A fine example of the Central Asian “Kosch Principle” of urban planning, whereby the facades of two opposite buildings face each-other along the same axis, Bukhara’s mid 17th century Abdulaziz Khan Madrasa does so directly across from his much older companion, the Ulugbek Madrassa, which dates from the early 15th century. Together, the Abdulaziz Khan and Ulugbek Madrassas form a single architectural complex on the northern edge of Bukhara’s historic core. Both monuments are included as an integral part of Bukhara’s UNESCO World Heritage zone.
The Abdulaziz Khan Madrassa was built in 1652 under the reign of the fifth Khan of the Bukhara Khanate, Abdulaziz Khan. Abdulaziz became Khan in 1645 due to the unpopular policies of his father, Nadir Muhammad Khan, who was forced to flee to the ancient city of Balkh after raising taxes. Nadir called upon the Shah Jahan, ruler of India for support to help regain power, but it was too late. A two year war led to Abdulaziz becoming Khan, and the defeat of the Indian troops. Nadir was forced into exile in Iran, and he died in Mecca in 1652. In order to keep the peace with his brother Subkhan-kuli-Khan, who was also rushing to fill the power vacuum formed by their father’s departure, Abdulaziz granted him the city of Balkh. Abdulaziz rulled the Khanate of Bukhara from 1645 to 1681, but he eventually resigned and ended up giving the throne to his brother after-all.
The structure has a rectangular plan spanning 50 x 67 meters offset only slightly from the axis of the Ulugbek Madrassa across the square. While the interior of the Ulugbek Madrassa has a courtyard enclosed by a regular rectangular floor plan, the Abdulaziz Madrassa has an octagonal layout, reflecting changes in the preferred architectural style in Bukhara compared to that of the 15th century. The nearby 16th century Mir-i-Arab Madrassa, also shows this octagonal shaped courtyard, pointing to a change between the 15th and 16th centuries. Madrasaas in Samarkand from the same time period do not show this octagonal preference, and instead maintain the same basic rectangular shape.
The decorative style of the Abdulaziz Khan Madrassa is also unique in its extensively ornate student cells and classroom spaces. Despite being in a terrible state of preservation, the uniqueness of the student apartments can be appreciated at least on the ground floor. The paint has long since faded inside these rooms, but the highly intricate muqarnas are still mostly intact built into the underside the domes and vaults throughout the complex. What’s unfortunate is the extensive amount of graffiti carved into the walls and tile-work in the far recesses of the cells and chambers. It’s obvious that the madrassa has been neglected for some time, and this becomes even more clear when you enter the complex today.
Rather than being welcomed to an important protected monument, visitors are instead accosted on approach by sellers of all sorts of Uzbek trinkets, carpets, susani, pottery, tiles, and typical souvenir gift items. The interior also supposedly contains a “museum” of wood carving, but on our recent visits to the complex we failed to locate it within this deteriorated madrassa turned gift shop. Before even passing through the ornate vaulted gateway, the only part of the monument which has been refurbished, a caretaker comes out of nowhere demanding an entrance fee. It doesn’t matter if you only want to browse the stalls, you still have to pay to go inside. This was an unwelcome change from our first visit in 2016 when we practically had the place to ourselves.
In the 18 months between our visits to Bukhara big changes are well underway. From the opening of several new shops and restaurants to the paving over of the dusty streets, the Disneyfication of Bukhara is rapidly progressing. While this points to an improving local economic situation, the risk of losing authenticity is real, so much so that UNESCO has noted the deterioration of the historic fabric of the city in recent years. This includes the diminishing use of traditional materials, inadequate documentation of major monuments, and urban development pressures resulting in inappropriate designs of new structures. With shiny new glass fronted shopping stalls opening within sight of the Abdulaziz Madrassa, who knows how much longer the authentic silk-road aesthetic of Bukhara can be maintained.