Nadezhda Dukhovny
Nadezhda Dukhovny

Ancient and Unique Uzbekistan: Samarkand region II

Registan Square in the city of Samarkand is an outstanding example of urban planning in Central Asia.

Its name is translated as “Sandy Place”. The true version, explaining the name of this square in Samarkand, the center of a fertile oasis, says that in the Middle Ages, in all the cities of Maveranakhr, the central squares were called Registan. These were the administrative and trade and craft centers of the eastern cities.

Registan Square in Samarkand. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

During the reign of the commander Amir Timur (1370-1405) Registan became the main trading point. And only under the rule of Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulugh Beg, the square is given ceremonial and official significance.

In 2001, the architectural ensemble Registan, along with other historical monuments of Samarkand, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Tourists from all over the world come to see one of the main attractions of Uzbekistan.

Registan Square at night. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The Ulugh Beg madrasah is named after the grandson of Tamerlane Ulugh Beg Mirza (1409-1449) who came to power in the middle of the 15th century in Samarkand. This man is known to the world, not only as a representative of the Timurid dynasty but also as a prominent scientist and astronomer. It was he who began the active construction of educational institutions in Bukhara, Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, and Gijduvan. Ulugh Beg madrasah in Samarkand is a classic example of higher educational institutions of the Muslim East.

The Ulugh Beg madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The madrasah was built in 1417-1420. In artistic terms, it was not inferior to the buildings of Timur and at the same time significantly surpassed them in its strength.

Initially, the madrasah consisted of 50 hujras, and more than a hundred students a year studied there. According to historians, Ulugbek himself taught in the madrasah. The prominent Persian poet Jami also lived and worked here. Among the most famous listeners of Jami in the madrasah were the sheikh of the Naqshbandi tariqa Khoja Akhrar Vali and the great poet Alisher Navoi.

The building had 2 floors, four high domes over the corner auditoriums, and four minarets in the corners. A giant portal, which occupies two-thirds of the main facade, faces the square with a huge and deep pointed arch.

Ulugbek madrasah was badly damaged during the internecine wars in the 18th century. The outer domes and most of the rooms on the second floor were destroyed.

Most of the restoration work was carried out in the early 20th century by prominent engineers and architects of the time. In 1918, engineer M.F. Mauer drew up a project for the temporary strengthening of the main minaret, and the aboveground part of the base of the minaret was also fortified. Over the course of half a century, the courtyard facades were restored, the vault and outer walls of the northern facade were re-laid, the courtyard iwans were fortified, and the unique carved majolica mosaic in the madrasah portal was restored.

At the end of the last century, repair and restoration work began in the madrasah, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Ulugbek. The project included a complete reconstruction of the second floor, the restoration of architectural ceramics, and the replacement of destructive plasters and stalactites in the southwest rooms.

Today, the Ulugbek Madrasah is one of the three pearls of Registan and an invaluable decoration of the historical center of Samarkand, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

One of the most famous structures of the 17th century in Samarkand, the Sherdor Madrasah, is also part of the Registan architectural ensemble. For several centuries, the madrasah was a famous Muslim educational institution, within the walls of which prominent philosophers and theologians studied.

The Sherdor madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The madrasah was built by order of the Ashtarkhanid Yalantgush Bahadur on the site of the dismantled khanqah of Ulugbek in 1619-1636.

The design is made in the traditional Central Asian style, and the main facade impresses with a grandiose entrance portal crowned with a pointed arch.

At first, the building was planned to be named in honor of the ruler Yalangtush Bahadur. However, the people nicknamed the building “Sherdor”, which translates as “the abode of the lions”. The madrasah got this name due to the unique decor on the tympanum of the front portal, which depicts the scene of the hunt of a fantastic animal in the guise of a snow leopard on a white gazelle in the rays of the rising sun face.

Although according to the traditions of Muslims, animals or people cannot be depicted in sacred places, this madrasah has become an exception.

