Travel to Uzbekistan: Samarkand
Samarkand is the second city of Uzbekistan, after Tashkent, but unlike Tashkent Samarkand has not been physically overwhelmed by Russian and Soviet construction. At the center of the city, there's an old core--roughly circular and slightly over a mile in diameter. Later accretions are obvious from a street map, especially on the west side of the Old City, where, in contrast to the meandering lanes and dead-ends of the Old City, the Russians in the 19th century added a district neatly laid out as spokes and concentric circles--or at least the left half of a set of spokes and circles. That district, ironically, is more authentic than the great monuments towering over the Old City, all of which the Soviets rebuilt from ruins.
The focal Registan-- or "sandy place." The oldest building is the one on the left. It's the Ulug Beg madrasa of 1417-20. (Ulug Beg was a grandson of Tamerlane.) The building facing it is the Shir Dor or "House of the Lion" madrasa. Two centuries newer, it was built by an ambitious governor named Yalangtush Bakhadur between 1611 and 1636. Straight ahead is the newest building of the set (1646-60): it's the Tillya-Kari or "gold-embossed" madrasa and jami masjid, or Friday mosque. It's another project of Yalangtush Bakhadur.
The designers of the mosque had to choose between maintaining axiality or facing Mecca. Mecca won, which is why the dome of the mosque, which is over the Qibla or Mecca-facing wall, is on the left, rather than straight ahead.
The Ulug Beg madrasa is decorated with the stars often found in Ulug Beg's works--not surprising, given his deep and scholarly interest in astronomy. If the basketweaving of the top side panels seems heavy-handed, that's because it's completely different from the original facing, which matched the bottom pair of panels.
On the back side of the same great pishtaq, or portal, there's a smaller but companionable open room or iwan, one of four surrounding the courtyard.
Another view, showing the relationship between that iwan and the courtyard.
Another of the side walls. None of these madrasas serves any longer as a religious school. Instead, they've become craft boutiques.
In a deeper light.
A third iwan--like the rest, but different.
A perhaps discouraging picture, showing the Ulug Beg masque in the 1890s. The pishtaq is stripped and crumbling. The courtyard has been reduced to a single story of rooms used for storage. The Registan itself is a market square.
This and other upcoming historic photographs of Samarkand are from the wall of the State Museum of the Cultural History of Uzbekistan, where they appear without credit. A good collection of historic Samarkand photographs has been published, however, by Vitaly Naumkin as Caught in Time: Great Photographic Archives I: Samarkand (1992). If you have access to a really good library, or to interlibrary loan, see Hugues Krafft, A Travers le Turkestan Russe (1902).
Here's the Shir Dor madrasa, with its remarkable--because un-Islamically figurative--pictures of two hunting tigers at dawn.
The base of the great pishtaq or portal is original.
The tile, however, has been heavily reconstructed. Note the banai pattern of alternating glazed and bisque tile on the iwan's underside.
The courtyard of the Shir Dor. We're facing the main entrance, which appears here as the back side of a giant false front.
Detail. A color photograph of this same courtyard was taken about 1910 by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii and is reproduced in Photographs for the Tsar (1983). It shows that the courtyard had lost half its facing; more interesting, perhaps, it also shows that the decorative patterns today are distinctly different from the original ones.
Again, a perhaps discouraging reminder of the extent to which these buildings today are recreations.
We've come off to the side of the Tillya-Kari mosque. Its domes--not only the main one on the right but the side ones on the main facade--are new.
We're inside the courtyard now, with the mosque on the right.
View of the single-story courtyard. This is the iwan facing the main entrance, yet it's subordinate to the Mecca-facing wall.
Inside, the mihrab, or prayer niche, has recently been recovered with gold leaf.
For a different view, we can climb an Ulug Beg minaret.
The pishtaq is hollow.
At the top of the minaret: metal plates.
The top of the pishtaq, with its banai tilework.
View down into the madrasa courtyard.
The view over to the Shir Dor madrasa.
The view over the Tillya-Kari madrasa, with the mosque dome on the left. In the right distance is Tamerlane's Bibi Khanum mosque. It was Samarkand's jami masjid until it began falling apart. Tillya-Kari replaced it. Now Bibi Khanum's been rebuilt by the Soviets.
A zoomed shot of Bibi Khanum, taken from the same minaret. The Spanish ambassador Clavijo visited in 1404 and saw a walled and moated city, with six streets radiating from the Registan to gates beyond which lay estates with palaces and fountains. He also saw the destruction and rebuilding, on Tamerlane's orders, of a bazaar near the Bibi Khanum mosque
Last glimpse of the Registan. This time, the view is from the minaret at Bibi Khanum, which can also be climbed if you're an early-bird. The Registan's three pishtaqs can be discerned, along with the mosque dome. In the distance are the Zarafshon Mountains, an outlier of the Pamirs.
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