The influence of this ancient Uzbek grand square stretches far across the world’s cities, from Isfahan in Iran to Agra in India and Russia’s St Petersburg.
It was on a bright, clear afternoon that I went to the Registan and walked to the centre of the tiled expanse. All around me loomed impossibly ornate portals, patterned minarets and glistening cupolas. The world was suddenly rife with glazed mosaics in liquid shades of blue. The motifs around me would have been impressive enough on a teacup, but in such profusion and on so massive a scale they soon had me dizzy. The effect, it seems, was intended.
They’re part of the legacy of the Turco-Mongol king Timur in his ancient city of Samarkand, located in modern-day Uzbekistan. One of Timur’s monuments bears the proverb: “If you want to know about us, examine our buildings.” Centuries later, in 1888, the traveller and future viceroy of India, George Curzon, called the Registan “the noblest public square in the world”.
These buildings – the Registan and other wonders of Timurid Samarkand – were the result of the coming together of craftsmen and builders from across the empire in the late 14th century. Their influence would likewise range far, and shape the character of distant cities. The Safavid monuments of Persia and Mughal architecture in what is today Pakistan and India drew inspiration from here. In the Imam Mosque at Isfahan, the Taj Mahal at Agra, and even in the early 20th-century mosque at St Petersburg, traces of the Registan can be seen.
It’s not hard to see why the author of the 1001 Nights had Scheherazade spin her tales from a palace in Samarkand: the city was on the Silk Road, alive with people from different lands; it was a wonderland of Islamic architecture, and a great centre of learning. But no place in Samarkand represents all three aspects as well as the Registan does.
The vast clearing – measuring approximately 110m by 60 m – was once the main city square, full of markets and lined by caravanserai (roadside inns). Samarkand is at least two-and-a-half millennia old, and for most of those years it occupied a position midway on the network of trade routes connecting Europe and Asia, which accounted for the city’s prosperity and cosmopolitanism. Also for its tendency to attract invaders and travellers alike.
In its history it has been ruled by Persians, Greeks, Turks, Mongols, Chinese and Russians. Half a dozen religions have found a home here. Alexander passed through in the 4th century BC. The Chinese scholar-travellers Faxian and Xuanzang, the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, and Marco Polo all wrote about the city. Gengis Khan laid waste to Samarkand in the 13th century. In the 14th century Timur rebuilt it into a city the likes of which had never been seen before.
The Registan of Timur’s time was also the site for royal proclamations, parades and executions. The monuments now seen around the square were built after his death – but they couldn’t have been built without him. After Timur made Samarkand his capital, he embarked on a career of military conquest which is estimated to have wiped out 5% of the world’s population. Persia, the Caucasus, Delhi, Damascus, Baghdad, all fell to him. He returned from his expeditions with architectural inspiration and loot that could finance his appetite for construction.
Crucially, he also brought back with him the finest artisans he found. Durable glazes and inlaid mosaics had begun to allow for more intricate ceramic work, and Timur had the ambition, resources and workforce to use them on an unprecedented scale….[ ]