I wasn’t sure if this is “tourist trap”, but no, it is something you shouldn’t miss: climbing on top of Ulug’bek’s minaret in late afternoon for a marvellous view of Registan and the city.
I did it on my last afternoon here and was hestitating if I should do it or not. Now consider that I was travelling already several days around in the ancient cities, still had a quite severe “Montezuma” and was used to increasing entrance fees for the monuments (somehow prices increase from Khiva to Bukhara to Samarkand). Entrance fee for Registan itself was 6000 som (+ 1000 som for taking pics), and I was a bit tired of paying all the time. Also, my eyes were somehow overfed with mosques, medressas and the colours. Yes, indeed, I was in such a stupid mood, but do blame it on the heat and my nice travel companion “Montezuma”. So I have decided to skip an extensive visit to Registan’s medressas (something I very deeply regret now).
So, I first declined when a policeman approached me to climb on the minaret for 5000 som. But then we bargained and ended up with 2500 som, which got me going. Well, the money is definitely wandering into the policeman’s pocket, but on the other hand….. today I see this different, as a contribution to police economy :-).
The way up is a bit tricky. There is no real path, I climbed up through debris in the northwestern domed room – towards the entrance to the minaret. The stairs inside the minaret are very steep (as most of the stairs I climbed anywhere on my trip) and I made some joke that the people either must have been giants or that this must have been the very first workout program in world history – sore muscles next morning are guaranteed (mainly if you are as short as I am). Inside the minaret and on top, there is only room for one person, so make sure, you’ll attract attention by calling in case someone is already at the top. Well, he/she wouldn’t hear you anyhow, as it is windy on top and the hole in the minaret’s tin cover is small.
But the view is amazing – unforgettable !!!
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.
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.
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.
Other than Khiva (puppet museum) and Bukhara (small town with “silk road atmosphere”) Samarkand is big and was more “Uzbek” than “Silk Road” for me. But then again – who am I to judge ?
The sights in Samarkand are more widespread than in Bukhara and Khiva, but they were most impressive for me in terms of size, architecture and decoration.
So in brief: for me, Bukhara as a town has more harmony between architecture and inhabitants, and in Samarkand the sights were overwhelming “individuals” without much connection to the inhabitants. And yes indeed, now as I have started to write about the Silk Road cities in Uzbekistan, I realize that people lived their daily lives in Bukhara’s old holy buildings, whereas… now where again is Samarkand’s Friday mosque ? Not that this makes Samarkand less impressive or interesting !
So let’s start to discover Samarkand’s fascinating mixture of old and new – and where better start than at its ancient centre – the Registan (Registon in Uzbek).
Registan is nothing specific for Samarkand only; it is the name for “a place of sand / sandy place”, which was of importance for Central Asia cities – where executions have been done, where markets were held, where proclamations have been done. In cities like Bukhara and Khiva, which had Arks / fortresses, Registans have been at their main entrance. Samarkand never had such a fortress (I think), but it was here where the city’s heart beat.
In addition, Samarkand’s architecture is quite different from the other ancient cities’ ones. Samarkand was the centre of Timur’s huge empire and reflects his desire to show monumentality and power through the buildings, which have been erected during Timurid period.
Inscriptions in some monuments
“If you doubt in our power – look at our buildings”
does characterize his idea behind the monuments.
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.
It's free to get to the square but you have to pay to enter the medrassahs. Be sure to buy the ticket - the experience is well worth it - you'll see what a fine exquisitely built (and thouroughly redecorated) medrassah looks like from the inside.
In fact, these have been turned into souvenier shops and cafes, but still you can see what the 'cells' for theology students used to look like as nothing in the buildings has been altered. As regards souveniers, check out my 'traps' tip. Just remember - Registan is above all a beautiful architecture site, not a shopping place.
That's the place that many people come to Samarkand for - the famous square Registan, which is often claimed to be one of the largest in Central Asia and by far the most majestic with three medrassahs at three sides of it.
I've personally hadn't the opportunity but still would suggest looking at Registan both at daytime and at night when the square is all full of lights and looks really atmospheric.
The main ensemble of monuments in Samarqand. When you arrive here and you see all this grandeur and richness around you, you feel you're in the centre of the world.
Since XIVth century the Registan (that means sandy place) became the new central square of Samarqand. Six main streets of the city were connected here. In the time of Ulugbek a majestic madrasah was erected. In the XVIIth century the square acquired its present shape under Yalangtush-Bakhodir, governor of Samarqand, who erected two new madrasahs: the Sher-Dor and Tilla-Qori. Nowadays apart from being the main attraction in Samarqand it is used as a scenery of a big Traditional Music Festival
Price 5.000 sums (August 2007) additional ticket if you want to take pictures
ps. I bought and scanned this postcard because it's impossible to take a picture of the all ensemble...everything is too big here :-((
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 :-))
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
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.
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
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.