his ordeal over the past three years made it clear that, in a place such as this, momentary safety was not to be taken for granted. 

Just as his friends had feared, Stoddart had announced his presence in Bukhara with a series of calamitous faux pas. The first one, to be fair, had not been his own fault. He’d brought with him, by way of introduction, letters to the Bukharan Vizier from the British ambassador to Persia; unfortunately they were addressed to the former Vizier, who’d fallen into disgrace after refusing to lend his wife to the Emir’s harem, and who would shortly have his head removed. When his replacement thus gave Stoddart a chilly reception, the latter’s indignation was irrevocably piqued. Told to dismount from his horse for his initial approach to the palace — a formality demanded of virtually everyone — Stoddart haughtily demurred. Grasped from behind for his formal presentation to the Emir, he responded by shaking off the attendants and drawing his weapon. To this Nasrullah only arched his eyebrows. But when a messenger was sent, a few days later, to fetch Stoddart for a round of questioning by the mullahs, and the Colonel suggested that they “eat dung” — this was the last straw. The Emir had a special place for such people.

The Siah Cha, or “Black Hole,” was the pièce de résistance on the Bukharan menu of torture. A pitch-dark well twenty feet deep into which prisoners were lowered by rope, it was kept stocked with creatures designed to maximize torment: rats, snakes, sheep ticks, and assassin bugs, to name a few. To add further ignominy, the pit was placed so as to collect runoff from the royal stables above. Along with two thieves and a murderer — a veritable crowd in the Hole — Stoddart was thrown into this house of horrors for two full months. 

Covered with sores, cadaverous, and severely traumatized, the Colonel was at last hauled out, only to spend the next three years at the mercy of Nasrullah’s seemingly demented whims. One day, impressed with the Englishman’s fortitude, the Emir would reward him by dressing him in royal furs and entrusting him with a private apartment; the next, his suspicions rekindled by some rumor or another, he would cast Stoddart back into the dungeon. The Colonel was coerced into converting to Islam, and then embarrassed Nasrullah by publicly recanting; he nearly succumbed to typhus, but was nursed to health by the Emir’s sympathetic physician. During one particularly agreeable mood, Nasrullah offered to send Stoddart to Russia as part of a diplomatic party; his British sense of duty unimpaired, the latter declined in the absence of instructions from his government. By the time Conolly arrived at last, Stoddart was a shell of himself, and yet still he kept up a frail hope.  

Conolly’s presence sparked, at the Emir’s court, a renewed flurry of debate over whether the Englishmen were in fact spies and how they could best be leveraged against the enemies of Bukhara. Nasrullah himself informed Conolly that he was well aware of the treacherous aims of the British, warned that his kingdom would not prove so easy to conquer as Afghanistan, and threatened him with prison. (In response, and with characteristic righteousness, Conolly deemed it “an offence to imagine for a moment that a government, powerful as the British, could descend to such duplicity.”)

This already precarious situation was thrown further into disarray by the long-awaited arrival of official letters from the Empire, addressed to Colonel Stoddart. In a fit of paranoia the Amir seized them immediately, had the messenger chained to the palace wall, and when in his terror the man failed to recite the Muslim declaration of faith, had his head cut off. Among the messages was one of special interest to all parties, a reply to a letter of the previous year from Nasrullah to Queen Victoria, asking whether he could count on friendly relations with Britain upon the release of Stoddart. The contents were encouraging. Unfortunately, and perhaps decisively for Stoddart and Conolly, the message was not from the Queen. The signature was that of Lord Palmerston the Foreign Secretary, merely one of Victoria’s “viziers”: a routine delegation from the British point of view, a stinging slight from the Emir’s. To make matters worse, a report just then reached Bukhara of the violent Afghan uprising against the British at Kabul, casting the whole imperial situation into dangerous uncertainty. Irritated and unsettled, Nasrullah did what came most naturally: he threw the Englishmen back into prison. They were neither seen nor heard from again. 

So this was the cauldron into which the Reverend Joseph Wolff was throwing himself, some two and a half years later. 

