REGISTAN IN SAMARKAND
“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.
Here 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 party rallies, mass veil-Madrassah burnings and trials of counter-revolutionaries. They also revived its appearance: straightening minarets, rebuilding domes, restoring tilework and removing the detritus of centuries—over two metres of earth—leaving Ulug Beg’s madrassah slightly over-shadowed by its near replica, the later Shir Dor.
ULUGH BEG MADRASA
While his grandfather is remembered for monumental mosques and mausoleums, Ulug Beg’s legacy is appropriately educational. The madrassah in Samarkand housed at least 100 students under the tutelage of the finest scholars of the age both in Islamic and secular sciences. Legend claims the ruler himself lectured here on astronomy, his greatest passion, reflected in the panoply of azure-blue stars on the 35-metre pishtak (portal).
A Kufic inscription reads: “This magnificent facade is of such a height it is twice the heavens and of such weight that the spine of the earth is about to crumble”. Yet its size is more than balanced by the sheer elegance of its design and ceramic tile coating. A yellow-brown background, the colour of the earth, highlights glazed green, turquoise, yellow and light and dark blue. Mosaic and majolica panels shine with floral motifs and Kufic calligraphy, but dominant are geometric girikh patterns stretching across the walls and up the minarets flanking the facade. These 33-metre columns, still flouting the perpendicular, terminate in muqarna honeycomb decoration.
Ulug Beg’s 600th anniversary in 1994 accelerated the pace of restoration, so that the interior too resembles the building of Samarkand’s heyday. Through the pishtak entrance is a square courtyard, from which four large iwans (vaulted arches) give onto 50 hujra (student cells) on two storeys. Under the corner domes lie spacious darskhana (lecture halls), while the western axis conceals a five-bayed mosque.
“The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets.”
Such is the inscription extolling the Registan’s second madrassah, built by Governor Yalangtush between 1619 and 1636. His architects strove to match the first in scale and nobility, though Koranic prohibition against symmetry forbade an exact mirror-image. Facade length is identical, 51 metres from minaret to minaret, and the tall, fluted domes flanking the pishtak suggest the Ulug Beg once bore the same over its front darskhana. Structural differences include the lack of mosque, rear darskhana and auxiliary entrances in the lateral facades. Every inch seems covered with richly coloured geometric, floral and epigraphic patterns.
While experts detect proportional and decorative decline since the Timurid period, the stylized representation of animal life is a striking development. Above the pishtak arch, in hot pursuit of two startled white does, through spiraling shoots and flowers, run the lions that give the madrassah its name, Shir Dor—’lion-bearing’. The striped beasts resemble tigers and from their backs rise beam-fringed suns with human faces. Various theories explain this break with Islamic taboo on figurative art. The powerful lion-tiger is perhaps Yalangtush himself, swallowing his neighbours as the sun radiates his glory; or rather the animal-sun shows the tenacity of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbolism. Legend claims the architect responsible died for his heresy, yet other 17th century madrassah are similarly adorned—see those built by Nadir Divanbegi in Samarkand and Bukhara. The choice of colours, blue, white, yellow and green, also reflects Bukharan influence. A fee of around US$2 will get you access to one of the madrassah’s minarets.
TILLA KARI MADRASA
Smaller corner turrets are preferred to minarets, but the mosaic feast is just as lavish— sprightly solar symbols and interlacing floral motifs in similar colours to the Shir Dor Madrassah. Where the other madrassah feature facade wings of shallow niches without openings, the Tillya Kari Mosque declares its religious purpose with two storeys of hujra, ventilated by panjara, carved plaster windows.
The single floor of cells on the other axes emphasizes the great turquoise dome and portal on the west side. They announce the city’s congregational mosque, for Tamerlane’s Bibi Khanum was already in ruins and the Kukeldash had disappeared.
Its magnificent interior is swathed in kundal style gold leaf—hence the title Tillya Kari, ‘gilded’- from Koranic inscriptions and stalactites above the marble mihrab, to carpet-like wall panels and trompe l’oeil ceiling of delicate leaves and flowers circling to infinity.
The domed prayer galleries to either side display exhibitions of terracotta and restoration work such as the dome—never previously completed—and mosque decoration, now falling prey to Samarkand’s rising water table. Like the Shir Dor and Ulug Bek, many hujra have become gift shops, whose owners may direct you to rooftop access.
Soviet restorers placed beside Tillya Kari Mosque’s southeastern turret the 16th century dakhma of the Uzbek Shaybanid dynasty, a burial platform topped with carved marble tombstones.
Nearby is the domed, 18th century skullcap bazaar Chorsu in Samarkand (‘four ways’, literally ‘four waters’), constructed with materials from the rapidly disintegrating Bibi Khanum at the request of the emir of Bukhara.
