In the Middle Ages Samarkand was called ‘the Heart of the Great Silk Road’, and Registan Square was called ‘the Heart of Samarkand’. Registan Square is the main sight both of Uzbekistan and Central Asia as a whole. Situated in the elevated part of the city, this square with an ensemble of three madrassahs was built about 600 years ago. Very few cities in the world can boast of a square with the buildings of such an age to remain intact to this day. In Samarkand they say that all the roads lead to Registan. The huge portals, domes and minarets of Ulugbek madrassah, Sher-Dor madrassah and Tillya-Kari madrassah can be seen from everywhere in the city; they seem to attract all city’s arteries.
On approaching the square one is stunned by the view of incredible majesty: the giant arches of the portals and the mighty pylons of the buildings seem to have frozen in great tension. Bright glazed tiles of patterns and Arabic writings covering the entire surface of the walls are playing with light. Here, in this legendary square, just like nowhere else, one can sense history and hear the resonant sounds of the past eras.
Of three madrassahs in Registan Square Ulugbek Madrassah is the oldest. As far back as Amir Temur’s rule, on Registan (meaning ‘Sandy Place’) there was built a huge domed shopping arcade Tim Tuman-aka with town’s bazaar nearby. In 1420 the structure was pulled down to give place to madrassah designed by the famous architect Kavamaddin Shirazi from Herat. The main façade is covered with splendid mosaic floral patterns made in islimi style, and has a tall portal decorated with astral patterns. The right-angled courtyard of the madrassah is enclosed with a two-storey building housing hujra cells for over 100 students to live in. At each of the four corners of the building stood a minaret crowned with stalactite decoration. However, due to frequent earthquakes the two western minarets collapsed in the 17th century, whereas the other two minarets went leaning. In 1932 the north-eastern minaret was put in the upright position, whereas in 1965 with the help of hydraulic jacks same works were carried out in respect of the south-eastern minaret.
During Ulugbek’s rule Registan Square was completely built up. To the left of the madrassah arose the royal Mirza Caravanserai and opposite it - a khanaka - shelter for wandering Sufi dervishes.
Two hundred years later Registan Square was radically rebuilt by Yalangtush Bohadur - the governor of Bukhara Khans in Samarkand. Yalangtush Bohadur governed Samarkand quite independently and it was by his order that two madrassahs- Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kari were built here.
Designed by the architect Abdul Jabbar, Sher-Dor Madrassah was built in 1636 opposite Ulugbek Madrassah. The former almost replicates the architecture of his ancient opponent and together they form the composition called kosh-madrassah. Above the main entrance rises a tall peshtak; the domes, placed on cylindrical drums, cover a darskhona classroom and a mosque; flank minarets are only a little lower than those of Ulugbek Madrassah. The right-angled courtyard is enclosed by two tiers of hujra cells; in the middle of each flank wall there is a large ayvan terrace for summer classes. The walls are almost continuously covered with carved marble panels and ornamental mosaic. On the portal the inscription in Arabic says, ‘Military leader, and just man Yalangtush! He built such a madrassah that the ground was brought to the zenith of the sky…” On the huge tympanum there are pictured lions with shaggy manes; they are clawing white deer on the background of suns with human faces. This picture, so unusual for Muslim art, gave the madrassah its name - Sher-Dor, which means ‘of a lion’.
Between Ulugbek madrassah and Sher-Dor madrassah, as if completing the optimal enclosure of the square, there stands Tillya-Kari madrassah built in the mid-17th century. Its façade, which has two rows of lancet arch niches and a sturdy portal, imparts some sense of completeness and harmony to the ensemble. Instead of minarets the corners of the building are outlined by guldasta towers with little domes. Tillya-Kari was not only a Muslim school but also the main Friday mosque for the citizens as by that time Bibi-Khanum mosque and Alike-Kukeltash mosque were already in ruins. To the right from the central entrance of Tillya Kari madrassah, towers a turquoise dome on a huge drum. Soon after the madrassah had been built the dome, which covered the building of the mosque, collapsed during one of the earthquakes. It was restored only at the end of the last century.
The splendid portal of the mosque and arch gallery on octahedral abutments face the courtyard of the madrassah. Of special interest is the interior of the mosque. By the mikhrab niche, which indicated the direction to Mecca, they built a high marble minbar rostrum for imams to preach sermons. The interior of the dome and supporting pendentives are covered with unique kundal golden paintings on papier-mâché. This resplendent ornament was what initiated the name Tillya-Kari - ‘gilded’ in translation. Between Sher-Dor madrassah and Tillya-Kari madrassah is a monumental marble tombstone; it is the dakhma of the Sheibanids. It was once installed over the family burial-vault of the first Uzbek dynasty, which ruled over Movarounnahr in the 16th century.
The fabulous Oriental architecture and rich national décor of the three madrassahs earned this outstanding monument worldwide fame. The publisher the world’s most popular guidebooks, Lonely Planet Company, included Registan Square in the new list of the Seven World Wonders.