The depiction of predators hunting deer implies the need for students to chase knowledge, as lions chase their prey, and absorb wisdom, as lions eat captured animals. The human face symbolizes the deity and warns: “you need to remember that you are not immortal, even if you are a predator.”

Rui Gonzales de Clavijo, ambassador of the King of Castile and Leon Henry III to the court of the great Timur, wrote in his notes that before the Golden Age of the Timurid period, a leopard was depicted on the standards and coats of arms of Samarkand, as well as a lion or leopard, which, according to a unique legend, told Arab historian Abu-Said Abdul-Rahman Ibn Muhammad Idris, descended from the mountains during the laying of the city of Samarkand and blessed the building.

For nearly three centuries, the Sherdor Madrasah was the most famous educational institution among Muslims.

The Sherdor madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The plot depicted on the portal of the madrasah eventually became one of the national symbols of Uzbekistan.

The dimensions of the Sherdor madrasah and the Ulugbek madrasah located opposite it are practically the same. According to the architect’s idea, the buildings were supposed to be mirror images of each other. However, over time, the area slightly changed the relief, so Sherdor is slightly lower than the Ulugh Beg madrasah. The decor of the building is painted with Kufic inscriptions, sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, and fragments from the Holy Quran.

The Sherdor madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Tilya Kori Madrasah is the last of the large buildings in Registan, built a generation later than the Sherdor madrasah and as much as 230 years after the Ulugbek madrasah.

Its name means “Work of Gold” in connection with the kundal painting in the prayer hall, which is adorned with gilded relief throughout. Like the Sher-Dor madrasah, it was sponsored by Yalangtush Bahadur, the military governor of the city, who ruled by order of the Janid dynasty of Bukhara. However, Yalangtush died in 1655-56 before the completion of the monument, which stood unfinished until the modern era, when Soviet restorers skillfully completed the outer dome of the prayer hall.

The Tilya Kori madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The building is a hybrid of a congregational mosque and a madrasah since it lacks the corner lecture halls (darskhanas) that are found in almost all major madrasahs in Central Asia. Instead, there is a large prayer hall on the west side of the building, surrounded by adjoining rooms that provide ample space for teaching and worship.

In good weather, training could take place in the huge courtyard of the building or in the shade of three iwans facing inward. Students occupied numerous khujras (dormitories) surrounding the courtyard, but only one floor of khujras was built instead of two, as in other madrasahs in Registan. Until 1646 a caravanserai was located here.

A Congregational Mosque would probably have been a welcome addition as the city’s main mosque, built centuries before Timur (Tamerlane), was already in poor condition due to hasty construction, overly ambitious design (which damaged the structure), and lack of maintenance on the remaining parts after the death of Timur in 1405.

The Tilya Kori madrasah. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Legends about Samarkand are covered with hoary antiquity, but its real history is even more ancient. The emergence of Samarkand goes back about 2.5 thousand years. The large city of Sogd, then Maverannahr, Samarkand was more than once the capital of the state, a living testimony of which is the architectural monuments that adorn it to this day. The reigning rulers tried to outshine each other with the erected buildings, spending huge amounts of money on this.

Near the northeastern part of modern Samarkand, there is an ancient settlement – Afrasiab. By the 13th century, the city was destroyed by the wild hordes of the Mongols. On the southern outskirts of Afrasiab, among a huge necropolis, there is one of the best historical and architectural ensembles of Samarkand – a group of mausoleums called Shah-i-Zinda.

The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The chain of ritual buildings spilled over the rampart of the medieval defensive wall of the city, the sagging of which can be seen from the road when approaching the complex. The name of the complex “Shah-i-Zinda” is translated from Persian as “The Living King” and it is associated with the symbolic grave of Qutham ibn Abbas, a cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, who came to Samarkand in the 7th century to spread Islam with the Arabs. Numerous legends tell that Qutham ibn Abbas suffered for his faith, being attacked by the infidels while performing namaz.