Even before reaching the Amu Darya, Wolff had been confronted with reports that his countrymen had met their bloody ends. Yet there were conflicting rumors, too. As far back as Trebizond, he had heard secondhand that two Europeans were surely alive and even serving in the Amir’s artillery. Though it put wind in Wolff’s sails, that one turned out to be a red herring: sources later told him that one of the gentlemen in question was a light-skinned Persian, and the other was an Italian who’d been captured on a Russian estate. (The latter, a man named Orlandi, had desperately tried to curry favor with Nasrullah by building clocks and other gadgets for the known technophile. It was a losing game. When the Amir bumped his new telescope off the top of a minaret and called Orlandi to fix it, the Italian had been out drinking and arrived in poor shape. He was given one chance to save his skin by embracing Islam, a chance that he defiantly refused, and was beheaded in 1851.)

An eternal optimist, Wolff was still scanning the crowd for Stoddart and Conolly as he approached the gates of the city. Whether the two were dead or alive, beyond his own unassailable confidence, he had little reason for presuming that the Amir would treat him well. He took rueful solace in the fact that Bukhara had lately abandoned strangulation, as the official means of execution, in favor of the sword: “That was one comfort, for I have a strong antipathy to hanging.”

The gathered masses numbered in the thousands by the time Wolff approached the Ark, Bukhara’s fabled citadel. Rising from an imposing hill, the crenellated walls of the fortress soared to nearly seventy feet. The Ark had stood long enough for its origins to be shrouded in myth: as the story went, the hero Siavash, in star-crossed love with a Turanian princess, was promised her hand if he could build a palace on the area defined by a bull skin. He outwitted the king by cutting the hide into thin strips and outlining a ten-acre expanse. The structure was modified periodically in its early days, but when a wise man advised building it on the plan of the constellation Hapto-iringa, the Great Bear, it had proved impregnable ever after. The gates which now greeted Wolff seemed as old as time, with one notable anachronism: an oversized clock, the work of the doomed tinkerer Orlandi, and an uncanny token of the vagaries of the Amir. 

Wolff had his faith to guide him, but he had also done his homework. Marking well the reports of Nasrullah’s weakness for flattery, the Reverend had collected propitiatory letters from important personages at every step of his journey through the Muslim world. One such document, from the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, began: 

O Asylum of Excellence, O Loom of Knowledge, the Master of the art of appreciating the worth of men of science, the Possessor of deliberateness, whose customs are those of sincerity: may he endure in honour! With the offering of the select of sweet-smelling prayers, and of running fountains of odoriferous blessings of good odour, the friendly representation is this: that of the officers of the kingdom of England, a Colonel named Stoddart, another officer, and two or three Englishmen under safe-conduct, who had gone to Bokhara on business some time back, had been arrested and imprisoned by the glorious Government of Bokhara; and on account of the request which was formerly made on the part of the said kingdom, an august epistle, containing (a request for) the exertion of endeavour to liberate the said persons, was issued and despatched on the part which unites honour and glory, of the asylum of the Caliphate, his Majesty, my magnified Lord, the Royal, Dread, Puissant, and Great Emperor of the posterity of Osmaun (may God eternize him, and fortify him with His assistance unto the end of time!) my Master, to his Majesty, the fortunate, brave, and glorious Khaun, (may God grant him long life, with glory and renown!)…

Wolff studied these effusions carefully, practicing the craft of ingratiation that he knew could save his life. As always, his innate curiosity about exotic customs, and the cheery gusto with which he internalized them, were among his greatest assets. 

Thus when he reached the gates and was asked to dismount, he readily obliged. When he was advised that the Foreign Minister would be taking him by the shoulders for his formal presentation — the intrusion that had so riled Colonel Stoddart — he submitted with pleasure. And when he was asked if he would bow three times, stroking his beard and repeating the salutation known as the Salaam, Wolff declared that he’d do so “thirty times, if necessary.”

Just inside the citadel was a dark corridor lined with prison cells. Could Stoddart and Conolly be languishing in one of them? Wolff hardly had time to wonder before he was thrust into the light of the great ceremonial courtyard. On a balcony at its far end, surrounded by his court, sat that “savage tiger,” that “miserable tyrant,” that “black vulture” who had inspired such loathing throughout the British Empire, the Emir Nasrullah Khan.

Wolff felt his shoulders being gripped and pressed forward. On all sides stood turbaned men with beards black and white, robed in silk chapans with their riot of colors and their fabulous gold embroidery. He bowed three times, repeating the Salaam: “Allahu akbar, salaamat padishah” (“God is the greatest, peace to the King”). And then, to the wonder of the audience, he simply kept bowing. “Salaamat padishah. Salaamat padishah.” An awkward silence fell over the crowd, as the stranger in its midst went on bobbing up and down like a cork. At last the Amir could resist no longer: he burst into laughter, and his court followed suit. “Enough, enough, enough,” said Nasrullah, and summoned forward the mad Derveesh of Englistaun. 

