About Uzbekistan

Samarkand: a walk through Registan
08 January 2018
Samarkand: a walk through Registan

Samarkand is traditionally the first city in the tour itinerary of tourists travelling to Uzbekistan with the exception of Tashkent, which serves more as a transport hub and a starting point for exploring the country. And this, perhaps, is not accidental. Its ancient history, splendid buildings and great conquerors that left their traces here still impress. It is not possible not to like Samarkand. Of course, there will always be people who will say that the city has disappointed them, but it's rather a sign of their naivety, ignorance of the subject and the superficial knowledge of the great city.

There are much more interesting places to explore in Samarkand than in Bukhara or Khiva, and we are not talking about the great architectural heritage of those cities. We have already mentioned Samarkand’s history, traditions and picturesque in previous parts, but still the most popular sights are rightly seen the most splendid, therefore in this part we will examine Registan - the most famous and the most beautiful architectural ensemble of Central Asia.

Registan is not a proper name: that’s how they called the main squares of many Central Asian cities, but Registans of Bukhara and Tashkent disappeared almost completely, while Registan of smaller cities like Karshi are rather modest. This name is usually translated as a "sandy place", "wasteland", but there is another version that derives "regi-" from the "rex" – and in this case, this translates as a Tsar's place. Still, when we say Registan we all mean the one in Samarkand. Its front panorama is known all over the world, like Red Square with Basil the Blessed, like the Great Wall of China in the hills of Badaling, like a panorama of Florence with the tiled dome of Santa Maria del Fiore ... From the left to the right are three madrassas: Ulugbek (1419-27), Tillya-Kari or Gilded (1646-60) and Sher-Dor or Lion (1619-36). The ensemble is perfect not just in terms of its buildings, but also by their location: the aivans of two madrasahs on one axis, which divides the axis of symmetry of the third madrassa exactly in half, and above all the two blue domes almost equally shifted to the right. The size of the square itself is 100 by 60 meters, and the entrance is chargeable - 12,000 soums, that is about $1,5 as in other major museums in Samarkand.

Although Samarkand is famous for the architecture of the Timurids, there is actually nothing  dating back to the times of Tamerlane, and Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kari even date back to 17th century, the era of Ashtarkhanids - the ruling dynasty in Bukhara, descendants of Astrakhan Khanate rulers: their architecture was incredibly pretentious, ten times denser, than the highest baroque in Europe.

On the photo below - fragments of tiles and Registan plan until the last reconstruction. The mosque of Alike Kukeltash ("kukeltash" was responsible for the security of the khan) has been known since the 13th century, probably the city began to rebuild in a new place after the Genghis Khan invasion, and was a kind of Kalyan mosque in Bukhara - a courtyard the size of 90 to 60 meters with hundreds of domes above the galleries. Three other buildings were built by Ulugbek: a khanaka with an unusually high dome, a half-wooden carved mosque (Mukatta) and a caravanserai, reminding that Registan was always primarily about trade:

But only the madrasah of Ulugbek, one of the three constructed by the khan-scientists during the lifetime, was preserved, the other two in Bukhara and the "potters town" of Gijduvan. Interestingly, madrasah in Bukhara is older than the other two by the time of its founding, but younger by the time of completion. By the beginning of the 20th century the Samarkand madrasah was laying in ruins, with just one story, chipped and dilapidated, and the current appearance is the result of decades of Soviet restoration:

Impressive minarets in all four corners: one stands straight, from the other only a stump is left, the third one lost its head and became like a factory pipe, the fourth one has a list. You can climb to the top though this is some kind of semi-legal as this is arranged by a guy at the cash desk ... in principle, such ‘bonuses’ can be gained on many sights, in the Bukhara Ark, for example, theoretically there is a man who arranges excursions into its abandoned part, but you have to be lucky to meet him. The fee to climb a minaret is subject to bargain but expect to pay in the region of 20,000 sum (around $2,5).

They allow to climb to the tilted minaret that is on the right, and what's surprising is that it does not have a viewing platform, just stick out of the hatch to the waist and look around. The minaret on the left has the similar top, only without a hatch, and it had been "straightened" by restorers in 1965:

Below are the views of Registan from the top of the minaret. The weakest thing in Registan’s ensemble is that it lost the context - a hundred years ago there were clay shacks and stalls around, and now there are public gardens and squares. Registan opens to the south, towards the distant mountains of Zerafshan range, and pay attention to the stage and gentle steps - in the evenings light-musical performances "I am Registan" are held here:

Ulugbek madrasah. Its size is 81 by 51 meters, while the courtyard is only 30 to 30. It is smaller than the largest madrasah in Central Asia of Mohammed Amin in Khiva only by a couple of meters in perimeter, but almost three times in the number of cells (50) and pupils (100, respectively), because for each of them there was much more space and apparently studying time:

The yard of madrasah. All the buildings of Registan now combine the role of the museum and souvenir bazaar. The second floor was entirely recreated under the Soviets - at the end of the 18th century it was demolished by the Bukharian governor, finding it a convenient place to bombard his palace, and the remaining part of the building was seriously damaged by two earthquakes in the beginning and the end of the 19th century.

