Samarkand’s central square will make even the most architecture-weary visitor stand up and take note. Pausing for a minute (and a photo) on the raised viewing platform, the square unfolds below you. An almost infinite number of contrasting patterns swirl and dance on every surface but somehow never clash; the equally garishly patterned textiles worn by Uzbek women walking by appear almost as a continuation of the buildings themselves. The effect is completely mesmerising.
The Registan is one of the world's most photographed squares © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
The Registan grew up around the tomb to the 9th-century saint Imam Muhammad ibn Djafar, but by the 14th century this was also the commercial heart of the town. Six roads ran through the square, and it was connected directly with Timur’s citadel. Imperial decrees were shouted from the rooftops, and people would also have gathered here to watch military pageants and other forms of spectacle. The three magnificent buildings you see today are the successors to this medieval centrepiece.
Ulug Beg Madrassa
Ulug Beg is the oldest of the Registan's madrassas © Gilad Rom, Wikimedia Commons
The Ulug Beg Madrassa on the left of the square is the oldest of the three madrassas. It was built between 1417–20 by Timur’s grandson Ulug Beg, an intellectual who, sadly for his faltering empire, spent more of his time concentrating on maths and science than he did on affairs of state. His love of astronomy is shown in the mosaic tilework above the 15m arch on the main portico: it’s a depiction of the sky and the stars.
The view from Ulug Beg Madrassa's minaret is quite spectacular © Laura Pidgley
The madrassa itself measure 56m by 81m and is built around a large, open courtyard. At its peak some 100 students lived in the 50 cells, many of them making use of the astronomical instruments housed here before the construction of Ulug Beg’s Observatory. Unusually, this was not a religious madrassa: the students here were studying mathematics and the sciences. If you tip the security guard you can climb over the dust and builders’ rubble and up the steep and narrow staircase to the top of the right-hand minaret, finally pulling yourself up through the metal hatch and onto the rooftop. There’s scarcely any room to move and you sit in a precarious position with an awfully long drop below, but if you can overcome any fear of heights, this is an exhilarating place from which to view the tiger mosaic on the Sher Dor Madrassa opposite and you feel like you’re on top of the world.
Tilla Kari Madrassa
Tilla Kari is the central madrassa on Registan Square © Evgeniy Agarkov, Dreamstime
The madrassa in the centre is the Tilla Kari Madrassa. When the Bibi Khanym Mosque started to fall into disrepair in the mid 17th century, Yalangtush Biy decided a replacement was needed, so he commissioned this combined mosque and madrassa complex. Construction was completed in 1660 after 20 years of hard work; the dome was reconstructed in the 20th century as the original was destroyed by Nadir Shah’s forces in the early 18th century. Though its easy to get caught up looking at the exterior, this is the one madrassa you must go inside: the golden ceiling is utterly enthralling, and it is this gilt that gives the madrassa its name. Tour groups inevitably spend a while lingering here and blocking the view, but be patient and wait for space. Position yourself immediately beneath the centre of the golden dome and then look straight up to appreciate the full effect.
Sher Dor Madrassa
This madrassa is one of the most photographed buildings in the world © Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
Sher Dor Madrassa, the Tiger or Lion Madrassa, is a 17th-century construction and must be one of the most photographed buildings in existence. There are two ribbed domes (best seen from inside rather than from the Registan Square) and two minarets flank the façade. The elaborate mosaic work on the portico shows two sun gods, two strange big cats with each with tiger’s stripes but a lion’s mane, and two deer, and must therefore contravene so many Islamic prohibitions on art, but still this was a religious building. The mosaic was ravaged over time, but was heavily restored in the 20th century to the condition you see today.
For more on Uzebkistan's Silk Road gems, take a look at our guidebook: