mir-i-arab-madrasahThe Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara has ranked as the most prestigious educational establishment in Bukhara for centuries. Today this tourist place stands at the forefront of Uzbekistan’s Islamic renaissance, a place where the past, the present and the future blur into one and where, as the Soviet century recedes to dim memory, the 16th century looms on the near horizon.

In 1535 the Shaybani Ubaydullah Khan sold his share of a consignment of 3,000 Persian slaves for a profit that apparently lay heavy on his soul, for almost immediately afterwards he commissioned a Mir-i-Arab Madrasah to face his newly-built Kalon Mosque. Responsibility for its construction fell to his close friend and spiritual adviser Sheikh Abdullah of Yemen, the Prince of the Arabs (Mir-i-Arab), at whose feet the khan was eventually buried in the northern domed darskhana of the madrassah in Bukhara. Even today the tombs are marked on the northern wall of the madrassah with a goat’s tail and white flag, the customary symbols of sainthood.

The life of a madrassah student has changed little over the years. Up to the end of the 19th century, students received a religious stipend from the state and could freely marry, as long as their wives did not cross the holy threshold of the college. Tuition was solely in Arabic, writing and mathematics were deeply frowned upon and any student caught in the heinous study of literature, history or poetry was expelled on the spot. As Bukharan isolation intensified, the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah slid into a bastion of religious obscurantism and dogmatic fanaticism.

At present approximately 125 resident students study a four-year course of Arabic, theology and the Koran at the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah and its spill-over classrooms in the Kalon Mosque, on the first step to becoming fully fledged imams. Thus the mir-i-Arab Madrassah in bukhara is formally closed to tourists, who can only squint through the entrance grill at the intense tilework of its inner court. The two storey façade alone is reward enough though, with its fortress-like buttresses (guldasta) and twin domes which rise from lecture room and mosque like jade balloons. At night warm pin pricks of light diffuse from the alabaster grills of student cells.

The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah was closed from 1925-1946, after which it was re-opened as part of Stalin’s post-war package of concessions to the region. These years were a time of startling juxtapositions and Gustav Krist recounts in his 1937 hook Atone Through the Forbidden Land how, as he was ushered into the hujra cell of the madrassah’s holiest imam, he found himself opposite a wall laden with sacred books titled in Kufic Arabic, above which hung a poster in Uzbek screaming “PROLETARIANS OF ALL LANDS UNITE!” in a distinctly unholy shade of red.

The southern steps of the Poi Kalon Ensemble relay the traveller back to the 20th century and the facade of the Emir Alim Khan Madrassah. The madrassah was built with a unique triple courtyard b