The Registan ensemble at the heart of Samarkand, restored to its original splendour, ranks first in Central Asia and among the greatest of all the grandiose and magnificent works of the Islamic world.
Its meaning, sandy place, after a stream that washed sand over the earth, does little justice to the architectural and decorative wealth on the show. Like many other places in Samarkand, repeated visits are necessary to grasp the depth of detail as changing light explores multiple mosaic radiance.
In 1646 - 1660 a big medrese was build on the north side of the Registan. This medrese was also the friday mosque of Samarkand. It was used for this purpose until the end of the 19th century. Beside the living quarters of the students there is also the hall of the mosque. This hall has been redecorated and now shows its ancient splendor again. As the name of the Medrese "the Golden One" says, the hall is decorated with gold everywhere. This decoration really takes your breath away and gives an impression of the importance of this mosque. The cupola of the mosques has only been build in the last century and is wonderfully decorated with blue tiles.
The Registan Square is the landmark of Samarkand and famous in the whole world. Registan means "Sandy Square". Timur build this square in 15th century as a center of trade and workshops. A covered bazar was the frist building, then mosques, medresses and karawanserays followed.
In old travel journals the Registan is described as a place full of oriental life with workshops, market stalls, storytellers and jugglers. The Registan was also an administrative center, where new laws were published, parades were held and executions took place.
With the building of three beautiful medresses the square grew in importance and became famous for its architecture, the wisdom of the teachers and the spectacular beauty of Islamic art.
The Registan Square is surrounded by
- Medrese Ulughbek (the oldest one)
- Medrese Tella Kari (the golden one)
- Medrese Schir Dar (the one with the tigers)
and not far: The Bazaar Chorsu
Behind teh Medrese Schir Dor is the covered Chrosu Bazaar, which reminds of the beginnings of the Registan Square as a center of trade. The bazaar has been the home of the hat and cap traders. The building is from 18th century.
When you enter the Registan Square from the street, the Medrese Ulughbek is to the right. Opposite is the impressive fassade of Medrese Schir Dar with its tigers. It seems, that I forgot to take a pic of the fassade of Medrese Ulughbek as I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the Schir Dar. That is a pity, as Ulughbek Medrese is also very beautiful and impressive. The medrese is one of the oldest in whole Centralasia, build by the astronom and architect Ulughbek in 1420.
The ornaments are rich with many different stars, flowers and scripts. This excellent art seems to emphasize the importance of the Medrese Ulughbek as an university for science, art and technique. Specially during the 15th century it was one of the best universities in the whole Islamic world.
The group of statues in the entrance to Medrese Ulughbek show some famous scientists and artists of the 15th century with Ulughbek sitting in the middle.
Like the Registan, there is too much here to describe in one tip. I’ll start with my overall impressions, and a bit of history.
If, as I’ve said elsewhere on these pages, Bukhara was my favourite of the Silk Road cities, this was by far the most impressive and awe-inspiring individual sight. When our travelling companion Els exclaimed, “It’s too much for my eyes,” I knew just what she meant! Passing through the grand entrance of Ulug Beg’s pishtak, which on its own would be an impressive sight, you are greeted with a long line of mausoleums, many decorated in splendid tile-work, mainly of blues but with touches of other colours too. As you climb up through the complex more appear, until you truly don’t know where to look next, and indeed almost want the splendour to stop for a while so that you can take in all that you’ve already seen.
This is the holiest site in Samarkand. Legend tells how the prophet Elijah led Kussam-ibn-Abbas, first cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to the Afrosiab hill north east of Samarkand's current location. Kussam came to bring Islam to this Zoroastrian area, and was attacked and beheaded for his trouble. It was believed that despite this he continued to live, and indeed is alive still in an underground palace on this site, which now bears his name; “Shah-i-Zinda means “the Living King”. Many people believed that the closer you were buried to a holy man, the easier your own route to Heaven would be; thus between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries some 30 tombs were built to form this necropolis centred upon Kussam's mausoleum. The earlier ones clustered around the top of the hill and later they were extended down the southern slope, forming the “street” of mausoleums we see today. Tamerlaine buried many of his female family members here, and Ulug Beg built the grand pishtak as an entrance from the city to this holy place. In Soviet times, and even today, this belief about being buried close to holy men has persisted, so that the hill is now crowned by a cemetery.