In the face of the tyrant, Wolff was not especially impressed. Nasrullah was about five foot six, he reckoned, stout in form and rather plain in dress. His small black eyes darted constantly, his face twitched, and his smile was forced. He spoke quickly but his voice carried little power. Here was a man capable of evil, but merely a man nonetheless.

The ice had been broken. But it was not long before Wolff’s fears were confirmed. He got the full story two days later, in a lush garden a mile beyond the city walls, courtesy of a figure who would loom extremely large over the remainder of his sojourn in Bukhara. 

Abdul Samut Khan, a Persian of about sixty, had lived enough lives to rival Wolff himself. In his native Tabriz he had briefly studied European military science under a French mercenary, picking up just enough scraps to make himself useful at each later stop of his career. Sentenced for some unknown transgression to have his ears cut off, he fled Persia for India, where he supposedly served a stint in the British cavalry. When he was later accused of murdering his employer and sentenced to hanging, he managed to slip off to Kabul, where he ingratiated himself with the son of the Afghan Emir. Yet the two ultimately fell into a dispute that ended with the Prince being shot with a pistol; and, bound once more for the gallows, Khan devised yet another escape and turned up in Bukhara around 1835. There he had reinvented himself as Nasrullah’s naib (lieutenant) and chief of artillery, navigating the intrigues of the Emirate with exceptional agility. He had amassed a fortune to go along with his burgeoning mystique, which he took particular pleasure in cultivating. Most of Bukhara believed him to be European.

The Naib summoned Wolff on a Sunday morning. The messenger came to fetch him without warning and without explanation, causing the Reverend’s servants to tremble with fear; it was in just this fashion, from just this house, that Stoddart and Conolly had been summoned for the final time. Yet when he arrived at Khan’s sumptuous estate, he was met with a greeting that seemed, if anything, excessively friendly. The Naib embraced and kissed the Englishman “for about ten minutes,” before presenting him with a hearty breakfast of roast lamb. Over coffee, he filled Wolff in at last on the final chapters of his countrymen’s tale.

The Naib’s version took some liberties, to which Wolff was alert: he omitted any of the details of the officers’ imprisonment and torture, while playing up the suspicious conflicts between Stoddart’s diplomatic maneuvers and Conolly’s. According to him, Stoddart had sent letters to London and had promised a reply within four months, even insisting that post-houses be established in the Karakum to ensure its passage. When fourteen months then came and went in silence, the Emir’s patience was all but drained. And when Conolly arrived, already under suspicion of stirring up the neighboring khanates against Bukhara, his claims — especially regarding the Crown’s willingness to involve itself in Central Asian affairs — didn’t jibe with Stoddart’s. One or both of the men was a liar, decided Nasrullah, and in June of 1842 he had them both bound and brought to the Ark. There they kissed each other for the final time. Stoddart dictated a message to the Amir declaring that he remained a Christian to the last. Conolly averred that he would see his friend in Paradise. And with that, their heads were struck off.

Wolff expressed his sorrow, and sternly voiced his disappointment in the officers’ unjust treatment. The Naib promptly dismissed his servants, and with the two men left alone, the conversation took a startling turn. Tears came to the Persian’s eyes, to Wolff’s amazement, as he confided that Stoddart and Conolly had been innocent; that he, the Naib, had personally offered “one hundred thousand tillahs” for their release; that the Emir had planned to kill them from the beginning, and that for years now he had been scheming to do away with the Naib himself. At the end of all this he declared that, given the promise of British support, he would not hesitate to turn against his ruler and “blow him up.” And as a final proof of his intentions, he produced letters with what seemed to be the signatures of Stoddart and Conolly, expressing their gratitude for the Naib’s kindnesses.

By now the sun was setting, and Khan summoned a little ensemble of Hindu musicians, who improbably regaled the English visitor with “God Save the Queen.” As darkness fell and the party sat down to supper in the garden, the Naib’s line of questioning took on a tone that was more pragmatic and more aggressive. How much might Wolff pay to ransom the Russian slaves of Bukhara? Might Wolff be willing to take a sum of the Naib’s money to invest in the Bank of England? Why had Wolff brought such a cheap gift for the Emir — surely such a mighty nation as Britain could afford much more? And lastly — just out of curiosity — how much would the Derveesh spend to gain his own freedom, if he were to be imprisoned like his predecessors? 

