The three buildings surrounding Samarkand’s Registan Square comprise one of the world’s most spectacular architectural ensembles. In the 15th century, Ulug Beg, grandson of the Turkic conqueror Timur, built a group of mosques, caravanserais (merchants’ inns), and the Ulug Beg, a medresa (Koranic school), around the city’s sandy market square. With the exception of the Ulug Beg, the other buildings were later destroyed and replaced in the 17th century by two more medresas, the Sher Dor and Tilla Kari.
BUILDING THE REGISTAN
The three medresas were built over a period of 230 years. The first was the Ulug Beg, begun in 1417. Directly opposite, the Sher Dor (“Lion Bearer”), modeled on the Ulug Beg, was added two centuries later. Its unconventional facade depicts live animals and human faces (an interpretation of the Koran forbids this).
The combined mosque and medresa of Tilla Kari (“Gold Decorated”) was added in the mid-17th century. Its ceiling appears domed, but is, in fact, flat — an effect created by the decreasing pattern size toward the center.
The two later buildings were inspired by the earlier Timurid style.
A CENTER OF SCIENCE AND LEARNING
With room for over 100 students and teachers, lodged in 52 cells around the courtyard, the Ulug Beg was effectively a university. Unlike the traditional medresa, which was wholly devoted to Islamic studies, students here also received an education in mathematics and the sciences. This was a reflection of Ulug Beg’s passions Known as the “astronomer king,” he endowed Samarkand with one of the world’s earliest observatories: a two-story structure built on a hill and meant to serve as a giant astronomical instrument pointing at the heavens. Only its circular foundations survive.
Until recently, the portion of Central Asia once called Transoxania (roughly modern Uzbekistan, and parts of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan), was isolated and largely forgotten. But in the Middle Ages, it was the glittering center of the Islamic world, its cities boasting grand palaces and mosques. Most magnificent of all was Samarkand. Already renowned by the time of Alexander the Great, the city owes its legendary reputation to the leader of the Timurid empire, Timur (1336-1405). Brutal and despotic, Timur was responsible for around 17 million deaths as a result of his military campaigns. However, with the riches he accrued, and the artisans he captured and sent back to Samarkand, he built a city that became a political, religious, cultural, and commercial capital whose influence extended across the known world.
This has two arcaded tiers of cells for students and professors.
Ulug Beg Medresa
The facade consists of a central arched pishtaq (porch) flanked by two minarets. The elaborate tiling of stars is in keeping with Ulug Beg’s passion for astronomy.
Tilla Kari Medresa
Lavish gold-leaf gilding covers the Mecca-facing mihrab (pulpit) beneath the dome chamber.
These have replaced the single-story buildings that once stood in this area.
The Sher Dor Medresa’s marvelous courtyard contains large iwans (arched portals) that are covered with spectacular tile work.
A vast space at the heart of the city, the Registan, meaning a “sandy place,” is the most famous site in Samarkand.
Sher Dor Medresa
The impressive tile work on the pishtaq (porch) depicts two lions stalking gazelles. Behind each lion is a Sun portrayed with a human face.
These feature flared tops from which the muezzin called the people to prayer.
Ulug Beg Medresa Tile Work
The brilliant glazed tiles of vine scrolls and flowers in a polychromy of gold leaf and lapis lazuli is typical of Timurid decoration.
Ulug Beg employed a mathematical consultant in the building of his medresa, Ghiyath ad-Din Jamshid al-Kashi, whose treatise on mathematics and astronomy has survived to the present day.
c. 1417-20: Constrion of the Ulug Beg Medresa.
1619: Completion of the Sher Dor Medresa.
1647: The Tilla Kari Medresa is finished.
1932-52: Restoration of the Ulug Beg Medresa.
2001: The Registan is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.