Some evenings there is a son et lumiere show at the Registan, usually arranged especially for tour groups. This isn’t of great quality from what I can gather, even if you normally enjoy such things – the sound is poor and the commentary in any case fairly dull. We didn’t bother even trying to get to a show but it is worth heading over to the Registan on a “show” night just to see the magnificent buildings illuminated like this. Guards will ensure you don’t get too close if you’re not a paid-up member of the audience, but no matter – you will be able to see a fair bit from further back, and the edge of the fountains (if turned off) makes a good rest for the camera if you don’t have a tripod.
Ten years after the Shir Dor Madrassah was completed the third side of the Registan was filled in by the addition of the Tillya Kari Madrassah. This building is of a similar height but noticeably wider than its neighbours to either side; it was obviously thought more important to give the square harmony and balance than to follow normal practice. Thus the pishtak is flanked by two-storied rows of hujira facing out onto the square in addition to the single story that line the interior courtyard. Above the western side of this courtyard a stunningly turquoise dome announces the presence beneath it of the city’s main mosque (replacing the already ruined Bibi Khanum).
This mosque has been restored and is full of the most ornate decoration, covered in the gold leaf that gives the madrassah its name (Tillya Kari = gilded). The ceiling is particularly striking (photo 2) it is almost flat but the trompe l’oeil effect will have you believing that you’re looking up into a great dome. The mihrab (photo 3) is similarly gilded. A small museum set up in a side room of the mosque shows pieces of ceramic and terracotta from the restoration work and some fascinating “before and after” photos.
Two hundred years after the construction of the Ulug Beg Madrassah the then ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, decided to complete the ensemble with two further buildings. The first of these to be completed was the Shir Dor Madrassah, which sits directly opposite the Ulug Beg Madrassah and is almost a mirror image in terms of size and basic shape, though very different in its decoration. Interestingly, it obeys some of the rules of Islamic design, while flouting others. So despite being identical in size and shape to its older “reflection”, it follows Koranic law in avoiding symmetry. However, like the Nadir Divanbegi Madrassah in Bukhara, this one deviates from normal Islamic practice in having representations of living creatures as part of its decoration. The two golden lions that give the madrassah its name (Shir Dor means “lion bearing” chase two white does across the arch. Striped (and thus looking more like tigers), they each bear a sun on their backs, showing the influence of Zoroastrianism. For me this will be one of the abiding images of Uzbekistan.
The inscription on this portal reads: ”The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.”
Passing through it you find yourself in another hujira-lined courtyard, though less thoroughly restored than that in the Ulug Beg madrassah. One of these cells houses a shop selling traditional Uzbek musical instruments (see photo 3) and the shop-keeper will give you a demonstration of their different sounds – see my Local Customs tip for more about these instruments. Another shows a typical Uzbek room with traditional costumes, supposedly in the style a newly-wed couple might adopt (see photo 4).
This is the oldest of the three madrassahs that line the sides of the Registan Square. Built between 1417 and 1420, it has an ornate pishtak (portal) 35 metres high, which is decorated in rich blues and other colours (there is more variety to the colours here in Samarkand than in the other cities on the Silk Road).
Above the main arch is a cluster of stars, reflecting its founder’s passion for astronomy. A Kulfic inscription reads: “This magnificent façade is of such a height it is twice the heavens and of such a weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble.”
Either side of this portal are minarets (the one on the right is that climbed by Chris – see earlier tip) of roughly the same height and framing it perfectly. The portal leads to a square courtyard lined with 50 hujira, the former students’ cells, which were, like the portal and minarets, largely restored in the mid 1990s and are decorated with the same rich colours – blue, green, gold (see photo 2). They are now, inevitably, devoted to craft and souvenir shops with products of varied quality - see my shopping tip for more detail on these. One (on the northern side) also sells cold drinks which are very welcome!