Wolff’s heart began to sink, as all of the day’s doubts and discomforts seemed to crystallize around that last question. It was foolish to count on any ally here. To the Naib he was merely a pawn in an inscrutable game, a game in which he wanted no part. When he finally took his leave of the Persian, close to midnight, it was with a sense of gathering doom and a resolution: “I saw clearly that there was nothing else to be done but to contrive to get away from Bokhara as soon as possible.”

Yet to do so safely was not a trivial matter. Wolff privately assessed his options as the days went by. For the moment he was in the good graces of the Emir — if also under his careful supervision — and that meant there was time and liberty to explore the city. 

In the great sandy plaza known as the Registan, in the chaotic bazaars, in the endless, labyrinthine, narrow streets where one was constantly squeezed aside by a donkey or a pushcart, the population of Bukhara — numbering nearly two hundred thousand, according to Wolff’s sources — was everywhere inescapable. “From morn to night,” mentioned another nineteenth-century visitor, “the crowd which assembles raises a humming noise, and one is stunned at the moving mass of human beings.” Nearly half of the city, of course, was functionally invisible: the Muslim women glided by like ghosts in their shapeless blue paranjas, veils of black horsehair shielding their faces. If one of them happened to belong to Nasrullah’s harem — an ever-expanding distinction — merely a glance in her direction warranted a knock on the head from the Emir’s ubiquitous police. Alongside them, in contrast, moved Bukharans who demanded attention: proud Uzbek courtiers in their bright silks and high heels, each trailed by his Persian slave; Tajik merchants hawking their grapes, their melons, their plums, their European baubles and Philippine spices; lanky delivery boys laden with shelves full of milk bowls, the floating cream always miraculously contained, jostling each other on the way to market; small bunches of dark-skinned Hindus with their diagnostic square caps, meant to guard the Muslims against the disgrace of saluting the idolator; curly-haired Jewish women dying fabrics, their movements circumscribed by the Emir’s elaborate code of oppression. 

Wolff visited bookstalls overflowing with works in Turkic and Persian. He sampled the countless variations on Bukharan tea, and also the rahut i jan, “delight of life,” the iced grape jelly that was heaped into surreal purple mounds under the summer sun. He stopped in at a few of the city’s one hundred madrasahs, or Islamic colleges, and its three hundred and sixty mosques. He visited a Jewish doctor and was apprised of the terrifying disease known as the rishta, prevalent in Bukhara, and marked by the crippling emergence of a giant worm from the victim’s knee. And when the sun set, like everyone else in the city — thanks to His Majesty’s strict curfew — Wolff retired, and a profound, uncanny silence settled over the streets. 

The Emir’s curiosity turned out to be insatiable. Each day he would send a messenger with a new series of questions for the Derveesh, addressing points of Christian theology, or of British parliamentary procedure; each day Wolff would patiently send back the answers. A few examples suggest that the Reverend was not above playing games of his own:

Q. Are you able to awake the dead?

A. If God gives me that power, I am able to do so; but hitherto He has never granted me that power from above. 

Q. What meaning have these colours [those of his robe and hood] with you?

A. The black colour indicates that I mourn over my dead friends; and the red colour indicates that I am ready to give my blood for my faith. 

Q. Does the Queen have the power to kill anyone she pleases?

A. No, but she can pardon whom she pleases; and persons who have even attempted the life of the Queen have not suffered, but been pardoned. 

One day there arrived a more complicated request. Wolff was politely instructed to compose an account of the life of the prophet Muhammad, based on what was believed of him by the British. Sensing the delicacy of this task, the Reverend first wrote to Nasrullah for assurance that this would not somehow lead to efforts toward his own conversion. With that promise in hand, he dove into his new project with some relish. The result was a tour de force of tact. It began:

May God preserve Nasir Ullah Behadur, Ameer of the Mussulmans, and Shaheen-Shah of Bokhara, the most learned of the Ulema of the Bokhara Shereef!

