Our photo tour of Samarkand continues with a visit to the iconic Registan. As the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand, the Registan was once the center of all activity in the city. As caravans met from all corners of the known world via the Silk Road, the square was a bustling center of commerce and trade.
Today the square itself bears little resemblance to its ancient past. Once park like with trees and landscaping, the square has been recently paved over with cobblestones and rigged with permanent high tech lighting fixtures in order to host the biennial Sharq International Music Festival. Shiny marble terraces and viewing platforms play host to visiting dignitaries and busloads of tour groups. The ancient monuments themselves however remain very well preserved.
Ulugbek Madrasah (1417-1420)
Beginning in the 15th century, the first of the great Madrasahs was constructed on the square. Named for Ulugbek, grandson of the great conqueror Timur the Great, the Ulugbek Madrasah was one of the best muslim seminaries in the world. Ulugbek himself was a lecturer there, and during his time as ruler, established the madrasah as a center of scientific learning.
Today, the madrasah functions only as an architectural monument. The picturesque shaded courtyard beyond the majestic gated entrance is filled with souvenir hawkers and camera wielding tourists. An empty mosque serves as an art gallery, and the ancient lecture halls stand empty. For a small entrance fee, access is granted to climb one of the two precariously leaning minnerates. The view from the top is worth the price of admission, but those with claustrophobia are advised against attempting the steep narrow staircase.
Sher-Dor Madrasah (1619-1636)
Fast forward 200 years, and the 17th century ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, ordered the construction of a nearly identical madrasah directly opposite the square from the Ulugbek Madrasah. Standing out immediately are the two tiger mosaics above each side of the forward facing facade of the structure. While traditionally images of living creatures were prohibited in islamic art, the two tigers are on closer inspection actually a kind of mystical tiger-lion hybrid creature. As depictions of mythical creatures do not represent actual living things, the artwork was allowed to remain… or so the story goes.
Tilya-Kori Madrasah (1646-1660)
Completing the complex, constructed only ten years following completion of the Sher-Dor Madrasah, is the Tilya-Kori or “Gilded” Madrasah. Within this complex is a grand mosque with a spectacularly gilded main hall – hence the name. Architecturally distinct from the other two Madrasahs of Registan Square, you immediately notice the two story columned facade lined with individual cells. Despite being built as a Madrasah, the Tilya-Kori was used primarily as a mosque throughout its active lifetime, right up until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of Soviet rule. Since that time, the Gilded Mosque, as well as the rest of the Registan complex, have remained only as monuments to a bygone era.