Part of the Registan ensemble, the Sherdor Madrassa is most famous for its mosaic depictions of fantastic beasts resembling lions or tigers which are today featured prominently as a national symbol of Uzbekistan. The mosaic creatures appear not only on the 200 сўм note of the national currency, but are also replicated on the Palace of International Forums in Tashkent. The creatures also give the madrassa its name. After construction was completed in the year 1636, it was named after the Samarkand ruler who ordered its construction, Yalangtush Bahadur. The name “Yalangtush” was obviously not popular among citizens of Samarkand who instead affectionally referred to the new madrassa as “Sherdor” – literally meaning “having cats”.
Like many other architectural ensembles across Uzbekistan, the Sherdor Madrassa was built in keeping with the kosch principle, directly across from and along the same axis as the 15th century Ulugbek Madrassa on the other side of the square. Together with the Gilded Tilla-Kari Madrassa, Ulugbek and Sherdor form the world famous Registan Square architectural complex. Sherdor actually replaced an earlier religious complex that had already fallen into disrepair. Built in 1424 to complement the Ulugbek Madrassa, the Khanaka of Ulugbek was demolished with the bulk of the rubble recycled as building material for the new Sherdor Madrassa built in its place.
Ulugbek Madrassa across the square was already 200 years old at the time of Sherdor’s construction. The facades are almost identical except for the decorative mosaics, and overall height. Sherdor Madrassa is a full 2 meters shorter than Ulugbek Madrassa due to the fact that the ground level over the course of 200 years had shifted so much that it was impossible for the two structures to be identical in every way. The tilt of the ground level is obvious when viewing the square in its entirety from the main road. The Sherdor and Tilla-Kari Madrassas are raised compared to the much older Ulugbek Madrassa which sits on the same level as the square.
At the time of the Sherdor Madrassa’s construction, Samarkand had already begun to lose prominence as an important center for religious learning with the shift of the Shaybanid capital to Bukhara in the 16th century. Despite being well known in the Islamic world as an educational institution, Sherdor was not as prestigious as those in the capital, or even the Ulugbek Madrassa across the square. But what Sherdor lacked in prestige, it made up for in artistic innovation.
The entrance portal which features the famous cat like mystical creatures are unique in the Islamic world. The principle of aniconism prohibits the depiction of sentient beings in art. Creating images of humans and non-human animals is discouraged in the hadith, which explains why Islamic art is generally dominated by geometric patterns and calligraphy. The defiance of these prohibitions in the design of the Sherdor Madrassa make these cat like mosaics among the rarest works of Islamic art in the world.
As Samarkand continued it’s long decline with the shift of power to Bukhara, several earthquakes over the next few hundred years significantly damaged the madrassa. The entrance portal was badly damaged and near collapse, and minarets were left unstable. By the 1920s the Soviet government banned religious teaching, and the madrassa was nationalized. Under state “protection” restoration work began to protect the historic monument. Earthquake damage which had reduced parts of the structure to near ruin was repaired, and the mosaics were reinforced and restored to their former glory.
Today the Sherdor Madrassa is perhaps the most photogenic of the three monuments that make up Registan Square. The significance of the site was recognized in 2001 by UNESCO as a World Heritage site due to its contribution to the development of Islamic architecture. The fantastic beasts that defy convention are exceptionally rare and treasured works of Islamic art that have miraculously survived 400 years of history without being lost, or dismantled by iconoclasts. The images remain as a reminder of the rich and colorful history of Uzbekistan, and a progressive era for Islamic art during the same time period as the militant iconoclast factions of the Protestant reformation in Europe.