The three medressas that make up the Registan in Samarkand are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas, anything older having been flattened by Chingis Khan.
The Ulugh Beg Medressa, on the west side of the Registan is the original medressa, finished in 1420 under Ulugh Beg, Timur’s grandson. The façade of the medressa facing the Registan Square features a magnificent 34.7-meter-high pishtaq portal covered with intricate geometric and star-shape mosaic designs, as well as bands of calligraphic inscriptions – all made of glazed tiles in prevalent shades of turquoise and blue. It is probably the most beautiful of the three medressas build by him (the othet two being located in Bukhara and Gijduvan). At that time, the medrssa was the one of the world’s largest and best scientific establishments. Here students were taught philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, theology. Ulugh Beg himself is thought to have taught mathematics here. Along the medressa, he also had a caravanserai and khanagha built. These were, however, destroyed two centuries later to make room for the Tilla-Kari and and the Sher-Dor Medressas.
North of the Ulugh Bek Medressa is the Tilla-Kari medressa by the Shayanid Emir Yalangtush. The construction of the Tilla-Kori madrassah lasted more than 14 years and finished in 1660. The main façade of the building is done in two levels; the central portal is silted with a five-ended deep niche with two entrances leading to an inner, pleasant, courtyard. The highlight of the Tilla-Kari Medressa is the mosque, which is on the left-hand side of the courtyard and is intricately decorated with gold to symbolise Samarkand’w wealth at the time it was build.
The Sher Dor Medressa to the east, also commissioned by the Shayanid Emir Yalangtush, was completed in 1636. The entrance portal is decorated with roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions. flouting the Islamic prohibitions against depiction of live animals.
Construction on the Bibi-KHanym Mosque started in 1399, the year after Timur’s very succesfull military campaign in India. It was paid for by the spoils of war, which were brought back to Samarkand by 95 war elephants, which were later repurposed as heavy-duty haulers at the construction sight. Construction of the mosque ended in 1405. However, Timur did not see the finished mosque as he died of a fever during a campaign in China the same year. Shortly after its completion the dome started to crumble and masonry fell on the heads of the worshippers. The architects, urged on by Timur’s over-ambition, had made the structure too large to accomodate its own weight and insufficiently stable in an active seismic zone. Timur’s successor’s were too weak and plagued by infighting and thus not able to shore up the crumbling building. In the following century’s some restoration work was undertaken, however these were cancelled by Abdullah Khan II, the last Shaybanid Dynasty Khan of Bukhara in the late 16th century. However, the mosque continued to be used until the 17th century when Yalangtush Bakhodur build the Tilla Kori Mosque and Medessa as a replacement. For centuries thereafter the mosque languished at the heart of Samarkand, frequently the target of thieves who eagerly stole the bricks, tiles and marble. The inner arch of the portal finally collapsed during an earthquke in 1897.
Bib-Khanym Mosque is in easy walking distance from the Registan. It can be visited daily between 8am and 8pm and the admission charge is about 22000 Som or $2.50. You might have to pay about 5000 Som extra for taking pictures.
The Samarkand Bazaar lies in the shadows of the Bibi-Khanym mosque and after you venture in and find a sprawling mess of colourful spice stalls, vegetable stands and butchers. The fruit stalls are piled high with with apricots, peaches and pomegranates. You will be tempted to taste the various dried fruits and nuts and munch your way through the heaps of grapes (of which Samarkand is reputed to have more than 100 varieties). If, by any chance you visit the bazaar in autumn, large amounts of melons will be stacked next to the fruit stalls. The naan breads are amazing too and apparently Timur only ate naan breads that were baked in Samarkand.
In addition to the food stalls, there are also the usual labyrinth of shops selling cakes, toiletries, electrical products and everything else under the sun. Although the wares today are delivered by truck rather than by camel, the hustle and bustle of that place is the same as it was centuries ago. The bazaar is open each day between 07:00 and 19:00 and is definitely well worth a visit.
The azure dome of the Gur-e-Amir, mean “Tomb of a King”, is the final resting place of Amir Timur, the ruthless conqueror who dominated Central Asia in the final decades of the 14th century up to his death in 1405. The earliest part of the complex, originally a khanqah and a medressa, were originally build by Muhammad Sultan, Timur’s grandson and heir-apparent. Of these original building only the entrance portal and a part of one of the four minarets remain.
In 1403, Muhammad Sultan suddenly died and Timur immediately ordered the construction of the existing mausoleum. However, Timur did not see the finished mausoleum as he died only two year slater, while on a military campaign in China. Although Timur had build himself a mausoleum in his favourite city of Shahrisabz, the mountain passes leading to the area were impassable in winter, making it necessary to bury him in Samarkand. Later, Amir Timur and Sultan Muhammad, were joined by Timu’s spiritual leader Sayyyid Baraka (1343-1402); his grandson Ulug Bek (1394-1449) and one of his sons, Shah Rukh Mirza (1377-1447), the second ruler of the Timurid Dynasty. Over time, several more relatives were buried here and Gur-e-Amir became the dynastic mausoleum of the Timuri Dynasty.
Like the Bibi-Khanym Mosqu, the Gur-e-Amir mausoleum is in walking distance from the Registan. It can be visited daily between 9am and 5pm and the admission charge is about 22000 Som or $2.50.
The Shah-I-Zinda Necropolis is perched on a hill amidst the city’s main cemetery, in the northeast of the city, only a short walk from the Bibi-Khanym Mosque and the main bazaar. The necropolis consists of nearly 20 mausoleums and tombs which line a narrow, cobblestoned avenue. Shah-I-Zinda translates as “The Tomb of the the Living King”, and this necropolis site is a fitting memorial place for the nobility of Samarkand. The site was used for burials from the 12th to the 19th centuries with most of its mausoleums built between the 14th and 15th centuries. “The Tomb of the Living King” refers to its original, innermost and holiest shrine – a complex of cool, quiet rooms around what is according to legend the grave of Kusam-ibn-Abbas, who is reputed t to have travelled to Uzbekistan to convert Zoroastrians to Islam. Apparently he was so successful in his mission that he got beheaded by a gang of fire-worshippers. Seven centuries later Timur and Ulugbek buried their family and favourites near the sanctity of the original shrine.
The most beautiful tomb is the Shodi Mulk Oko Mausoleum (1372), resting place of a sister and niece of Timur, second on the left after the entry stairs. The exquisite majolica and terracotta work here – notice the minuscule amount of space between the tiles – was of such exceptional quality that it merited almost no restoration.
The necropolis can be visited between 07:00 and 19:00. The entrance fee was about 10000 Som ($1) and they charged a similar amount for me to take photos. Note that the complex can get very busy and it might be best to visit early morning or late afternoon.