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Notes on the Geography of Uzbekistan: Samarkand

Samarkand is the second city of Uzbekistan after Tashkent, but unlike Tashkent Samarkand has not been physically overwhelmed by Russian and Soviet buildings.  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 quarter, the Russians in the 19th century added a district neatly laid out as spokes and parts of concentric circles.  That district, ironically, is more authentic than the great monuments towering over the Old City, all of which the Soviets rebuilt from ruins.

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Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 1

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. All three were renovated by the Soviets.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 2

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.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 3

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.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 4

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.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 5

Another view, showing the relationship between that iwan and the courtyard.


Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 6

Another of the side walls. None of these madrasas serves any longer as a religious school.  Instead, they've become craft boutiques.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 7


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In a deeper light.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 9

A third iwan--like the rest, but different in detail.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 10

In case you're wondering what, exactly, the Soviets rebuilt, here's a photo of the Ulug Beg mosque 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). Another source: Hugues Krafft, A Travers le Turkestan Russe (1902).

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 11

Here's the Shir Dor madrasa, with its remarkable--because un-Islamically figurative--pictures of two hunting tigers at dawn.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 12

The base of the pishtaq or portal is original.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 13

The tile, however, has been heavily reconstructed.  Note the banai pattern of alternating glazed and bisque tile on the iwan's underside.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 14

The courtyard of the Shir Dor.  We're facing the main entrance, which appears here as the back side of a giant false front.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 15

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; it also shows that the decorative patterns today are distinctly different from the original ones. 

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 16

Another reminder that the buildings today are recreations.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 17

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.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 18

We're inside the courtyard now, with the mosque on the right.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 19

View of the single-story courtyard.  This is the iwan facing the main entrance, yet it's subordinate to the Mecca-facing wall.

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The mosque.

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Inside, the mihrab, or prayer niche, has recently been recovered with gold leaf.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 22

For a different view, we can climb an Ulug Beg minaret. 

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 23

The pishtaq is hollow.

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At the top of the minaret: metal plates.

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The top of the pishtaq, with its banai tilework.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 26

View over sheetmetal roofs and into the madrasa courtyard.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 27

The view over to the Shir Dor madrasa.

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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.

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 29

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

Uzbekistan: Samarkand picture 30

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. The view here also hints at the sloppy building methods used by the Soviets in their reconstruction work.

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