“The Registan in Samarkand  was originally, and is still even in its ruin, the noblest public square in the world. I know of nothing in the East approaching it in massive simplicity and grandeur, and nothing in Europe … which can even aspire to enter the competition. No European spectacle indeed can adequately be compared to it, in our inability to point to an open space in any western city that is commanded on three of its four sides by Gothic cathedrals of the finest order.”George Curzon, Russia in Central Asia, 1899

“At the edge of the Reqistan square in Samarkand rose three monuments, three gigantic complexes of towers,domes, gateways, and high walls completely covered with minute mosaics, arabesques studded with gold, amethyst, and turquoise, and intricate calligraphy. It all retained its majesty, but the towers were leaning, the domes had gaping holes, the facades were crumbling, ravaged by time, wind and centuries of neglect; people no longer looked at these monuments, these haughty, proud, and forgotten giants which provided an imposing backdrop for a derisory play.” Amin Maalouf, Samarkand

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 show. Like the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, repeated visits are necessary to grasp the depth of detail as changing light explores multiple shades of mosaic radiance.

Ulug Bek Madrassah in SamarkandHere lay the crossroads of Tamerlane’s (Amir Tmur) capital, where six 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, a hospice for dervishes. To the north arose the Mirza Caravanserai and to the south the huge Alike Kukeldash Mosque, alongside the elegant Carved Mosque and a bathhouse bright with mosaic. 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 Madrassah as he repelled Uzbek hordes early in the 16th century.

Just a century later only the madrassah remained in good repair. Uzbek governor Yalangtush Bakhadur made a bid for immortality by dismantling the khanagha and caravanserai in favour of two new madrassah of complementary size and ornamentation, thus completing today’s layout. Eighteenth 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 three were used as grain warehouses until a slow religious recovery in the 19th century.  The Bolsheviks revived the square’s political potential with pa