Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Architecture of Samarkand, I
By Eileen K. Gunn
  |  Gorp.com

The Registan

The Registan, which the 19th-century British traveler George Curzon called "the noblest public square in the world," is the main square of the old city, and the most spectacular architectural complex still standing in Central Asia. From this huge square in the heart of the city, which was planned by Timur as a grand covered bazaar, six main roads led out to six city gates, and thence to the rest of the known world: China, India, Russia, and Persia and the Mediterranean. In an urban renewal project as callous as any in the 20th century, Timur razed the houses and shops along the new right-of-way, evicting residents without notice and sending them scurrying with whatever of their possessions they could carry. According to Clavijo, the main road was constructed in 20 days.

The three beautifully restored buildings in the square date from a time later than Timur, however. The earliest of the three present buildings, the Ulugh Beg madrassah, finished in 1420, is on the left as you face the Registan. The other two buildings were built in a similar style over 200 years later. All three are madrassahs—seminaries for students studying both science and Islam—though at one time the square held a madrassah, a caravansary for travelers, and a khanaga to shelter wandering dervishes.

Ulugh Beg madrassah: Built by the astronomer-mathematician Ulugh Beg, the grandson of Timur, who valued knowledge over military power, the Ulugh Beg Madrassah is extravagantly covered in brilliantly glazed tiles in shades of blue, green, and yellow, arranged in the geometrical knot, star, and basketweave patterns called girikhs, with inscriptions on the walls and minarets in the squared Kufic script. Especially note the design, colors, and tilework of this ornamentation, superior to that of the two later buildings. Beautifully restored inside and out, the madrassah contains a central courtyard with a two-story building on each side, housing small rooms for the students and masters. On the side opposite the main entrance is a mosque. In the middle of each wing is a vaulted iwan, or archway, and there is a large domed lecture hall at each of the four corners. At its inception the madrassah housed at least a hundred students, who were taught by the finest scholars of an age dedicated to learning.

The Shir Dor madrassah: On the right-hand side of the Registan, across from the Ulugh Beg madrassah, the Shir Dor, built 1619-1635, was designed to echo the lines of the earlier building, though in accordance with Islamic custom, it was not intended to be identical. However, over the course of the centuries, about nine feet of soil had accumulated on the Registan and around the older madrassah, and this means that the proportions of the younger building are somewhat different from those of the older. The name Shir Dor means "lion-bearing," and the facade, on the portico above the entrance, contains charmingly unconventional images of striped, tigerlike lions and spotted gazelles, overwatched by suns with streaming golden rays and human faces. The depiction of animate beings is very rare in Islamic art, though there are a few other madrassah of this period in Samarkand and Bukhara with similar decoration. The Shir Dor has a slightly different courtyard and no mosque—the walls of the yard have impressively large iwans and are covered with spectacular ornamental tiling.

The Tillya Kari madrassah: The third madrassah, called Tillya Kari (Adorned with Gold), sits at right angles to the others. Its exterior student cells have arched balconies that look out over the Registan. Built between 1646 and 1659 on the site of Ulugh Beg's Mirzoi caravansary, it served as both a religious college and a congregational mosque, into which women were allowed on Fridays. The interior of the turquoise-domed mosque, thoroughly restored with a thousand square meters of gold leaf, is a stunning sight.

The Gur Emir

Tucked away among back streets behind the Hotel Samarkand, the Gur Emir (Tomb of the Ruler) is Timur's tomb, where the former ruler of half the world lies beneath a huge ribbed dome 112 feet high. The dome, each rib of which is covered with a pattern of diamonds in blue and yellow majolica tiles, is set on a slightly smaller cylindrical drum, decorated with tiles and colored bricks, which is in turn set on a larger octagonal base that holds the main room of the mausoleum.

The tomb was built originally by Timur for Mohammed Sultan, his favorite grandson, who died of wounds incurred in Turkey in 1403. At Timur's own death in 1405, he also was interred there. What remains now is only part of the original complex, which included a madrassah, where boys from noble families were educated, and a khanaga, a house for guests of the government, both built by Mohammed Sultan. The buildings, like those on the Registan, sat on three sides of a central courtyard. A magnificent entrance gate, which is still standing and is decorated with elaborate tile work, formed an entry in the center of the fourth side. Low stone fences afforded passersby a view into the courtyard, which had tall minarets at each corner, two of which have been partially restored.

Beneath the dome lie seven coffin-shaped memorial stones. Timur's cenotaph, six feet long, is a block of solid jade, brought from Mongolia in 1425 by Ulugh Beg. Once the largest piece of jade in the world, it split down the middle when the Persian conqueror Nadir Shah tried to make off with it in 1740. Other members of Timur's family buried here are his sons Shahrukh and Miranshah, his grandsons Ulugh Beg and Mohammed Sultan, and two unnamed children.

The actual graves are in a vaulted crypt below the room containing the cenotaphs, in exactly the same position as the stones above. Timur rests at the feet of Mir Said Berekh, his spiritual adviser. In a list of tough jobs, being spiritual adviser to one of the great monsters of history must rank near the top.

In June of 1941, a team of Soviet archaeologists opened five of the graves, and established that the body in Timur's grave was that of a man with a powerful physique and some Mongol features, lame in his right leg and with a damaged right arm. The Soviet forensic anthropologist Mikhail Gerasimov examined the skull, and, using the facial reconstruction technique for which he is known, sculpted a head of Timur: a rugged-looking fellow with thuggish demeanor and a Fu Manchu moustache. Gerasimov also disinterred and sculpted Ulugh Beg and several other Timurids. His attention to the matter is undoubtedly responsible for the proliferation in Samarkand of statues of Ulugh Beg, all wearing the same lugubrious expression.


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