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A gilded mosque
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.
- Historical Travel
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.
- Historical Travel
Inside the medressas
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!!
Shir Dor Medressa
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.
- Historical Travel
The oldest medressa
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).
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 .
Gold, gold and more 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.
The Capmakers' bazaar
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.
The Registan Square
The Registan was the heart of the ancient Samarkand. The word itself means "a sandy place".
Registan is surrounded from three sides with majestic buildings: Madrassa Ulugbek (1417-1420), Sher Dor (1619-1636), Tilla Kari (1647-1660).
The Ulugbek Madrassa is the highest religious institution, a kind of university of Middle Ages.
The most considerable of all madrassas of the 17th c. is Sher Dor which means "Building with lions". Ten years later the Madrassa Tilla Kari was constructed closing Registan from the north. The name Tillya Kari means "trimmed with gold".
Fabulous piece of architecture!!!
- Historical Travel
The Registan – history
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 …
- Historical Travel
Registan – marvellous and once quite cruel
Samarkand’s Registan with its 3 medressahs must be one of the most impressive sights in Central Asia, no matter where you have travelled to before. Well, for me, Uzbekistan was my very first country to visit in Central Asia, so maybe I cannot really judge. But to stand there, tiny compared to these huge buildings in their perfect symmetry, all these colours around me – this was just breathtaking ! As I stayed close to it, I passed it several times during my stay in Samarkand, and it never lost its impact on me. But my very first view was the best – I came here just after arrival, in late afternoon, when the sun was already quite low – so all tilework was gleaming in the sun – just magical !
Under Timur’s regime, a big tim (= domed bazaar) was erected here and it was a busy centre for atisans, traders and the caravans. Timur’s grandson Ulug’bek, not the super warrior as his anchestor, was an excellent astronomer and mathematician. So it was quite logical that his medressa was more a scientific university than a theological institute. Later in 17th century, the other two medressas Sher Dor and Tilla-Kari have been added to complete the Kosh principle – two buildings facing each other.
Registan is “opened” daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., if you want to visit the medressas. First I didn’t understand how they operate, as on my first visit, it was around 5 p.m. and I just walked over the low hanging ropes; I thought they are decorations. That evening I only wandered around but didn’t actually go into a building.
Later I found out that the ticket counter is at the left side, at Ulug’bek Medressa. Admission is for the whole square and the buildings.
However, if you want to visit one of the folklore dances, held in the evenings in Sher Dor Medressa, you won’t have to pay the fee for Registan itself (of course for the show!).
6000 som, additional 1000 som for taking pictures.
Uzbek name: Registon
Russian name: Регистан
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Tilla-Kari and Sher-Dor –the other medressas
Ulug’bek’s Medressa was the only (big) building on Registan for a long time. Nearly 200 years later (1619-36), Amir Yalangtush erected Sher-Dor Medressa opposite of Ulug’bek Medressa – according to the Kosh principle. The dimensions are very much similar to Ulug’bek’s, however a mosque is not included (as the western side = qibla direction is already occupied by the medressa’s entrance). The slim, tall minarets with muqanas at the top do mirror the ones of Ulug’bek’s. Another untypical feature can be seen in the pishtaq’s décor: tigers (or lions) hunting deer and a rising sun with human face behind them. Inside, the medressa hosts a restaurant with folklore dancing in the evening. It must be a nice event; I didn’t watch it though, only had a peek inside at late afternoon.
Tilla-Kari Medressa, the northern building, completes Registan ensemble. She was completed just after Sher-Dor in 1660. Her name translates into “gold covered”, something I should have remembered when I was there…. as I did give a visit inside a miss. Now, seeing all the pictures of the marvellous décor inside, I deeply regret it. But there is always a next time.
If you want to have a look at the interior – please check the website I have posted below. It is a 360° panorama (who has read my Khiva page, will already know these panoramas). Quick Player required.
Back to Registan and an overview of all 3 medressas: one thing, you’ll certainly notice is the different form of the cupolas, compared to the ones in Bukhara and Khiva: they are ripped rather than smooth, and over and over decorated with kufi writings. This is specific for Timur period building style as well, same as the over and over decorated outer walls of the buildings. I’ll try to explain the differences in buliding style over the years one day, when I will have my Uzbekistan country page finished.
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- Historical Travel
The Registan – Shir Dor Madrassah
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).
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- Arts and Culture
The Registan – Ulug Beg Madrassah
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!)
- Historical Travel
Amir Timur watches over his folk
Now we leave the area of Samarkand’s ancient history (northeastern part) and walk a bit around in the more western section.
At the western end of Registan street, at a huge traffic circle we’ll see the statue of Amur Timur – the leader watching over his folk. The statue is huge and seems to guarantee a job forever, given that it is always clean (from bird ***), anytime I passed it, someone was busy polishing it. It must be fairly new (didn’t find a date however), so surely Kharimov had it erected, following his newly established cult about Timur, which also might explain the very mild and gracious features of his face. Timur and his heirs did not reign long in the area (1366 – 1506), but their impact on culture and architecture and sadly, on the defeated regions, cities and people is not negligible. It is said that he had ravaging Delhi and other cities and regions and that he had the habit of piling up the heads of the rebels. This has to be considered as well, when looking at his efforts and impact on art, culture and architecture, where he wanted to make Samarkand the mirror and centre of the world or threshhold to paradise.
A vertical line leads from Timur’s statue to Navoi Opera, which is no longer in use today. Maybe this, as it was erected by the Soviets once, and I believe to have seen a tendency to let deteriorate Soviet buildings at least in Samarkand and Bukhara (not in Tashkent, though). It is a nice stroll through the little park between the statue and the opera, with shady areas and benches.
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