The exterior of Shir Dor Madrassa in Samarkand, Uzbekistan © Sophie and Max Lovell-Hoare
Madrassas are to Khiva as university colleges are to Oxford or Cambridge. As with the colleges, they were higher education institutions endowed by wealthy benefactors where teachers and students lived and worked together.
Endowing a madrassa was an expensive business. In addition to the construction costs for the buildings, benefactors were expected to donate enough land or property to support the students and teachers and to pay for the building’s upkeep. The upside for the donor was that as the madrassa bore his name he would have a lasting legacy in the eyes of Khiva’s population and, it was hoped, be looked upon favourably when he finally had to account for his good deeds before God. The curriculum in the madrassas included both secular and religious subjects. Arabic grammar, sharia, and Arabic and Persian literature were taught to the youngest students, who could enter the madrassa at the age of 15; older students also studied logic and law. Classes took place four days a week throughout the year, and students were expected to pass an exam before taking their degree and being given an appropriate job by the khan. The buildings themselves were divided into public and private areas. Public rooms included the mosque, an audience hall and teaching rooms, and to the rear of the madrassa were typically the students’ hujras or cells where they slept. In addition to the students and their teachers, the madrassa’s community also included an imam, a muezzin to call the residents to prayer, a mutavalli (similar to a bursar), cleaners, barbers and water carriers.