The Registan (which means place of sand) is the focal point of the ancient silk road city of Samarkand; it’s one of the most recognisable sights in Uzbekistan, and many consider it a masterpiece of the Timurid Empire. But none of this existed in Timur’s lifetime. Construction of these buildings didn’t commence until 12 years after his death. When Timur was around, this probably was a place of sand.
Timur, the great, merciless, Turco-Mongol conqueror (I write more about him in my post Gur-e-Amir, Samarkand, Uzbekistan – Tomb of Timur) declared Samarkand the capital of his burgeoning empire in 1370 CE.
The Registan was the central public square at the time; it’s where people gathered to listen to imperial proclamations, and where they came to watch public executions. It was also the site of the city bazaar and would have been bustling with commercial activity.
Each of the three momentous structures that surround the Registan is a madrasah (an Islamic educational institution where both religious and secular material is taught).
The madrasahs were built separately, and weren’t completed in entirety until 250 years after Timur’s death.
Ulugh Beg Madrasah, the Registan
The oldest of the three structures in the Registan is the Ulugh Beg Madrasah. It was completed in 1420, and has an attractive, geometric, star-filled motif.
Ulugh Beg, who commissioned the construction of the madrasah, was the grandson of Timur, and a mathematician and astronomer of repute (I write more on Ulugh Beg in my post The Ulugh Beg Observatory, Samarkand, Uzbekistan).
During Ulugh Beg’s time, and in the century following, the madrasah was one of the finest universities in Central Asia.
Sher-Dor Madrasah, the Registan
The next madrasah to be built (although 200 years would pass in the meantime) was Sher-Dor Madrasah (meaning: the having-lions madrasah), which was completed in 1636.
The mosaic on the face of the madrasah, featuring two lions (which look a lot like tigers), each with a strange, round face (that is meant to be a sun) on their backs is a mystifying addition to the madrasah and a point of contention.
Creating images of sentient beings is frowned upon in Islam. The decision to do so here, on a religious building, is odd indeed.
Tilya-Kori Madrasah, the Registan
The final building in the Registan, completed in 1660, is the Tilya-Kori Madrasah (meaning: the decorated-with-gold madrasah), which features an abundance of student accommodation across its two levels, a splendid courtyard in its midst, and an opulent, golf-leaf covered mosque on one side.
Timur didn’t see any of these splendid madrasahs in the flesh, but they are his legacy.
Timur was a renowned patron of the arts. He gathered artisans and architects from the lands he conquered, and brought them back here, to Samarkand, to design his new capital.
And the Registan was at the centre of it all.
Practical information and how to reach the Registan:
Samarkand is 300 km from Tashkent. There are trains running between the two cities (3 hours); otherwise you will need to find a share-taxi.
Read more on Samarkand in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.