Like the much larger Sher Dor medressa at the Registan, and built at the same time, the portal of the Khodja Akrar ensemble features the most-unIslamic lion/tigers (maned and striped - you choose) and deer, but without the smiling sun-heads this time. Here a 17th century medressa has been built around the shrine of an earlier holy figure -the Dervish, Sheikh Khodja Akrar (1404- 1490), leader of the Nakhshbandi order of Sufis and an influential political figure in Transoxiana following Ulugh Bek’s death. Held by his followers as both ascetic and miracle-worker, he greatly influenced Timur's great-grandson Abu Said and his sons and even today, he is still revered.
Following his death, Akrar's sons built a funerary mosque in his honour. Between 1630 and 1635 the medressa was added - complete with a portal that featured those strangely heretical beasts.
The complex has been fully restored and, since Independence, it is once again a functioning medressa, and is usually closed to tourists. Even though access is not possible, those lions make it a worth seeking out - it is a bit out of the way and you might want to take a taxi .
The medressa named for Ulugh Beg was the first of the three magnificent buildings to be built on the Registan. It is reported that this was the finest seat of learning of its time, with the best teachers (including Ulugh Beg himself) and scholars in both religious and secular studies working here.
Built between 1417 and 1420, it features the most refined mosaic tilework of all the medressas here - elegant depictions of stars and geometric patterns are complimented by Kufic calligraphy and delicate floral motifs. I have to say, it's my favourite.
From its heyday as the foremost centre of study in all Central Asia, a long period of decline saw the students leave and the place become no more than a store for grain. Old photos show just how ruinous the building had become by the turn of the 20th century. Restoration began under the Soviets and now that they have left and Uzbekistan has reclaimed the Timurid era as the greatest period of their history, reinstating Temur as their all-conquering hero and Ulugh Beg as a symbol of their scientic and scholastic legacy to the world, the complete ensemble has become the showpiece of the country's architectural heritage. Not that all is as good as new though - there is still plenty of work to be done and already tiles are falling from facades that have been restored.
You will almost certainly be offered the opportunity to climb one of the minarets - for a small consideration for the guard. Doing so is not for the faint hearted, or anyone suffering from vertigo or claustrophobia - it is very narrow and dark up there, not particularly safe (there is no supervision or safety measures in place) and when you get to the top you simply pop your head out of the roof into an unprotected space. I gave it a miss but MrL was up the the challenge - his reward? the spectacular view across to the Sher Dor medressa opposite and all around (photo 5).
Samarkand's Registan served as the city's main market place for centuries. Indeed, Ulugh Beg tore down a covered cap-makers' bazaar opposite his medressa to construct a hostel for dervishes. This in turn was pulled down to make way for the Sher Dor medressa, an indication of the ever-evolving ebb and flow of building and rebuilding here in the heart of the city.
Now, behind the north-east corner of the square there is, once again, a capmakers bazaar, built in the 18th century from the materials of the, by then, ruinous Bibi Khanum mosque. Caps are no longer its sole trade item - the days of whole bazaars dedicated to one trade are long gone, but its domed shape is very reminiscent of the ubiquitous doppi - the skull cap worn by Uzbek men of all ages.
White patches on the bare brick of the building clearly demonstrates the salinity and water table problems that beset the caretakers of these magnificent buildings.
Imagine a huge square framed on three sides by buildings so elegant with their exquisitely tiled facades, fabulous domes and slender minarets that just one would be considered a triumph of the architect's and the ceramicist's art, let alone three. That they are in perfect harmony with each other and the space they enclose makes Samarkand's Registan a place you want to return to again and again whilst you are here in the very heart of Central Asia. To even attempt to take it all in at once is to overwhelm the eye with a plethora of colour and intricate design - and that's just looking at it all from the outside.
Step across the thresholds of any one of these wonderful buildings and you enter a dazzling square within the square, lined with two tiers of graceful pointed arches, all covered in yet more pattern - a riot of abstract and floral design banded with graceful (figuratively and literally) inscriptions in the archaic Kufic script.
These buildings were all madrassas once; now the student's cells have been converted into shops for tourists, and the courtyards that once sounded to the chants and prayers of religious scholars host fashion shows of clothing made from the gorgeous silks that are another expression of the Uzbek flair for colour and design. The enormous square itself, once the site for brutal public executions (and, more recently, staged public veil-burnings) and a bazaar thronged with people and every imaginable thing for sale in this once-great trading city, is now all but deserted apart from small groups of tourists and school children who make their way across its vastness.