Your majesty’s wisdom, anxious to know the customs and manners and religious sentiments of other nations, imitating in this respect your great ancestor Timur Kurikanee, has graciously ordered me to write down the history of Muhammed as related by Christian historians; a task most difficult for me to perform, since, 1st. I am not so well versed in the Persian language as to write in an elegant style, as such a subject deserves: 2d. I wish to perform the task in such a manner that it may be consistent with truth, and at the same time not to wound the feelings of any one…

Wolff’s Life of Muhammad was a smash hit. The Emir immediately sent for his mullahs to pore over the document, and their verdict, as expressed by the Sheikh Islam or Mufti himself, was insightful: “This life must be kept among the library in the great mosque; and it is remarkable with what prudence Joseph Wolff has contrived to state his sentiments without giving offence.” Eager to show off his extraordinary guest, Nasrullah proudly had copies made and shipped off as far afield as Kashmir and Balkh. With unexpected fondness he took to calling Wolff the “Star with a Tail,” in reference to his newfound celebrity and his eccentric costume. He was even overheard second-guessing his execution of the Englishmen. 

But all of this was merely window dressing on a situation that remained extremely dangerous. As the days turned into weeks, the Emir would periodically grant Wolff permission to leave, and commence the preparations, only to mysteriously cancel at the last minute. All the while the Reverend’s awareness deepened that he was, in his own words, “surrounded by a mass of treachery nearly unparalleled.” Troubling intelligence continued to reach him in one way or another, such as the fact that the Khan of Herat, who had pledged to write Wolff a recommendation, had instead advised Nasrullah to behead him on the spot. The Naib, whom Wolff had taken to calling a “rascal” and a “bloodhound,” was perhaps the most treacherous of all. At one point he demanded money from Wolff in return for clothes that had supposedly belonged to Stoddart and Conolly. Eavesdropping on this, a passing soldier later confided that the items had in fact been taken from the palace at Kokand, and warned Wolff  that the Naib was truly the one to fear: “he killed them, and he will kill you.”

The uneasy rapport between Wolff and the Emir continued, with the latter proclaiming the former “the most singular being he had ever seen,” and the former begrudgingly conceding that the latter was “wholly uneducated, but not without talent.” Yet the blanket of paranoia that rested continually over the Emirate was becoming suffocating. Nasrullah demanded to read every letter going into or out of the city, no matter how trivial, and recruited an army of “newsboys” to eavesdrop through windows and report anything unflattering to His Majesty. Wolff’s own servants, he learned, had orders to listen to the Reverend while he slept and record any irregular mutterings. For his part, the Naib boasted of having a surveillance force of his own, by which his sovereign never uttered a word that went unnoticed. The suspicions that surrounded him began to corrode Wolff’s own outlook, as his dread grew towards the man he now regarded as his true captor:

The countenance of that villain, Abdul Samut Khan, fell daily more and more, exhibiting ever fresh features of villany [sic]; the mark of Cain grew darker and darker in his vile physiognomy, and so far from imagining evil where no evil was, which has been imputed to me, the quantity of evil he not only meditated but actually committed, exceeds the bounds of ordinary imagination.

In June, having passed a full month in Bukhara, Wolff found himself under what amounted to house arrest. The Emir had left town with a war party to march on neighboring Kokand, and could not afford to leave his valuable Englishman under anything but the strictest supervision. He had mentioned ominously, before leaving, that the expedition’s success might determine what was to be done about Wolff. Out on the streets, now simmering under the relentless Central Asian sun, the opinion was seemingly held by all that the Derveesh was bound for the executioner’s blade. He packaged up his Bible and mailed it to the British ambassador at Tehran, hiding in its pages a poignant message for his wife and son:

Whatever may happen to me, dearest wife and son, remember that you yourselves have nothing to reproach yourselves, for it was my own choice to make the journey, in order to liberate the prisoners, and remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is now with me…Tell my dear Henry that he should pardon me if ever I have hurt his feelings, and so I beg you to pardon me. I have never ceased to love you tenderly, both of you, and thank God that we are believers in Christ Jesus.

At the same time, Wolff began taking outrageous risks. He feared a massacre at Kokand, and not without reason, as the Emir had attacked that city just two years prior and on that occasion had killed its Khan, his wife, and his unborn child and devoted “a whole day” to wholesale slaughter. So Wolff somehow managed to send a Jewish messenger to the khanate in advance of the Emir’s arrival, with the result that Nasrullah encountered not a sleeping city but a well-prepared army of eleven thousand. Slinking back to Bukhara, the Emir was heard muttering that “Since I have killed these English people, I do not prosper in any thing.” 

