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I shall now take this opportunity of saying a few words on Samarcand, formerly the place of residency of
Timur, is in the midst of the beautiful valley Soghd. (..) It was known in the time of Alexander the Great by the
name of Marakanda Regia Sogdianorum; and contains the sepulchre
of Timur. It is still the seat of Oriental literature, and called "The
Ornament of the Face of the Earth." It has a wall of clay, a beautiful palace, and many houses of
marble; many mosques and colleges. It once had the name
of Bokhara-Tsheen, but received the present name from the Conqueror
Samar, after Christ 643.
Joseph Wolff - Narrative of a mission to Bokhara, in the years 1843-1845, to ascertain the fate of Colonel Stoddart and Captain Conolly
British Museum: jewels from the "Oxus Treasure" which was found in the 1870s near the River Oxus. Notwithstanding some doubts about its authenticity the treasure is regarded as an artistic product of the Achaemenid Persian Empire
The historic town of Samarkand, located in a large oasis in the valley of the Zerafshan River, in the north-eastern region of Uzbekistan, is considered the crossroads of world cultures with a history of over two and a half millennia.
From the UNESCO synthesis of the universal value of Samarkand which in 2001 was added to the World Heritage List.
Oxus was the ancient Greek name of the Amu Daria River and Transoxiana (beyond the Oxus) was the region between this river and the Yaxarte (Syr Daria River). The city of Samarkand is located in a fertile valley midway between these two rivers. In antiquity the region was part of the Persian Empire; it was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329 BC; he discovered inside the walls of Samarkand one of the most impressive cities of the ancient world: its walls had a length of eight miles. The Hellenistic kingdom which was founded after the death of Alexander did not last long under the pressure of nomadic tribes; Samarkand became part of the Kushan Empire which at one point included most of northern India. In the early VIIth century AD it was described as a very flourishing city. The predominant Persian culture made known the teachings of Zarathustra, including the practice of praying in front of a fire. When the Arabs conquered Samarkand they regarded its inhabitants as fire worshippers and took radical steps to eradicate what they thought was idolatry, as they did in Azerbaijan, west of the Caspian Sea and in Persia itself. Eventually Islam became the only faith, but the process was painful.
I can not describe my feeling of curiosity when they pointed out to me, on the east, Mount Chobanata, at whose foot was situate, I was told, the Mecca I so longed to see. I therefore gazed intently in the direction indicated, and at last, on toiling up a hill, I beheld the city of Timour in the middle of a fine country. I must confess that the first impression produced by the domes and minarets, with their various colors, all bathed in the beams of the morning sun - the peculiarity, in short, of the whole scene - was very pleasing. (..) I passed my time visiting all that was worth seeing in the city, for, in spite of its miserable appearance, it is, in this respect, the richest in all Central Asia. The eye is most struck by four lofty edifices, in the form of half domes, the forefronts or frontispieces of the medresse (pishtak). They seemed all to be near together; but some, in fact, are in the background. (..) These three medresse form the principal open space, the righistan of Samarcand.
Arminius Vambery - Travels in Central Asia in 1863
The major monuments include the Registan mosque and madrasahs, originally built in mud brick and covered with decorated ceramic tiles. UNESCO
We see the Medresse Mirza Ulug, built in 828 (1434) by Timour, grandson of the same name, who was passionately fond of astrology, but which, even in 1113 (1701), were in so ruinous a condition that, to borrow the expression employed by its historian, "owls housed, instead of students, in its cells, and the doors were hung with spiders' webs instead of silk curtains." Vambery
Samarkand remained for centuries a nominal possession of the Baghdad Caliph, but the actual rulers were Turks who belonged to different tribes (Karakhanids, Seljuks, Khwarezms). In particular the occupation by the Khwarezms (who had their base near Khiva) greatly reduced the population of the city.
Ouloug Beg Medrese (courtyard)
I journeyed to Samarqand,
which is one of the first and most perfectly beautiful
cities in the world. It is built on the bank of a river
where the inhabitants promenade after the afternoon
prayer. There were formerly great palaces along the
bank, but most of them are in ruins, as also is much
of the city itself, and it has no walls or gates.
H. A. R. Gibb - Selection from the Travels of Ibn Battuta in 1325-1354
In 1220 Samarkand was seized and pillaged by the Mongols of Genghis Khan. It slowly recovered from that calamity, but the city was rebuilt a few miles to the south of the old one. This explains why Samarkand does not have monuments of its ancient past.
In 1369 Timur (aka Tamerlane or Tamburlaine), a warlord who had gained control over much of the region, chose Samarkand as the capital of his possessions. In the next thirty years he waged war on all the neighbouring countries and eventually established one of the largest known empires, which included Syria, parts of the Anatolian tableland and Persia.
"Then shal my native city Samarcanda.