When you’ve finished exploring the courtyard, head for its NW corner where an entrance passage leads to a small mosque, now used as an art gallery. We enjoyed this – some of the items (both paintings and ceramics) were of a high quality and there was plenty of variety in the styles from traditional to very modern. A room opening off this one is known as Ulug Beg’s classroom (see photo 3). This apparently is where he would teach astronomy to the students of the madrassah, seated (unusually for that place and time) on a throne-like chair rather than the floor. The room is cordoned off, so you can peer inside but not enter (apparently – on a later visit we did see a small group in there but were prevented from entering ourselves – I suspect that money had changed hands!)
The Registan is Samarkand’s (indeed, probably Uzbekistan’s) most famous sight, and with good reason. There is so much to see here that I need to break it down into several tips.
First, some history:
The Registan was the heart of ancient Samarkand. The name Registan means "sandy place" in Persian and it was said that the sand was strewn on the ground to soak up the blood from the public executions that were held here until early in the 20th century. This is where Tamerlane stuck his victims’ heads on spikes, and where people gathered to hear royal proclamations. In his time this was the commercial centre of his capital city, where six roads met under a domed bazaar; it must have been similar to the Trading Domes of Bukhara. But his grandson Ulug Beg had grand plans for this space, and nowadays three madrasahs surround the large open space he created: the Ulug Beg Madrasah (1417-1420) which he had built, plus the later Shir Dor (1619-1636) and the Tillya Kari (1646-1660) Madrasahs. These stunning buildings are all constructed on a grand scale, dwarfing the people at their bases.
I’ve written separate tips describing each of them in more detail, but first, some practical information …
The official entrance points to the square are in the SE and SW corners, i.e. on the Registan Street side. Entry costs 6000 som (plus a further 1000 som for photos), and once you have a ticket you can use it to return again. It may also be possible to get in without paying from the north east corner, between the Tillya Kori and Shir Dor Madrassahs, but prices here are so low it seems a bit unreasonable to try to beat the system.
One “illegality” you might like to take advantage of though is the opportunity to climb one of the minarets. We were approached on our second visit (when we came alone rather than as part of the group) and offered just this chance by one of the security guards. I reluctantly decided that it would be more than I wanted to attempt in that heat but Chris went ahead, paid the guard 3,000 som (with the transaction conducted in secret inside the building) and made the climb. He told me it was dark and steep in places, but well worth the effort to get some great shots – see photo for an example.
Let your brain relax and make a detour to Samarqand's colorful Grand Bazaar. This bazaar stands here since Amir Timur period, in VIIIth-XIIIth was the trade and crafts center of southern suburb of Samarkand. And up to present thime this place, between Registan and Afrosiyab, where during centuries located craft workshops and commercial rows, wharehouses and caravanserais remains as the brisk center of trade of ancient city. You'll find here everything, nice colors, nice people.
In the middle of XVIIth century when Bibi Khonim Mosque was vastly destroyed, a new grand mosque was necessary for Samarqand. The governor of the city decided to build such mosque in Registan where it would carry out also a role of madrasa. Construction of this madrasah lasted almost twenty years and was finally finised in 1660.
Tila Qori menans "covered with gold". You will understand the reason of this name as soon as you come inside ;-)
The dome of the mosque was not completed at that time and has been erected in XXth century during restoration works. Yes, the dome that you can see now is completely new :-))
This was the main lecture room in Sher-Dor Madrasah, used for special occasions with teachers coming from other universities of the world. The decoration was very rich and impressive. During Soviet times it was used as a podwer magazine. There was an accident and the explosion and fire damaged very bad this room. Unesco decided not to restore it in order to show the original decoration.
Nowadays it's like a showroom where you can buy the finest carpets of the World. It is not a very appreciated place. If tourists are not interested in carpets they don't come inside but take only 5 minutes, it's worth to see it!. Maybe it's the only original and untouched place in all Registan