The cells of the second floor. By taking care of the students' comfort, a medieval madrassa will clearly give a head start to the dormitories of many modern universities.

De facto, the khan-scientist Ulugbek built not a madrassa, but a full-fledged university, where secular sciences were taught no less than theology. Ultimately, Ulugbek himself was an astronomer, his discoveries (primarily the stellar catalogue) have not lost relevance today, and in his spare time from public affairs, the powerful Khan himself was lecturing. Aiwan at the entrance resembles a chain of constellations:

Inside the madrasah there is an entire square:

The decor of the side portal is similar to some sort of table, determinant or infographic:

Among the teachers of madrasah were Kazymzade Rumi (literally "The Son of Judge from Rumi" - he came from Asia Minor and taught astronomy and mathematics to Ulugbek), his colleagues Kashi (creator of the theory of decimal fractions) and Qushji, the historian and chronicler of the Timurid state Fasih Khvafi .. According to legend, Fasih came here as a wandering dervish, worked on the construction of madrassas, and somehow heard the conversation between passing by Ulugbek and other scientists that the rector of the madrassah should be a person who is versed in all sciences. The shag-rag immediately approached them and said that he was that person, and set off into such a scientific jungle that none of the learned men could understand him apart from Ulugbek and Kazymzade. In any case, Ulugbek appointed Khvafi the first rector.

And among the students there was a Persian mystic poet Abdurahman Jami, and Alisher Navoi (mainly studying in Herat) also listened to some lectures here; for Uzbekistan, they are like William Shakespeare for the English speaking world, but only Jami wrote in Persian and Navoi in Uzbek . But as you can see, all the brightest names here are from the 15th century, since after that time the culture of this land has become impoverished.

The mosque opposite the entrance, surprisingly unpretentious inside:

... As already mentioned, not a single building in the Registan was built in the times of Tamerlane, but the ensemble was also created by the commander, the Bukharian governor in Samarkand, with the unpronounceable nickname Yalangtush-Bahadur, that is "Warrior hero with an open chest" who during his lifetime waged a war with all the neighbors of Bukhara from Dzungars to the Great Moguls, and probably if he would have been born about 200 years earlier – he would have shaken the outside world, but Central Asia of the 17th century was no longer match to itself of 15th century, and these wars remained the region's business only. But apparently the glory of Timur haunted his mind, and in the beginning of the 17th century Yalangtush started a grandiose construction of the most spectacular buildings of all Turkestan - the Lion and Gilded Madrasahs. Here, pay attention to a small grave at the foot - according to legend, it houses a butcher who voluntarily fed the workers all the decades of madrasahs construction:

The facade of the Sher-Dora madrasah is practically a reflection of the facade of Ulugbek madrasah, and only the ribbed domes are much slimmer and taller. At the same time, there are only two instead of four minarets at Sher Dor, as it was typically Bukhara "kosh" (two buildings facing each other along one axis), and the rear part of the building did not require such symmetry. 

The iwan of Sherdor madrassah. Pay attention to the swastika:

The most mysterious detail is certainly the "sher" itself (this word means both a lion and a tiger, and here a strange hybrid of a tiger with a lion's mane), with a sun-face on their backs, symmetrically pursuing white gazelles. Everything is mysterious about them, and at least a contradiction to the fact that Sunni Islam prohibits the image of a person or animals. Local Persians said that madrassahs were built by Shiite workers from Iran (and in Shiism there is no such prohibition), but it is very unlikely that the local authorities would have allowed them such liberties. Others said that "it is allowed as long as it is not facing Mecca" - but here they are looking exactly in the direction of Mecca! Moreover, in addition to the sacred texts there is an ode to Yalangtush-Bahadur on the wall of the madrasah, raising the question whether he decided to disobey the Prophet and put a monument to himself? But several years before that another madrasah was built in Bukhara near Lyabi-Khauz with fairy-tale birds... so, this is really a historical mystery. Interpreting this image, one can suppose that the persons depict the rulers, the sun-"hair" personifies their wisdom, the tigers-the "beards" - a valor, and the hunted white gazelle - the good deeds to which they aspire. Be that as it may, these figures are one of the most famous symbols of Uzbekistan:

The portal of aivan is even more beautiful than the one in Ulugbek madrasah:

The side hall, possibly the former house mosque, where the carpet shop is based now 

Sher-Dor is slightly less in size than the Madrassah of Ulugbek (70 by 56 meters), but it has only 54 single cells and the scale of the building is absolutely not commensurate with the number of students, it is evidently a house-monument. Still, an outstanding personality was found here as well - not an Uzbek though, but a Tatar, theologian and proclaimer of the 19th century Shigabuddin Mardzhani, in honor of which the oldest mosque of Kazan is named there.