Looking at these glorious buildings now, especially from a distance, it's hard to imagine the state of ruin they were in within living memory. Photos 2 and 3 give some idea.
Photo 4 gives an idea of the awesome scale of the ensemble.
You need to come here at all times of the day to see the effect of the changing light on the glazed facades and to just sit on one of the benches at the open end of the square, soaking up the calm tranquillity and marvelling at this truly awe-inspiring place.
The last of the three great medressa to be built on the Registan was the Tilly- Kari. The facade of the medressa is lined with two tiers of hujra -the cells where students lived whilst studying here. This medressa is the most lavish of all three - traces of the original gilding which gave the building its name -Tillya-Kari means "gold-covered' - remain on the upper levels but it is inside the congregational mosque along the western side that the decoration becomes truly extravagent. Topped by a plain turquoise-tiled dome, inside is a wealth of gold and deep blue .
Photo 2 is another in the excellent series of old photos showing the ravages of the years prior to restoration. In this one you can see the layout of the medressah, the mosque with the drum minus its dome but with the mini-domes of the roof clearly showing.
No expense was spared in the restoration of this building during the Soviet era, but already the effects of water-damage are being felt as the city's water-table rises due to the massive irrigation schemes in the region, and in an independent Uzbekistan there isn't the money spare to repair the damage that is being wrought.
All three of the medressas on Samarkand's Registan have lovely courtyards, planted with trees and grapevines. The scholars's cells are mostly used as shops and small galleries these days, selling a fairly uniform mix of the decorative embroideries, ceramics, carpets and such that are the mainstay of the trade in souvenirs for tourists. There are some real treasures to be found - I still hanker after a fabulous piece of Ikat woven silk I saw here in the Sher Dor , too expensive but so beautiful - but whether you spend a little or spend a lot you can be sure that what you buy will give you pleasure for years to come.
The larger lecture and prayer rooms are also being put to use, some as showrooms for local crafts, one in the Ulugh Begh medressah dedicated to his astronomical findings and a gallery of old photos, another as a silk carpet workshop. If dressing up is your thing, head for the Sher Dor, where you can take your pick from a whole range of old costumes. If you've ever facied yourself as a wandering dervish or a panjara-clad begum, now's your chance.
The Sher Dor is set up to host displays of folk dance and music in the courtyard during the tourist season, as well as shows of clothing made from the gorgeous silks - these take place in the evenings -as does a sound and light show in the square outside. By the time we were there, in mid-June on our first visit and October on our second, the tourist season was all but over and the shows had finished, so we were able to sit and enjoy the square in the fading light as we talked with the young men who were keen to practice their English on us for as long as we liked - or until the thumping rock emanating from the nearby function pavilion drove us away to find a quieter place. They like their music loud!!
Two hundred years after Ulugh Beg built his medressa on the east side of the Registan, another ruler decided to mirror it with his own building. Perfect symmetry is forbidden by the Koran however, and so the Shir Dor medressa, whilst exactly the same length as the Ulugh Beg with minarets at each end in the same way, is different in both layout and decoration. The cool, elegant geometry and restrained palette of the first medressa is replaced with much more free-flowing floral designs in blues and greens, yellows and whites.and there are two fabulous, ribbed domes.
It's still within living memory that the medressah was a ruin. Old photos show it on the verge of collapse though at least enough remains of one of the fabulous beasts depicted on the portal for the restorers to know just what they needed to do to bring them back to life. Not that the work of restoration is as simple as merely filling in the gaps. Apart from the difficulties of re-inventing lost techniques - modern glazes still are but a poor copy of the originals, lacking both the translucency and depth of colour of the old masters' work - the rising water table brought about by constant irrigation of the surrounding countryside used for cotton is affecting the masonry, causing tiles to fall and paint to flake almost as fast as the work is finished.
The work on this medressa is not considered as fine as the Ulugh Beg, but it is a lovely counterpoint to it for all that. Facing west as it does, in the early evening the tiles catch the light of the setting sun and the whole building looks as though it is made of gold.