The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

According to the most widespread legends, he hid in a mihrab (a prayer niche in a mosque, indicating the direction to Mecca).

The mausoleum of Qutham ibn Abbas is part of the complex and is located in the north-eastern part of it.

The complex began to take shape nine centuries ago. Until the second half of the 11th century, the territory where the necropolis is located was built up with residential buildings made of raw bricks and was a populated part of the city. At the end of the 11th century, part of the southern outskirts of Afrasiab was abandoned, and a cemetery began to appear here. One of the earliest buildings was the tomb of Qutham ibn Abbas, and then other, richly lined mausoleums of the XI-XIII centuries.

The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Already in those distant times, the tomb of Qutham ibn Abbas with the buildings surrounding it was considered a shrine. In the 13th century, most of the structures of the Shah-i-Zinda complex were destroyed after the defeat by the Mongols. The revival of the necropolis begins in the XIV century. New mausoleums are being erected here, whose decor and style differs from the decor of the first buildings. Carved terracotta is replaced by glazed tiles, gradually replacing the old type of facing material. The colors are dominated by greenish blue and blue.

The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

But the most intensive construction took place during the reign of Amir Timur. During this period, Timur’s close relatives, namely his sisters and wives, as well as representatives of the military nobility of his army, erected their beautiful mausoleums at the grave of Saint Qutham ibn Abbas, hoping for his intercession in the other world. Most of the buildings of this time have survived to this day.

The Shah-i-Zinda Ensemble. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

During the reign of Ulugh Beg, large architectural and planning works were carried out. At this time, the lower entrance group was built up. In the west, a two-domed slender mausoleum is being built, which is attributed to the astronomer of the Ulugh Beg time – Kazi Zade Rumi.

Currently, the Shah-i-Zinda complex consists of 11 mausoleums. Most of them belong to the XIV century.

Visiting the historical center of Samarkand, you will certainly find yourself in the majestic building of Gur-e Amir, the ancient mausoleum, the royal tomb of the Timurids. There, in one of the main rooms behind the inner walls, the ashes of the great commander are laid to rest. The middle of the huge room is decorated with the famous jade tombstone of Timur, shrouded in many secrets and legends.

Gur-e Amir architectural complex. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

As the story tells, in the cold winter of 1404, the great Timur, at the head of his 200 thousandth army, set off on a long campaign to China. Despite his advanced age and numerous wounds and lameness that overwhelmed him for several years, he was at the apogee of his majesty and strength. Until his last days, he personally led his army and participated in all military battles. At that moment, winter turned out to be one of the most severe that fell to the lot of Turkestan, and in January 1405 Timur’s large army managed to reach the city of Otrar, but Tamerlane was forced to stop, as he unexpectedly caught a cold and caught pneumonia and died a few days later.

A secret mission to send Timur’s body home was entrusted to one of his confidants, Khoja Yusuf. Everyone was told that in fact one of the wives of the great emir was returning to the capital.

Upon arrival in Samarkand, the body of Tamerlane was immediately buried in the family crypt of the madrasah of Muhammad Sultan, the beloved grandson of Tamerlane.

The educational institution was built by the emir’s grandson himself to teach the Koran to young beys and Muslim warriors. Muhammad Sultan himself died in the spring of 1403 and was buried in this crypt at the madrasah. And the great Timur was buried next to his grandson.

The tomb of Tamerlane was decorated with a tombstone made of black jade. Several times this tombstone mysteriously disappeared, but regularly returned to its place.

According to an old legend, decades later, during his trip to China, Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg in one of the provinces discovered 2 large pieces of dark green jade with mysterious inscriptions, where Timur’s name was mentioned. Perhaps the stone was stolen from the tombstone by the Mongol invaders, as it was valuable as a trophy with divine power. The jade stones found by Ulugbek were brought to Samarkand and served as the second outer tombstone of Tamerlane in the Gur-e Amir mausoleum.