Axis of symmetry of the Kosh-Madrasah:

Iwan on the reverse side, 180 degrees from the two previous photos:

In any text about the Samarkand antiquity they will say that Sherdor is bigger than Ulugbek Madrassah, but is inferior in terms of ornaments perfection, but personally Sherdor seems more beautiful and is remembered as the most spectacular building of Central Asia. Perhaps this is due to the younger age, that it is better preserved and there are more original elements in it. Ornaments literally dance in your eyes as kaleidoscope of colour and pattern

And how without trade… in the corridors at the exit from that gilded hall:

The third Madrassah of Tillya-Kari was built later than others and did not form kosh, therefore it looks quite different. Moreover, purely in size (75 by 75 meters) it is larger than the Khiva madrasah of Muhammad Amin ... but again it is not "the largest madrassah of Turkestan", since it was not exactly a madrasah - in fact it was the Juma mosque with the educational building in it, built instead of grandiose Tamerlane’s Bibi-Khanum (1399-1405), which by that time was in critical condition, was restored only under the Soviets and is visible here in the background:

Facade of Tillya-Kari:

And the view from the arch to the "viewing" minaret of Ulugbek. Here the architecture much more reminds of  Bukhara, Ashtarhanids, especially tiled spirals in the corners:

The same facade from the back:

There is also a big square here, and under the blue dome is the Juma Mosque itself:

And that's why the madrasah is called Gilded!

This is, if not the most beautiful, then certainly the most luxurious interior of Central Asia:

It seems that many of its details are lightning, although in reality they only shine:

The decor in the corridors is more modest, or rather does not exist. With the exhibits under the glass, Timurid tiles and ceramics, there are things for sale, like the standard Urgut suzane on the left:


One of them houses not a souvenir, but a grocery shop with suzane on the ceiling.

Tillya-Kari has the most spectacular external walls:

In the corner between Tillya-Kari and Sherdor madrassahs stands Shaybanids dahma. "Dahma" in this case is not a Zoroastrian "tower of silence", but a podium for tombstones of Sheibanids - the Uzbek dynasty that replaced the Timurids in the 16th century. Khan Ubaydullah moved the capital to Bukhara in 1533, and built there the main family necropolis near the main shrine of the local Sufis - Naqshbandi mausoleum, but in Samarkand governed a parallel family line of Sheibanids, and the graves of the emirs of Samarkand are on Dakhma, and those of their relatives are along the wall:

Another building next door is the local Chorsu, a trading dome like in Bukhara. "Chor-su" means "Four streams", that is, allegorically the Crossroads, and they were usually built in the center of the city system of irrigation ditches. Here are the tsarist times views - such was Registan in the early twentieth century, Chorsu is well noticeable:

Square is now at the site of the bazaar, and Chorsu serves as an exhibition gallery:

The same place as in the pre-revolutionary photo. On the left behind the Chorsu dome are Sherdor and Ulugbek madrasahs with a line of three tilted minarets, and to the right is Tillya-Kari:

Sher-Dor and Ulugbek madrassahs from the other side and at dusk:

Them again, only before Sherdor was at the front, and here – Ulugbek madrassah:

The best "non-parade" view of the Registan - from the beginning of the footbridge through the noisy Dagbitskaya street (named, by the way, after the village name where Yalangtush is buried) in the former Kok-Saray - the Blue Palace of Tamerlane. Registan from here looks like a whole forest of minarets, like a miracle factory that produces magic lamps for genies and swords from Adamantine steel:

And that’s how Registan looks like from the edge of mahallas districts, and from this side it is the least seen by tourists. However, this is the weakness of the Registan ensemble - it is designed to be viewed only from one side, from any other side it loses its harmony:

And now let’s have a little walk in the surrounding area. A pretty carved kiosk selling ice cream, very popular among locals and tourists:

Strange podium with lions where local people like to take photos for some reason 

In the corner of the park modestly stands the small mausoleum of Abu Mansur Matidi ... however, it may be a mistake, since this saint, a theologian of the 9th-10th centuries from Samarkand, known to the entire Islamic world, can hardly be buried so modestly, and there is also the memorial of his name at an ancient cemetery at the outskirts of Samarkand. 

And a pretty panel of the five-story building at the beginning of a wide square on Dagbitskaya street. On the hill in the distance the towers of Registan can be seen, behind is Russian Samarkand. The real center is actually here, not in Registan:

Courtesy to varandej

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