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Treasures of Ulugbek

The name, Ulugbek (often mentioned by tour guides), stirs up a keen interest in those travelling along the Great Silk Road. Mohammed Taragai, the grandson of the great Emir, Temur, was called Ulugbek, meaning “the great khan”. He governed Samarkand for 40 years from 1409. His exceptional leadership earned him the title of “the scientist on the throne” because he achieved great progress in culture and scientific understanding. Mathematicians, theologians, physicians and astronomers alike were honoured and recognised during this glorious time as a direct result of Ulugbek’s support for science.

A celebrated astronomer himself, Ulugbek established many cultural, charitable and educational institutions and, in fact, he commissioned the three most important religious educational schools and institutions in Uzbekistan. These three madrassahs, in Bukhara, Samarkand and Gijduvan, have proven to be the most durable of all his constructions. The madrassahs educated boys from wealthy families with tuition lasting from 10 to 20 years. Studying the Koran was a compulsory discipline. Other subjects were optional.


As a philosopher-cum-scientist, Ulugbek often challenged religious orthodoxy with his ideas. The motto during his reign was “The desire for knowl edge is the duty of each Muslim man and woman” and it is these words that are carved on the door of the Ulugbek madrassah (Mir i-Arab) in Bukhara — built in 1417. At that Lime he was not in popular favour with the powerful clergy based in Bukhara, so it was not by chance that Ulugbek built his first madrassah in this city — the capital of the medieval Islamic world. Fully aware of the clergy’s power, Ulugbek had inscribed above the same entrance, “Let the door of God’s blessing be opened to the circle of people, over and above the wisdom of books”.

This madrassah is not large in size yet it has unusual features. The square courtyard has two aivans (terraces) surrounded by two-storied hujras (small rooms for student accommodation). The classroom and the mosque are decorated with domes. The external and internal ornamentation includes glazed bricks and bright majolica tiles designed within strict proportions. While visiting Bukhara, Ulugbek liked to stay in this madrassah and reward in person, the most diligent teachers and students.

Current understanding, and the inscription on the portal, suggests that the architect was Ismail ibn Takhir ibn Makhmud Isfarghoni. He was probably a grandson of Tamerlane’s captive, an Iranian craftsman who is also understood to be the architect of the Gur-Emir complex in Samarkand.

Ulugbek Madrassah in Bukhara

According to an oriental saying, the Ulugbek madrassah in Samarkand is so solid that, under the force of its weight, “the backbone of the earth trembles”. Built during 1417—1420, with truly an inspiring beauty, the gigantic walls and towers of this Ulugbek madrassah place it high amongst the architectural wonders of Central Asia. According to research, Ulugbek himself helped with its construction and later lectured at this madrassah. This madrassah is square-shaped, with two storeys and four avian-darskhonas (outdoor terraces for classes in the summer). Four domes and four minarets at each corner complete the construction. Each of the 48 hujras is divided into two levels to accommodate two students; the first floor of the room is for studying while the second floor is for rest. The hujras were lit with oil lamps. There were more than 100 students in this madrassah. It is most likely that in the 16th century, this number increased as the mudarrises (seminary teachers) alone numbered ten.

Salakhuddin-Musa-ibn-Makhmud Kazy-zade Rumi was one of the first teachers at this madrassah. His contemporaries called him “Aflotuni zamon”, “The Plato of his time”. As the head mudarris of this Ulugbek Madrassah, the centre of eastern science, Kazy-zade Rumi is also considered to be the “father” of all Samarkand scientists.

The architect of this magnificent madrassah is unknown. The building’s artistic finish does not conform to any of Temur’s designs, and, in terms of structural integrity, it even excels them. Three main colours dominate the decor of the madrassah: white, dark blue and light blue, and are typical choices for the craftsmen from Samarkand. However, the presence of other colours in the decoration of the building testifies to the fact that craftsmen from other regions of Central Asia were also involved in the construction.

The main facade is famous for its magnificent portal. Its ornamentation of glazed bricks, carved mosaics and majolica tiles add brightness and festivity to both outer and inner courtvard facades. This building is a sample of artistic perfection. The mosaics, a combination of geometric and botanical patterns together with calligraphic inscriptions, create a magnificent vision that attracts many international admirers. In particular, the use of the girikhs (branching floral motif within star-shaped pentograms), symbolic of the time that the astronomer ruled, is spectacular.


The third Ulugbek madrassah is located in the small town of Gijduvan, one of the stop-overs on the Great Silk Road. Gijduvan, famous also for its pottery, is situated on the road from Bukhara to Samarkand. This madrassah, built during 1432—1433, has a minaret with a stork’s nest on top making it quite a local landmark.

Today Gijduvan is known as the birthplace of the sufi Abdulkhalik Gijduvani, the founder of the Khodjagon order. A marble plaque is installed above Gijduvani’s tomb in front of the madrassah. The small square between the Gijduvan tomb and the Ulugbek madrassah is now used as a courtyard for prayer.

Rather than being a higher ecclesiastical institution, this madrassah was used more as khanagha, a centre for dervishes with rooms for accommodation and halls for ceremonies. The design of the building differs from other madrassahs — the public halls are located at the entrance and the courtyard, with two terraces, is surrounded by the hujras. The halls are rectangular and characteristic of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. A frieze running along its portal wall hails this madrassah as “a sacred place, a cloister equal to the gardens of Paradise”.


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