The following inscription was carved on the tombstone: “This is the tomb of the Great Sultan, the gracious khan, Emir Timur Gurgan, the son of Emir Taraghai.” Here is also indicated the genealogy of Tamerlane, which went back to the clan of Genghis Khan himself.

In the center of the historical city of Samarkand, there is a grandiose architectural monument – the cathedral mosque of Amir Temur Bibi-Khanym. It was erected in 1399-1404 by order of the commander and is the largest mosque in Central Asia. The mosque is named after the beloved wife of the commander Bibi-Khanum, which means “senior princess”, known in history more as Saray Mulk Khanum.

The Bibi-Khanym Mosque. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Its construction was carried out after the conquest of Tamerlane to India, but the commander did not watch the process for a long time, as he soon began a campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In 1404, returning after another campaign, Tamerlane was angry that the entrance portal was not as majestic as intended, so he ordered it to be destroyed and rebuilt.

The grandiose complex consists of an entrance portal, the main mosque, and two small ones. In the courtyard of the building with an area of ​​5 thousand square meters, up to 10 thousand people can pray at the same time. The courtyard is surrounded by majestic minarets on four sides.

The building is richly decorated with murals, carved marble, and tiles. Craftsmen from various countries of the world took part in its construction.

Samarkand is a truly unique city. There are so many architectural monuments concentrated here, each of which has its own history, shrouded in legends and folk tales. For example, the famous monument of Ishratkhona was erected in the 15th century and forgotten for some time by researchers and city planners. At this place, where the ancient mausoleum is located, there was once the Garden of Firuz – Bogi Firuz with an area of 1.5 hectares.

The Ishrathona mausoleum. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Ishratkhona was first mentioned in the historical treatise of the 30s of the XIX century “Samaria”. It indicates that Ishratkhona was founded by the daughter of Emir Jalal al-Din – Khabiba Sultan.

In the middle of the 19th century, a topographer Yakovlev, a member of the Russian embassy in Bukhara, drawing up a plan for Samarkand, marked the building to the southeast of the fortress gate with a large conventional sign and the inscription: “The structure of the times of Tamerlane”.

An old photo of the Ishrathona mausoleum. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

In his study of Samarkand, academician V. Bartold mentions a Nestorian monument called Ishratkhona, which turned into a pleasure palace for the khan.

A few years later, the archaeologist V. Vyatkin discovered an interesting document of 1464, a waqf letter drawn up in Samarkand, transferring to storage the tomb of a land plot, slaves, and various property of Khabiba Sultan Begum.

In the execution of the document, up to 60 people of spiritual and court ranks were involved, close to the ruler of Samarkand Sultan Abu Seid.

The waqf letter of the building says that a noblewoman, the wife of Timurid Abu Sayed, Habiba-Sultan, built a domed building over the grave of her daughter, princess Khavend Sultan Biki.

Its name (“Ishratkhona” in Persian means “House of amusements”), the mausoleum received from the Samarkand folklore of the XIX century, which tells about the romantic meeting of Amir Timur with a girl, after which the great emir ordered to build a palace here.

Inside of the shrathona mausoleum. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The first archaeological work in Ishratkhana began in 1939-1940 by academicians M.E. Masson and G.A. Pugachenkova, as a result of which it was established that the mausoleum is located on a large foundation, deepened by almost 5 meters.

Ishratkhana is a unique structure of the 15th century. Prominent figures and masters of that time took part in the construction of the palace. At that time, a revolution was carried out in Samarkand architecture. Many researchers lavished praise on the skill of its creators, noting not only the unrestrained luxury of the design of this building – whether the mausoleum or the palace – but also the fact that fundamentally new architectural techniques and solutions were involved in the construction.

The complex includes a mosque with a strict, modest interior, ceremonial apartments with rich paintings in the kundal technique, where mourning processions with the last prayer took place, as well as a group of rooms on the 1st and 2nd floors.

