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The Registan Square

Registan Square. Photo by Muzaffar Bukhari - CC License

Registan Square. Photo by Muzaffar Bukhari – CC License

The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty, now in Uzbekistan. The name Registan means “Sandy place” in Persian. It was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis – and a place of public executions. It is framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) of distinctive Islamic architecture.

The three madrasahs of the Registan are: the Ulugh Beg Madrasah (1417–1420), the Tilla-Kari Madrasah (1646–1660) and the Sher-Dar Madrasah (1619–1636). Madrasah is an Arabic term meaning school.

The Ulugh Beg Madrasah, built during the Timurid Empire era of Timur—Tamerlane, has an imposing iwan with a lancet-arch pishtaq or portal facing the square. The corners are flanked by high minarets. The mosaic panel over the iwan’s entrance arch is decorated by geometrical stylized ornaments. The square courtyard includes a mosque and lecture rooms, and is fringed by the dormitory cells in which students lived. There are deep galleries along the axes. Originally the Ulugh Beg Madrasah was a two-storied building with four domed darskhonas (lecture rooms) at the corners.

In the 17th century the ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, ordered the construction of the Sher-Dar and Tilla-Kari madrasahs. The tiger mosaics on the face of each madrasah are interesting, in that they flout the ban in Islam of the depiction of living beings on religious buildings.

The Tilla-Kari madrasah was commissioned a decade after the adjacent Sher Dar madrasah by the same patron, Shaybanid general, Alchin Yalangtush Bahadur between 1646-60. Once part of the complex built by Timur’s wife, Tuman-Aka in the fourteenth century, the site had housed the Mirzoi caravan sarai. Built originally as a theological seminary, this madrasah with its large prayer hall soon became Samarkand’s congregational mosque with the collapse of the Bibi Khanum Mosque (b. 1399) and the dismantling of Alikeh Kukeltash Mosque (1439-40).

The Tilla-Kari madrasah was conceived as the last, largest and most embellished structure of the famed Registan Square. It’s name means ”gold-covered’, referring to the lavish gilt decoration of its mosque’s domed chamber. Yalangtush defined the northern edge of the Registan Square with the Tilla-Kari’s 120 meter-long façade, relieving the square’s oppressive symmetry with the off-axis placement of its preponderant dome. The composition is strengthened with the use of domed corner minarets on the main elevation that harmonize with the square’s character and scale. Exterior elevations were richly decorated with polychromatic tiles with geometric patterns. Four, recessed alcove bays flank the entrance portal, and mark a significant change from earlier unbroken elevations. The Tilla-Kari also deviates from the ensemble’s dominant madrasah typology of with internal court iwans and rear elevation minarets. It has a larger built-open volume ratio, with a small square courtyard. The Tilla-Kari madrasah makes reference to a madrasah typology seen in Bukhara in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its deeply recessed five-sided portal niche and small cylindrical corner towers crowned by cupolas. The madrasah consists of student rooms with preceding vestibules surrounding three-sides of a square courtyard, with the domed mosque occupying the fourth. At the center of each façade is an iwan with a tall pishtaq; the iwan to the west gives access to the mosque.

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