Covertly pushing the levers of international affairs was diverting enough, but it only staved off for so long the ennui of captivity. Wolff whiled away the time in a variety of ways. To the gaggle of guards and attendants that constantly surrounded him, he told stories of old Europe, carefully refashioned for Muslim ears: that of the “Padishah of the Francees” Napoleon, for example, and his rival Wellington the “Serteeb of the English.” For the Jews that occasionally visited he sang “in a plaintive strain” some old hymns, and astonished them with tales of the Rothschilds and other illustrious Jews of the West — conducting all of these conversations in Hebrew, under the noses of the guards, while pretending to read from the Torah. From everyone willing to talk, he studiously gleaned evidence of the attitudes of ordinary Central Asians toward the British, with an eye toward gauging the prospects of some future colonization.  

On the return of Nasrullah, the intrigues begin to pile onto themselves, and Wolff’s narrative grows increasingly tangled and disoriented. A kindly ambassador from Persia arrives, pledging to the Reverend that he won’t leave Bukhara without him; the Naib alleges that the envoy in fact carries letters from his Shah recommending Wolff’s execution. Warning of Nasrullah’s inconstancy, the Naib swears by the Quran that if it comes to it, he will either escort Wolff out of the city or persuade the Emir to spare him. Just then Wolff makes a new acquaintance, a traveler from Istanbul; jealous of the attentions given him by the Emir, the Naib has the man strangled and reports it as a suicide. One of the Naib’s servants, an Indian named Behadur, promises behind his master’s back to help Wolff escape; that night, the Reverend finds an extra guard posted at his door. 

The following morning, at the Naib’s house, a messenger ran in with an urgent summons from the Emir. Seized by dread, Wolff called to the Naib, whose “black” complexion seemingly told him everything he needed to know. 

“Do you know the king’s order?” cried Wolff.

“Yes, and you must obey,” said the Naib darkly.

At which the Reverend exploded: “I now see that the people are right, who say that you are the cause that Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly have been killed; you are a liar, a traitor and a rascal! You intend to kill me too!”

“Yes, I have killed them. Stoddart quarrelled with me any my brother.”

“Liar! Why did you always tell me that Stoddart and Conolly have always been your friends?”

“I know how to treat you Franks,” replied the Naib, “as you ought to be treated.”

At this the messenger took a step towards Wolff, and the latter on impulse dashed out into the garden, leaping over a low wall. The servant Behadur caught up with him and ushered him to a nearby house where the two could take refuge. That evening the news reached the Reverend that the Amir had sounded the alarm over his presumed escape, sending soldiers along every road out of Bukhara. He hunkered down to wait for an opening.

But Wolff’s daring getaway proved to be pathetically futile. No sooner was he alone in his “secret” new room than a fetching Muslim woman came in unveiled, “and in the most coquettish manner.” The Reverend sensed a trap and shouted “Go to hell!” — rather out of character, but betraying his desperation. The next morning he found the Amir’s officers once again on his doorstep. They brought him to the palace by way of the Naib, who said mildly that he had arranged for Wolff to depart Bukhara in twenty days. Nasrullah simply scowled at the Englishman and sent him off to his original quarters. It was as though nothing had happened. 

The bewildering disconnect seemed even more sinister, somehow, than the open threats of the previous day. Wolff’s anxiety was not relieved by the doublespeak of the message that came from the Amir that evening:

“There were people at Bokhara from Khokand and Organtsh, whose inhabitants were guilty of blood: and, beside them, people from Cabul, Cashmere, and Hindustaun. None of them had been molested by him. All of them enjoyed his protection. He (his majesty) therefore felt greatly incensed that I had openly declared at Bokhara that his majesty’s intention was to put me to death; that his majesty had been red in his face from anger. He therefore now asked me whether I would leave Bokhara without honour and in disgrace, or with honour and filled with favour.”

Swallowing his pride, the Reverend replied with his humblest apologies, and his submission to His Majesty’s will. 

Each day now seemed to bring both a ray of hope and a nail in Wolff’s coffin: an exhausting ordeal that left him wishing “that the King of Bokhara would not delay my execution, in order to have peace for ever.” From Tehran came a letter by the hand of the Shah, evidently at the frantic encouragements of the British embassy, threatening Nasrullah with repercussions if Wolff were to end up dead. The letter enraged the Naib, who’d been belatedly warned (according to Wolff’s intelligence) not to let it arrive into the hands of the Persian ambassador — “for if it reach him you will not succeed in keeping the Frankee, and on his arrival in England he will confound us all.” Through all of this that ambassador had proven himself to be Wolff’s greatest ally, sending his physician over when the Reverend came down with the rishta, and boxing up food to supplement his rations. 