Under Russian supervision, over 1000 square metres of gold leaf was used to restore the interior of the Tillya-Kari mosque on Samarkand's Registan. Exquisite as the work is on the walls and the honey-comb topped mihrab, it is the dome that is truly breath-taking - the more so when you realize the ceiling is not actually domed at all, it is actually quite flat and it is the skilful use of a diminishing pattern that creates the illusion.
Not that gold was the only precious material used in the original decoration - then the wonderful blue pigment was true ultramarine - ground by hand from lapiz lazuli - the most costly of pigments, every bit as expensive as gold. The sythetic ultramarine available today may almost replicate the colour but, having a smaller and uniform particle structure, there's no way it can reflect the light in the same way as the varying sized particles in a pigment ground from living rock. Given how dazzling the effect is today, imagine how breathtaking it must have been when it was first completed.
What we see now is all restoration - but over in a corner a square has been left to show the state the decoration was in before restoration started.
Outside the mosque, the tiled faces of the building are covered in floral and sun-like patterns in blue and yellow and there is a tranquil garden in the great centre courtyard.
This should be at the end of any trip to Uzbekistan. We hit it in the beginning, which meant that we didn't save the best for last. Now, again, this is a tourist trap, make no mistake, but it's still neat to see. Neat to see for 6000 Cym per person (August, 2008) plus 3000 Cym for a camera.
One of the guards, in his infinite grace and goodwill will probably offer you a "secret" tour to the top of one of the minarets. He'll ask for money. The Lonely Planet suggests an amount far below what we were offered... $10 US each. Ha! 2000 Cym is more like it. What's sad is that he tried to pass it off as something really secret, whispering and all. If you pay him what he asks, you'll just pave the way for jacked up prices for the next people. If you must see the view from the top, be reasonable and keep travel conservation in mind. I'd try for less than 2000 Cym, but you probably won't get in. Keep in mind you already had to pay an entrance fee.
This is the most famous sight in Samarkand and I was worried that it would be an anti-climax, particularly after Khiva and Bukhara but I need not have worried - it wasn't. It was the commercial centre of medieval Samarkand. When we arrived it was serving a more artistic purpose as the arena for researsals of a dance competition (see my third picture).
The buildings are (from left of main picture) Ulughbek Medressa, Tilla-Kari Medressa and Sher Dor Medressa.
The decoration on the building on the right (the Sher Dor Medressa) is supposed to be a lion chasing a gazelle, but it looked much more like a tiger and a dalmatian to me. Have a look at my second picture and make up your own mind.
The Registan is amazing. The Registan is the main attraction (of many) in Samarkand. Inside the buildings are various shops selling carpets, trinkets and other Uzbek crafts.
Come back at different times during the day to see the Registan in different lighting conditions. It even looks great at night when illuminated by lights.
To enclose the Registan square in a pleasing harmony, Bakhadur had his architects stretch the facades of the third madrassah to 75 meters, built between 1646 – 1660. Smaller corner turrets are preferred to minarets, but the mosaic feast is just as lavish – sprightly solar symbols and interlacing floral motifs in similar colours to the Shir Dor.
Where the other madrassah feature façade wings of shallow niches without openings, the Tillya Kari declares its religious purpose with two storeys of hujra, ventilated by panjara, i.e. the carved plaster windows.
The single floor of cells on the other axes emphasizes the great turquoise dome and portal on the west side. They announce the city’s congregational mosque, for Tamerlane’s Bibi Khanum was already in ruins and the governor had disappeared.
The magnificent interior of the madrassah is swathed in kundal style gold leaf – hence the tilte Tillya Kari, i.e. “The Gilded”, from Koranic inscriptions and stalactites above the marble mihrab, to carpet-like wall panels and trompe l’oeil ceiling of delicate leaves and flowers circling to infinity.
The domed prayer galleries to either side display exhibitions of terracotta and restoration work such as the dome – never previously completed – and mosque decoration, now failing prey to Samarkannd’s rising water table.
Like with the other madrassahs, many of the former student cells have become souvenir shops, whose owners may direct you to the rooftop access foe a hefty fee.
Soviet restorers placed beside the Tillya Kari’s south-eastern turret the 16th century a burial platform topped with carved marble tombstones. Nearby is the domed, 18th century skullcap bazzar Chorsu (i.e. “four waters”), constructed with materials from the rapidly disintegrating Bibi Khanum mosque, at the request of the emir of Bukhara.