BIBI KHANUM MOSQUE
Bibi Khanum means ‘first lady’. The mosque was named by Chinese Princess, the favorite wife of Tamerlan.
The construction of the mosque in Samarkand was started in 1399, after successful campaign of Amir Temur (Tamerlan) to India and was under construction during 5 years till 1404. There are many narrations about the mosque of Bibi Khanum. One of them says that the mosque was constructed by the spouse of imperator during the absence of Tamerlan in Samarkand, so that to surprise him upon his return to the capital.
It was uniquely splendid structure of its time in Islamic world. By Amir Temur’s idea Bibi Khanum mosque had to eclipse all that he had seen before in other countries.
Architects, artists, masters and craftsmen from many East countries were involved in construction. More than two hundred stonemasons from Azerbaijan, Fars, India and other countries were working inside the Bibi Khanim Mosque, and five hundred workers in mountains near Pendjikent were working under production and trimming of stones and sending it to Samarkand. Masters and craftsman gathered and drive together from all parts of the world put into construction their traditions and experience. This mosque was so wonderful that Tamerlan ordered to call it by his favourite wife, Mosque of Bibi Khanum
BAZAAR IN SAMARKAND
In the shadow of Bibi Khanum lies Samarkand’s main bazaar, focus of the old town. While officially it is the Siab collective farm market, and melons come by truck not camel, the hustle of people and trading is faithful to centuries-old tradition. Early mornings and Sundays offer the most activity. Beside cloth sacks of exotic spices, the famous Samarkand non fills barrows and pushchairs. These roundels of unleavened bread include some 20, varieties with individual pattern and name.
When Tamerlane left on his first campaign, he took the best wheat and bakers the city could offer, plus salt, water and firewood, yet the non were not up to standard and the bakers paid with their heads. He later concluded that the superior flavour was in fact due to Samarkand’s pure air and from then on ate only non delivered from the capital of his empire. Fruit stalls are piled high with apricots, aches, figs and pomegranates; in autumn melons carpet much of the bazaar. Samarkand could boast over 100 kinds of grape by the tenth century—look for the popular kishmish, sweet and seedless. When you tire of bargaining, relax at chaikhana on the western perimeter.
On the southwestern edge of Afrosiab, opposite the bazaar, rears the Khazret Khyzr u0sque, a must for any traveller as Khyzr is the patron of wayfarers and possesses the water of life. However, he appears only to the devout who perform namaz bamdad prayers
40 Mondays in succession. Like Chupan Ata, this figure of legend predates Islam and this spot may have seen an ancient temple before the Arabs built the city’s first mosque here. The present building, dating from the mid-19th century but reworked ever since, has an asymmetrical composition of minaret, entrance lobby, indoor and outdoor premises. From under its beautiful wooden man, enjoy the view across bazaar traffic to Bibi Khanum and east to Shah-i-Zinda.
SHAH-I-ZINDA IN SAMARKAND
The holiest site in Samarkand is a necropolis of mausoleums climbing back in time from the northeast fringe of Tamerlane’s capital over the old city wall and onto the southern slope of ancient Afrosiab. In the 14th and 15th centuries, it developed into an architectural testing ground whose celebration of ceramic art, unrivalled in Central Asia, makes this street of the dead perhaps the most visually stunning sight in a city of superlatives.
Legend traces its history back to 676, when Kussam-ibn-Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, arrived to convert Zoroastrian Sogdiana to Islam. The success of his preaching provoked a gang of fire-worshippers to behead him whilst he was at prayer. It appears the Arabs established Kussam, who probably never saw Samarkand, into the cult of Shah-i-Zinda (the Living King) by adapting a pre-Islamic mythical ruler, maybe Afrosiab himself, reigning beyond death beneath the earth. The Mongol conquest flattened the surrounding complex but left Kussam’s grave alone, as Moroccan traveller ibn-Battuta reported in 1333: “The inhabitants of Samarkand come out to visit it every Sunday and Thursday night. The Tartars also come to visit it, pay vows to it and bring cows, sheep, dirhams, and dinars; all this is used for the benefit of the hospital and the blessed tomb.”
The Timurid aristocracy continued the tradition of building mausoleums near the sacred site, often on earlier remains. These works display the creative wealth of the empire in surprising harmony, for no mausoleum repeats another. Their modest size permits an intimacy impossible in more grandiose projects. When American diplomat Schulyer visited the saint’s grave in 1876 he heard of “a prophecy that he was to appear in 1868 to defeat the Russians; but Samarkand was occupied and Shah Zindeh appeared not, so that his fame has of late somewhat fallen off.” Worshippers still flocked to the necropolis until Soviet conversion into an anti-religious museum forced visitors to cloak their beliefs with secular trappings. Independence has restored sanctity to the street, holy men to its mosques and pilgrims to its tombs.