The pride and beautie of her princely seat,
Be famous through the furthest continents,
For there my Pallace royal shal be plac'd:
Whose shyning Turrets shal dismay the heavens,
And cast the fame of Ilions Tower to hell.
(Christopher Marlowe - Tamburlaine - Part Two - Act Four - Scene Three).
Chir Dor Medrese in the 1920s and today
Timur claimed he was acting as a Ghazi, (warrior for the faith) but he mostly waged war on other Muslim states. While he became famous for his massacres of Hindus in India and Christians in Syria, he nonetheless did not spare the Muslim inhabitants of Baghdad and Damascus. In 1401 he invaded Anatolia and defeated Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I at Ankara and he even reached the shores of the Aegean Sea by taking Smyrna.
Timur did not spare resources in order to embellish Samarkand. Skilled artisans and masses of slaves were transferred there together with elephants, timber and rare stones.
While Timur claimed to be a legitimate heir of the Mongol Empire and promoted the use of the Turkish language, the prevailing culture in his vast empire was the Persian one and the design of the monuments he built at Samarkand followed Persian patterns, although with some local features which were eventually adopted by the Persian themselves, chiefly the enormous size of the pishtaq, the portals, e.g. in the Blue Mosque of Tabriz.
Medreses (theological schools) are the most important monuments of Samarkand.
A traditional medrese was composed of a rectangular courtyard surrounded by the cells for the students: it housed a small mosque and some larger rooms where students had their lessons when they could not meet in the courtyard. A portal per se is not an architectural element which seems apt to become a symbol of the strength and wealth of an empire, yet the Seljuks did so in Anatolia by building decorated portals for their medreses, e.g. at Kayseri and mosques, e.g. at Divrigi.
In Samarkand during the rule of Timur and his heirs this approach evolved into the construction of portals of a gigantic dimension. The Registan is located at the centre of the city and it is regarded as its most monumental site: it is a rectangular square having on three sides a medrese which is characterized by a gigantic portal. What we see today is the result of a restoration/reconstruction which lasted twenty years (1967-1987); it has led to a Registan which is very bright and impressive, but which never was like this in the past. The three medreses were built during a period which spans from the early XVth century to the middle of the XVIIth century. For this reason their glazed tiles never looked all "brand new" at the same time as they do after the restoration.
At the time of Timur, Registan was the trading centre of Samarkand, an open air space where merchants placed their tents in front of a bazaar built by Touman Aka, Timur's youngest wife. Ouloug Beg, grandson of Timur, was not as keen on spending his life in the battlefield: astronomy was his great passion and he decided to replace the bazaar with a kulliye, a complex of buildings made up of a mosque, a caravanserai, a hammam, a monastery and an enormous medrese where students were taught astronomy in addition to traditional religious matters. The medrese was entirely decorated with glazed tiles, not only the portal or the iwan (large niche) in the courtyard, but even the cells of the students. Because Ouloug Beg was fond of astronomy, stars are a recurring theme of the decoration.
Tilia Kari Medrese
Some of those are still peopled others abandoned, and likely soon to become perfect ruins. To those in the best state of repair belong the Medresse Shirudar (Chir Dor) and Tillakari; but these were built long subsequently to the time of Timour. The one last named, which is very rich in decorations of gold, whence its name, Tillakari (worked in gold), was built in 1028 (1618) by a rich Kalmuk named Yelenktosh, who was a convert to Islamism. Vambery
The empire founded by Timur did not last long; in 1498 his heir Babur was dislodged from Samarkand by the Shaybanids (Uzbeks). Later on Babur founded the Mogul Empire in Northern India, while the Shaybanids placed their residence at Bukhara.
Earthquakes, the action of high seasonal and daily temperature fluctuations due to the very continental climate of the region and lack of maintenance greatly damaged most of the buildings of Registan.
At the beginning of the XVIIth century, Alchin Yalantush Bahadur, a Shaybanid governor of Samarkand, decided to build a second gigantic medrese on the site of the monastery. The rubble of the monastery was used for the new building, which is not identical to Ouloug Beg's medrese because of a religious prohibition of symmetry. Its portal is characterized by two lions bearing the sun (Chir Dor = lion bearing). This motif which violated Islamic iconographic rules seems to have a Mongol origin and because the Shaybanids (as well as Timur) regarded themselves as the heirs of the Great Mongol Empire, the lions most likely had a political significance.
Tilia Kari Medrese: in the 1920s and today
A few years later Yalantush Baladur built a third medrese (Tilia Kari = gold covered) on the site of the caravanserai. The design of this medrese marked a change from previous patterns in two respects: the portal is characterized by a deeply recessed niche and the medrese mosque is a large building with an imposing dome which attracts the attention of the viewer.
In the late XVIIIth century Tchorsou, a small vaulted bazaar, was built behind Chir Dor Medrese.
The image used as background for this page shows a lion of Chir Dor Medrese as portrayed in an Uzbek banknote.