“the skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets” - this is the inscription over the Shir Dor madrassah, the second to be built in the registan square, by the Uzbek governor Bakhadur between 1619 – 1636. His architects strove to match the first (Ulug Beg’s one) in scale and nobility, though Koranic prohibition against symmetry forbade an exact mirror image.
Façade length is identical, 51 m from minaret to minaret, and the tall, fluted domes flanking the portal suggest the Ulug Beg once bore the same over its front over its front. Structural differences include the lack of mosque, rear lecture halls and auxiliary entrances in the lateral facades. Every inch on the outside walls seems covered with richly coloured geometric, floral and epigraphic patterns.
While experts detect proportional and decorative decline since the timurid period, the stylized representation of animal life is a striking development. Above the portal arch, in hot pursuit of the 2 startlet white does, through spiralling shoots and flowers, run the lions that give the madrassah its name, Shir Dor – i.e. “lion bearing”. The striped beasts resemble tigers and from their backs rise beam fringed suns with human faces. Various theories explain this break with Islamic taboo on the figurative art. The powerful leon-tiger is perhaps Bakhadur himself, swallowing his neighbours as the sun radiates his glory, or rather the animal-sun shows the tenacity of the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbolism.
Legend claims the architect responsible died for his heresy, yet other 17th century madrassah are similarly adorned – see those built by Nadir Divanbegi in both Samarkand and Bukhara, the choice of colours, blue, white, yellow and green, also reflects the Bukharan influence.
While his grandfather is remembered for monumental mosques and mausoleums, Ulug Beg’s legacy is appropriately educational. The madrassah housed at least 100 students under the tutelage of the finest scholars of the age of both Islamic and secular sciences. Legend says the ruler himself lectured here on astronomy, his greatest passion, reflected in the panoply of the azure-blue stars on the 35m high pishtak (portal).
A Kufic inscription reads “this magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens and of such weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble”. Yet its size its more than balanced by the sheer elegance of its design and ceramic tile coating.
A yellow-brown background, the colour of the earth, highlights glazed green, turquoise, yellow and light and dark blue. Mosaic and majolica panels shine with floral motifs and Kufic calligraphy, but dominant are geometric girikh patterns stretching across the walls and up the minarets flanking the façade. The 33 m columns, still flouting the perpendicular, terminate in honeycomb decoration.
Ulug Beg’s 600th anniversary in 1994 accelerated the pace of restoration, so that the interior too resembles the building of Samarkand’s heyday - the large courtyard square assembles four vaulted arches which give into 50 students cells on two storeys. Under the corner domes lie spacious lecture halls, while the western axis conceals a five-bayed mosque.
Here lay the crossroads of Tamerlane’s capital, where 6 arteries met under a domed bazaar, yet his grandson Ulug Beg envisaged a more cultural and political role. From 1417 – 20 he built a beautiful madrassah (Islamic college) on the west side of the square. Opposite, he replaced the headgear bazaar of Tuman Aka, Tamerlane’s youngest wife, with a lofty-domed khanagha, i.e. “hospice for dervishes”. To the north arose the Mirza Caravanserai and to the south a huge mosque. The square itself was the scene of military parades and public executions. Tamerlane’s great-great-great-grandson Babur placed his command post on top of Ulug Beg’s madrassah as he repelled the Uzbek hordes early 16th century.
Just a century later only the madrassah remained in good repair. Uzbek governor Bakhadur made a bid for immortality by dismantling the hospice for dervishes and the caravanserai in favour of 2 new madrassah of complementary size and ornamentation, thus completing the today’s layout.
18th century troubles emptied the Registan, Ulug Beg’s madrassah lost its second storey and “owls instead of students housed in its cells, while the doors were hung with spiders’ webs instead of silk curtains”. All the 3 madrassah were used as warehouses until a slow religious recovery in the 19th century.
The Soviets revived the square’s political potential with party rallies, mass veil-burnings and trials of counter-revolutionaries. They also revived its appearance: straightening minarets, rebuilding domes, restoring tilework and removing the detritus of centuries – over 2 meters of earth – leaving Ulug Beg’s madrassah slightly overshadowed by its near replicas.