Mosque Name: Ulugh Beg Madrasa
Year of construction (AH): 1420
GPS: 39.654781° 66.975731°
Original Qibla: Petra
Rebuilt facing Mecca: Never
There are three schools on this site. The madrasa of Ulugh Beg is the oldest surviving building in Samarkand. It is one of three madrasas built by the astronomer-king, the other two—which both survive—are located at Bukhara and Gijudvon. All three buildings are similar in plan and elevation, suggesting that the same architect may have had a hand in each. From the madrasa at Bukhara, the architect’s name is known to have been Ismail b. Tahir b. Mahmad Isfahani. He may have been a descendant of one of the master builders and artisans captured by Timur’s armies in Isfahan, Iran, who was forced to relocate to Timur’s central Asian domains.
Ulugh Beg, who ruled from 1447-49, was a relatively enlightened ruler who held a keen interest in scholarship and particularly astronomy. Although he is better known for his highly accurate star maps (which were made without the aid of a telescope), he was a strong patron of education. He was an astrologer as well as an astronomer, a champion of rationalism and also deeply pious.
Today the Ulugh Beg Madrasa is best known for being the location of an observatory.built around 1420 on a hill to the north of Samarkand. Since it was destroyed within a few generations of his death, by the twentieth century no one knew its exact location. All that remains of the building, now excavated by archaeologists, are the foundations and the lower part of the largest of its scientific instruments, a huge “sextant.” There is a small museum with exhibits about Ulugh Beg and his scientific achievements; one can contemplate there a bust sculpted on the basis of the study of his remains.
One unique element is the long mosque at the back of the madrasa which provided a large worship space for faculty and students facing west. In future madrasas the usual practice was to place the mosque in one of the corners by converting a corner classroom space into a mosque dedicated to that purpose.
All remains of earlier 8th and 9th century buildings were eradicated when the madrassas were constructed.
Sher-Dor Madrasa (1619-36)
Sher-Dor Madrasa stands opposite the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. The square comprises of three madrasas arranged in a kosh configuration (i.e., facing one another across a public square). It was constructed by Yalangtush Bakhodur (a.k.a., Yalangtush Bi Alchin), the military governor of the city who ruled at the behest of the Bukhara-based Janid dynasty.
The site of the madrasa was originally the khanqah of Ulugh Beg, a smaller building that was used as a Sufi lodge and hostel. Yalangtush demolished the khanqah and replaced it with the present madrasa, borrowing the layout and appearance of the Ulugh Beg madrasa even though it was already 200 years old. Although the floorplan is quite similar it lacks any mosque facilities, suggesting the students worshipped either at the Ulugh Beg or at the adjacent Kulkeltesh mosque which no longer survives.
The Tilya-Kori Madrasah is the major buildings, completed a generation later than the Sher-Dor Madrasa of 1619-36, and a full 230 years after the Ulug Beg. Its name means ‘Gold Work’ in reference to the style of painting in its prayer hall, which is decorated throughout with gilded relief. As with the Sher-Dor madrasa, it was sponsored by Yalangtush Bakhodur (a.k.a., Yalangtush Bi Alchin), the military governor of the city who ruled at the behest of the Bukhara-based Janid dynasty. However, Yalangtush died in 1655-56 before completion of the monument and it stood unfinished until the modern era when Soviet restorers skillfully completed the prayer hall’s outer dome.
The building is a hybrid of a congregational mosque and madrasa, as it lacks the corner lecture halls (darskhans) that are present in nearly all large central Asian madrasas. Instead, the west side of the building includes a large prayer hall flanked by adjacent chambers that offered ample indoor space for instruction and worship.