The Registan square is the heart of Samarkand, and the heart of the empire of Tamerlane in its heyday. The large square is surrounded by a mosque and 3 madrassahs which convey the enormous power that was wielded from here in the 14th century. The importance of this place is explained by a saying on one of the madrassahs: ‘If you want to understand us, examine our monuments’.
Ulugh Beg madrassah
The earliest building is the Ulugh Beg Madrassah, left if you are in front of the square. Built on the orders of Timur himself between 1417 and 1420, it is considered artistically to be the best one. Here students immersed themselves in mathematics, astronomy, mathematics and theology under Ulugh Beg himself, Timur’s grandson astronomer. Teaching anything outside of theology in the madrassah was a bold move met with opposition by conservative forces, and the star motifs that decorate the entrance testify of his open mind.
The twin minarets started leaning dangerously in the last century and were restored in 1938 by Soviet engineers, who rotated the right-hand minaret 180°, and straightened the left-hand minaret in 1965.
Shir Dor madrassah
Opposite of Ulugh Beg is the Shir Dor Madrassah. It was built by a later member of the Timurid dynasty called Little Timur between 1619 and 1636. It was meant to be an exact copy of the earlier madrassah. It didn’t turn out that way. Stylistically the Shir Dor (lion bearing) is a mix of Islamic, Sufi and Zorastrionist symbols. Above the entrance you can find sculptures of lions (or tigers, anybody’s guess) representing the rising sun, an interesting exception to the Islamic prohibition of animal images. Geometric patterns and flower decorations represent High Islam and are worked to perfection. The majolica tilework on the minarets and facade is exceptional.
Tillya Kari mosque and madrassah
Tillya Kari means decorated with gold and it is not an exaggeration. The inside of the mosque is a dazzling one-of-a-kind mosaic of blue and gold. It was restored in 1979, but colours are already fading once again.
Visiting the Registan
In medieval times the Registan was at the heart of Samarkand’s trade and it was most likely a wall-to-wall bazaar. It’s not like that now, but the tourist industry is definitely on to you, with souvenir shops selling silk, carpets, daggers, ceramics, fridge magnets and the like.
Entry to the Registan is 15 000 som (negotiable), which gives you access to all 4 buildings. The minarets are not open for visitors, but for some som you might be able to convince the guards to let you up. Come early for that.
Early in the day is the best time anyway. The sunrise gives the azure domes even more of a fairy-tale appearance, and you will beat the midday heat and the tour groups. Watching the square wake up and get ready for the day eating a watermelon is another attraction.
With the restauration of the mosque and madrassahs came the complaint from some tourists that the Registan square has been over-restaured. It is a bit too squeaky-clean, especially knowing what kind of everyday madness went on here 600 years earlier. But for that you have the bazaar.