Day 65: Samarkand’s Gilded Madrassa

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the spectacular gilded interior dome of the Tilla-Kari madrassa

The iconic Registan Square in Samarkand is home to three large madrassas, all of which are included, along with the rest of the historic core of the city, as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2001.  According to the criterion as described in the listing, the Registan complex is a masterpiece of Islamic cultural creativity, and played a seminal role in the development of Islamic architecture all the way from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent.  The Tilla-Kari, also known as the “Gilded” Madrassa, together with the Sherdor and Ulugbek Madrassas, make for an unforgettable scene in what qualifies as arguably one of the most spectacular architectural ensembles in the world.

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the exterior of the gilded dome framed by the 15th century Ulugbek Madrassa

The Tilla-Kari Madrassa is situated in-between the two other Madrassas of the complex, and is also the newest of the three.  Dating from the 17th century, construction was ordered by Emir Yalangtush Bahadur only 10 years after the completion of the neighboring Sherdor Madrassa.  The Emir died in the year 1656, leaving the Tilla-Kari unfinished.  It would take another four years to finalize the construction, but the interior dome of the madrassa’s grand mosque was never completed.

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a police officer sits keeping watch over Registan Square in an exterior alcove of the Tilla-Kari Madrassa

Architecturally distinct from the other monuments of Registan Square, you will notice upon closer inspection the unique Bukhara style two story columned facade lined with individual cells.  Despite being built as a Madrasah, the Tilla-Kari was used primarily as a mosque throughout its active lifetime, right up until the beginning of the 20th century with the introduction of Soviet rule.  Since that time, the Gilded Mosque, as well as the rest of the Registan complex, have remained only as monuments to a bygone era.  Walking through the main entrance gate, which was severely damaged by a major earthquake in 1897, visitors will enter a picture perfect courtyard.  The grand mosque with a spectacularly gilded main hall – hence the name “Gilded Madrasa” – is to the left as you walk through the gate into the courtyard.

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facade of Tilla-Kari illuminated at dusk

Everything you see at Tilla-Kari was extensively renovated, even reconstructed, during the 20th century.  Most of the tiled facade had been lost before restoration began in the 1920s, but efforts were made to save as much as the original as possible.  Some might say that the restoration efforts on Tilla-Kari and the other two madrassas on Registan Square were too good.  Much of the complex was in a near ruinous state, similar to the Bibi-Khanym mosque just up the road.  The restoration efforts are so good original tiles are indistinguishable from new ones, and cracks from earthquakes are invisible.  The blue dome of the Guilded Mosque has only risen above the walls of the Madrassa since 1970, left unfinished by the original builders for 300 years.

Today the Tilla-Kari Madrassa serves as the centerpiece backdrop for the biennial Sharq Taronalari International Music Festival, occurring again in 2019.  The original park-like square with ancient trees and landscaping has been replaced by paving stones.  Permanent high tech lighting fixtures are obvious protruding from the walls of the three madrassas, but they also double as spotlights which are used to spectacularly light up their facades at night.  The light “show” is such an attraction for tourists to the city that your daytime ticket to Registan Square is not valid for a return visit in the evening.  Foreigners should be prepared to pay 30,000 per person, which will give you access to all three monuments of the historic ensemble.

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