But neither Britain nor Persia would not get the final say, as Wolff knew; and he soon managed to intercept a note from the Naib, confirming that His Majesty had “at last decided to put to death the Englishman.” On Wolff’s next visit to the Ark, Nasrullah avoided eye contact and passed in silence. The word on the street, as his servants dutifully reported, was that the Derveesh’s time was up.  

In this time of darkness, Wolff’s dramatic instincts flourished. He dashed off another message to Georgiana, asking her to “pray for me, that I may remain faithful to [Christ] in the hour of trial.” In another letter addressed “To All the Monarchs of Europe” he issued a heroic plea:

“I do not supplicate for my own safety; but, Monarchs, two hundred thousand Persian slaves, many of them people of high talent, sigh in the kingdom of Bokhara. Endeavour to effect their liberation, and I shall rejoice in the grave that my blood has been thus the cause of the ransom of so many human beings.”

On the following day a mullah appeared, somberly presenting what Wolff well knew to be a final formality. Would the Reverend, he asked, consider converting to Islam? Abandoning all etiquette, Wolff replied with “NEVER–NEVER–NEVER!” — and when encouraged to compose a more polite answer for His Majesty, retorted “Decidedly not.” 

Some hours passed; and when the next knock came on his door, Wolff hardly needed to look. The figure that entered was that of the royal executioner. “Joseph Wolff,” intoned the man with a motion to his throat, “to thee it shall happen as it did to Stoddart and Conolly.” Wolff prayed; he read his Bible; he prepared a vial of opium, to dull the pain, and then nobly cast it away; he scribbled a last farewell to his beloved wife and son. 

And when his salvation came at last, at this eleventh hour, the casual paragraph in which Wolff records it seems somehow to epitomize the mystifying vagaries of Bukhara. “But that very same day,” the Reverend observes, another letter arrived from the Shah of Persia. Wary of interference, the ambassador insisted on hand-delivering it to His Majesty. And whatever its contents, they left the Emir with only one response: “Well, I make a present to you of Joseph Wolff: he may go with you.”

It was now the beginning of August. Wolff’s tumultuous, seemingly endless ordeal in Bukhara had lasted just over three months. After his weeks of vacillation, Nasrullah now wasted little time in preparing his guest’s departure. To prove his good will, he gifted Wolff with a new horse complete with silver saddle, and even allowed him to enter the citadel on its back. The Emir’s final words to the Englishman were offered as a summary of his process of justice: “Stoddart and Conolly excited Khokand and Organtsh [Khiva] to war, and therefore were put to death. You, Joseph Wolff, proved yourself to be a man of understanding and knowledge, and therefore I treated you with honour.” With the Persian ambassador at his side, twenty-four ransomed slaves trailing behind, and an elated crowd lining his path, the Derveesh of Englistaun at last departed the “atrocious city” of Bukhara, as he would remember it for the rest of his days. “What joy your wife will have!” exclaimed a veiled woman as he passed, casting decorum to the winds.

His troubles were, of course, not quite over. Wolff’s final meeting with his nemesis the Naib had not been as pleasant. The latter had taken a final stab at extorting a few thousand tillahs from the Englishman, to which Wolff had responded by sarcastically writing a “promissory note” declaring the Naib to be “infamous” and signed “Joseph Wolff, PRISONER.” Now, as the Reverend and his party made their way back into the lawless desert — their ranks now swelled by a motley assortment of liberated slaves, “ambassadors…merchants…derveeshes and fakeers,” plus some two thousand camels — rumors began to circulate that the Naib had planted assassins in their midst. 

Wolff brought this to the attention of his friend the ambassador, who promptly gathered everyone round and gave a speech on behalf of the Englishman: “He who is a good Mussulman will join me to protect him from the hand of every rascal.” (“We will burn the father of the first rascal that touches him!” was the collective reply.) The rascals did not give up easily, at one point inciting a Turkmen mob to attack Wolff for money; thinking fast, the Reverend started to sing and dance like a madman, and the startled crowd backed away from the “possessed derveesh.” 

