It helps to know your madrassas, especially in a country where such a prolific statesman as Timurid ruler Mirzo Ulugbek built at least three centers of higher learning to his name. Ulugbek Madrassa in Bukhara was the first, and also served as an architectural example for many more which followed in the proceeding centuries.
During the early years of his reign, Ulugbek focused his efforts on turning the Khanate of Mavarannahr into a center of higher learning, commissioning great madrassas, one in his capital, Samarkand, and also in Bukhara and Gijduvan. In the year 1417, the Ulugbek Madrassa in Bukhara opened it’s doors with an inscription above the entrance which reads, “The aspiration for knowledge is the duty of every Muslim, and Muslim woman.”
Ulugbek invited scholars, astronomers, and mathematicians from across the Islamic world to his madrassas. Contrary to popular belief, these schools were not devoted solely to religious education. The Ulugbek Madrassa was a center of secular scientific thought, where lectures were given on topics ranging from astronomy and mathematics, to medicine and philosophy.
During his lifetime Ulugbek made groundbreaking contributions to the field of astronomy, and also authored several works significantly advancing understanding of trigonometry. In the madrassa, scholars debated theology, societal issues, economics, and philosophical ideas. Ulugbek’s construction of these madrassas coincided with the timing of the early days of the renaissance in Europe, brining about a new age of knowledge acquisition and understanding of the importance of higher learning to Central Asia.
Unfortunately for Ulugbek, his scientific contributions and appreciation for poetic debate of societal issues and philosophy could not prevent the empire from descending into civil war following the death of his father Shahrukh in the year 1447. After an initial victory against his nephew, who had seized power in Herat, Ulugbek’s own eldest son then rebelled against him. The story doesn’t end well for Ulugbek who was beheaded within two years while on a journey to Mecca.
Under the influence of the great Shaybanid ruler Abdullah Khan II, Bukhara reached its peak of influence and economic success. In the year 1585 the Ulugbek Madrassa was already 168 years old, and in need of renovation. It was during these works that the madrassa took on its current appearance with the addition of trademark blue tile facing on the facade, but it otherwise has not been significantly altered in the 432 years since.
The madrassa’s exterior has been well maintained, and with the addition of the Abdulaziz Khan Madrassa in the classic Kosch Principle directly across the street in the year 1652, the two madrassas together became a singular ensemble. The two also shared, until recently, their disappointing state of overall preservation. If the courtyard of Abdulaziz Khan was simply showing its age, the interior of the Ulugbek Madrassa was in a state of near ruin on our visit in March 2016.
Upon entering and briefly walking through the ironic “museum” of “The History of the Restoration of the Monuments of Bukhara,” we proceeded into the courtyard of the deteriorating structure finding the rear iwan near collapse with chunks of decorative muqarna in a pile underneath. Major improvements have since been made bringing the historic structure back to its former glory. Like similar landmarks across this ancient silk-road city, the interior now serves as a handicrafts bazaar for tourists.