Prior to construction of the Ulugbek Madrassa, Registan Square would have been unrecognizable to the the modern visitor. In the time of Amir Timur, the place where today stands one of the world’s most spectacular architectural ensembles was the main market square of medieval Samarkand. Ulugbek Madrassa, built exactly 600 years ago between the years 1415 and 1420, was not even conceived until 10 years after Timur’s death. The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum and Bibi-Khanym Mosque were already complete, and between the two, the area of today’s Registan Square was a seething beehive of activity and commerce, lined with caravanserais and market stalls, it was the center of a thriving crossroads of the silk road.
The time period immediately after the death of Amir Timur was a tumultuous one. Amid the power vacuum which followed, Timur’s cocky grandson Khalil-Sultan proclaimed himself Timur’s successor, and reigned for just six years (1405-1409) before being ousted by Timur’s fourth son, Shah Rukh, and exiled to Rey, Iran. Shah Rukh transferred the capital of the Timirud empire to Herat, and gave his son Ulugbek control of the state of Mawarannahr, with Samarkand as it’s capital. Under Shah Rukh and Ulugbek, Samarkand and Herat both became important centers of education in the Islamic world.
Young Ulugbek, who was just 15 years old when he was handed the throne, always had a fascination with science and astronomy since visiting the Maragheh Observatory as a child. His enthusiasm for learning inspired him to commission a great madrassa, and his choice of location would establish Registan Square as one of the world’s greatest centers of science and learning of late middle ages. By 1417 work was already well underway, as established by the inscription on the entrance portal which reads “Year 820. Let it be known: this building is the finest and highest in the world, the most perfect of buildings for art and learning.” The year 820 of course corresponds to the 820th year of the Islamic calendar, which is based on a shorter lunar year and began only in the year 622 AD.
Ulugbek Madrassa soon became known as one of the most prestigious universities of 15th century Central Asia. Famous Uzbek poet and philosopher Alisher Naovi studied here, as did Ulugbek himself. Even following the decline of Samarkand in the 16th century when the capital was moved to Bukhara under Ubaidullah Khan of the Shaybanid dynasty, the Ulugbek Madrassa maintained its prestigious status. Not even the construction of the 17th century Sher-dor and Tilla-Kari madrassas could unseat the Ulugbek Madrassa’s status, which was by the time of the completion of the architectural ensemble already 240 years old.
The 18th and 19th centuries were difficult for Samarkand, and for Registan Square. Economic problems resulted in a lack of maintenance on the aging madrassas which were especially susceptible to the harsh climate of Central Asia. Two major earthquakes in the 19th century reduced the Ulugbek Madrassa to a state of ruin. Domes were broken, roofs were collapsing, and minarets were dangerously tilted. The facade had lost 70 to 80 percent of its trademark tiles. In the early days of the Soviet Union, works were carried out to salvage the structure before it fell into a complete pile of rubble. By 1932 the minarets were straightened, and major restorations took place between 1967 and 1987. Following Uzbek independence, the second floor was rebuilt according to historical standards.
Even with major recent renovations to Registan Square which transformed it into a concert venue for the biennial Sharq Taronalari International Music Festival, the trio of madrassas still preserve their unique historical status as one of the world’s most spectacular architectural ensembles. Ulugbek Madrassa stands defiant against the sands of time, civil unrest, aggressive restoration efforts, a harsh climate, and regular earthquakes. After 600 years, her age is showing despite heroic efforts to hide the wrinkles. The minarets are still slightly askew, and the vaulted iwan gateway is twisted and leans noticeably forward over the square.
Guidebooks are still correct about being able to climb the northeastern minaret for a small “fee” paid to the caretakers. Our last visit cost us about 30,000 сўм each, but that’s likely much higher now. The serene interior courtyard is no longer in use by the likes of Alisher Navoi, and instead is full of souvenir stalls selling Uzbek handicrafts catering to busloads of European tourists. As a UNESCO World Heritage monument since 2001, the preservation efforts have certainly paid off, and the Uzbek government is doing all it can to maintain this important destination to boost the country’s rapidly growing tourist industry. The authenticity on display here, however, is limited to appreciation of the architecture, as the Madrassas of Registan Square have long since ceased to be centers of higher learning.