The Ishrathona mausoleum. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Four spiral staircases lead to the second floor, where several small rooms are located. Above, steps lead to a flat roof, formerly enclosed by a barrier. In Ishratkhon there is also an underground floor, which is an 8-sided crypt, covered with a dome. In terms of size and richness of decoration, it had no equal in Central Asian architecture. The walls of the crypt were surrounded by a bright mosaic panel, and the floor was paved with marble slabs.

The new architectural solution gave rise to new decorative techniques. For the first time, the technique of wall painting kundal is encountered here. Its essence is that the main pattern is embossed, the background is covered with gold, and the pattern is painted in different colors, or, conversely, the ornament is gilded by painting the background. The frescoes of the main hall and the vestibule of Ishratkhana have suffered greatly from the time and bad weather.

The Ishrathona mausoleum. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

In the 16th century, the mausoleum fell into disrepair. More precisely, it was simply plundered. And the reason for this was the violent construction activity that began in the 17th century in Samarkand. At first, Ishratkhona lost its marble panel, since the Sher-Dor and Tilla-Kari madrasahs, which were being built in the Registan, needed large slabs. Also, marble gravestones were dragged to the neighboring Abdi-Darun cemetery, where the old slabs were replaced with new ones.

One of the outstanding hadith scholars of the Muslim world, Imam al-Bukhari was born in Bukhara on July 21, 810. He died in the village of Khartank (present-day Chelak district of Samarkand region), 25 km from Samarkand, where he was buried in 870. However, this place has been abandoned for centuries.

The Imam al-Bukhari complex. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

The complex was restored after Uzbekistan gained independence. People’s masters of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent, Andijan, Kokand, and Shakhrisabz participated in the construction of the complex. On the basis of national architectural traditions, a mausoleum, a mosque, an administrative building, and others were erected.

The main facade of the administrative building of the complex faces south. The complex is entered by three large carved arched gates. The main entrance looks like a large arched iwan in the national style. On the front part of the entrance portal, the text of the history of the construction of the complex is written in Arabic and Uzbek. At the entrance on the right, there are administrative and other rooms.

The mausoleum of Imam al-Bukhari is located on the central axis of the complex. This cube-shaped structure is crowned with a seventeen-meter dome. The walls are decorated with light green, blue, white glazed tiles, marble, onyx, and granite.

On the right, under the light blue onyx tombstone of the upper floor, there is the grave of Al-Bukhari himself, covered with marble.

On the left side of the courtyard, there is a mosque with an area of ​​786 sq. The total area of ​​the veranda is 214 square meters. 1500 believers can pray in the mosque at the same time.

There is a video here showing the place.

A kiswah, the covering of the Kaaba, presented to President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov by King Fahd ibn Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, hangs by the mihrab niche.

In the left wing of the courtyard, there is a hall with utility rooms (miyansaray). The dome of the miyansaray, like other domes, is of the same size and volume. This building houses a library, offices of researchers, and other rooms. Its total area is 946 sq. m. The library contains unique samples of manuscripts of the Koran, various editions, as well as samples of the work of Imam al-Bukhari.

A book in the Imam Al-Bukhari complex library. This photo is courtesy of the Press Service of the Samarkand Region Tourism and Sports Department.

Next to the Imam al-Bukhari complex is the building of the Imam al-Bukhari International Center.

The Imam al-Bukhari complex is one of the largest and most unique structures of this type created in our country over the past centuries. This complex, as President Islam Karimov said, is not only a place of holy worship, it is one of such places in Uzbekistan that glorifies our homeland and plays an important role in educating the younger generation, makes every person think about life and eternity.

About the Author
Nadezhda Dukhovny was born and raised in Uzbekistan and made aliya in 2005. She holds an MA in Linguistics from Tel Aviv University and works in translation. She has a true interest about her motherland and would like to tell more about that fascinating country to make Israeli readers familiar with another culture from other part of the globe.
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