Meanwhile, second-guessing himself, the Emir sent horsemen in pursuit of the party to demand compensation for each freed slave. No sooner had they been dealt with than the party were summarily declared prisoners at Merv, and payment was demanded of the slaves themselves. All the while Wolff suffered miserably in the saddle, nursing injuries from a prior fall, and the specter of a Khivan attack — upon which, the “rascals” assured him, the Reverend would be murdered without a second thought — hung over the whole journey.

But he made it — to Mashhad, where he thanked the Lord for arriving on Persian soil, and promptly vomited from sheer exhaustion; to Tehran, where the Shah himself suggested, “Now you have had enough of Bokhara,”and Tabriz, where a prince gave him an emerald ring; limping into Turkey, through snowstorms and squalor that left Wolff “in such a state of debility and nervousness, and so eaten up by vermin all over the body, that I was not able to walk”; and at long last, on April the twenty-third, 1845, by way of Istanbul, Malta, Gibraltar and Southampton, into the comfortable arms of Trinity Church on Gray’s Inn Lane, London, where he “embraced the first opportunity that presented itself of returning thanks to Almighty God.”

Joseph Wolff lived out his remaining seventeen years at a peaceful vicarage in a village in Somerset. His memoirs went through seven editions. In those pages, alongside the sensational accounts of his adventures, he did not hesitate to add his political speculations. In his final judgment of Nasrullah, rendered with an eye toward future British engagement, he pronounced the Emir “tyrannical and cruel,” while insisting that “we must not forget some good points…He is not fond of money, and hates bribery in the extreme…His desire for information is unbounded…He expressed no contempt for England, and was exceedingly anxious to become reconciled to it.” Wolff gave him credit for his remorse over Stoddart and Conolly, noting that His Majesty had once lamented: “The wounds of my heart for having slain those English people will never heal.” 

Of the wounds of his heart, there would be no further word. But the wounds of Nasrullah’s nation, having risen from the ashes so many times already, were deepening again. The recent upsets suffered by the empires were only temporary, and it would only be a matter of time before their vise grip closed on Central Asia. By 1880 the British would establish partial jurisdiction over Afghanistan, extending their influence to the edge of the Karakum, and solidifying a colonial legacy that still violently resonates today. Meanwhile the Tsar had discovered breech-loading rifles and steppe irrigation, and in 1868 the Emirate of Bukhara would fall at last “under the shadow of the wings of the Russian eagle.” It hobbled on for a few decades as a protectorate — long enough for the last Emir, the great-grandson of Nasrullah Khan, to display his regalia in a full-color photograph — before succumbing to the Red Army in 1920, and being reorganized as the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Over the ensuing years, mosques were shuttered, women were forcibly unveiled, the Turkic languages were marginalized, and the Amu Darya — that “majestic River,” according to Matthew Arnold, that “moved, Rejoicing, through the hushed Chorasmian waste” — was exhausted to support the Soviet dream of industrial cotton.

What would Joseph Wolff have made of all this? To travel with the Reverend is to be swept along by his moral authority as well as by his derring-do — no matter how much the latter strains credulity at times, and how much the former might bolster the dark logic of imperialism. Wolff’s instinctive love for individuality and variety never quite reconciles itself with his crusading evangelism, and his insistence on both leads him at times into delusion. In his Narrative he goes so far as to outline a strategy for an invasion of Bukhara, containing a prodigious number of shaky assumptions. His plan, which hinges on the British embracing their role as liberator of slaves and scourge of tyrants, promises to end with a peace in which “the name of Englishmen would be blessed even by the Usbecks themselves” and “the light of the Gospel would become diffused all over.” The alternative, “to not take any notice of the atrocious murder” of Stoddart and Conolly, would be to “lose all the moral influence” that the Crown now held in the region. 

On the first evening out of Bukhara, relaxing in a village garden, Wolff’s party had been visited by a stranger. The man, an Afghan, was presented to them as a descendant of the Prophet. He had a message for the Englishman. 

“Ay, you Kafir! Have you succeeded in cheating the Ameer, so that he let you go? If he had only given you into my hands, I would soon have made away with you by my javelin.”

Here the Persian ambassador stepped between the two, admonishing the Afghan: “Go, and leave the Frankee alone; he is a derveesh.”

“A derveesh!” said the man scornfully. “I know these Frankee derveeshes. I know these English derveeshes. They go into a country, spy out mountains and valleys, seas and rivers; find out a convenient adit, and then go home, inform a gentleman there — a chief, who has the name of Company, who sends soldiers, and then takes a country. Tell him what I say.”

Wolff set this down without comment.

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