Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The construction of the Shirdar Madrasa marked a renaissance of grand-scale architectural patronage in Samarqand. With the earlier Ulūgh Beg Madrasa and later Tila Kari Madrasa, the Shirdar Madrasa formed the city’s renowned Registan Square ensemble.

Summary of Event

Between 1619 and 1636, the Shirdar Madrasa was constructed in Samarqand Samarqand as a residential college for the study of Islamic sciences. The second of three theological colleges that form the city’s renowned Registan (place of sand) ensemble, the structure mirrors the appearance of the Ulūgh Beg Madrasa (1417-1421), which sits directly opposite it. Education;Samarqand The construction of the Shirdar Madrasa under the auspices of the Tuqay-Timurid general Yalangtush Bahador Yalangtush Bahador marks a continuation of the grand scale architectural projects initiated two centuries earlier under the central Asian conqueror Tamerlane (also known as Timur). Its form reiterates the Timurid Dynasty’s emphasis on colossal scale, symmetry, and prolific decoration. [kw]Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa (1619-1636) [kw]Madrasa, Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar (1619-1636) [kw]Shirdar Madrasa, Construction of Samarqand’s (1619-1636) [kw]Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa, Construction of (1619-1636) Architecture;1619-1636: Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa[0800] Cultural and intellectual history;1619-1636: Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa[0800] Religion and theology;1619-1636: Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa[0800] Uzbekistan;1619-1636: Construction of Samarqand’s Shirdar Madrasa[0800] Shirdar Madrasa Architecture;Samarqand

The three structures built on the Registan Square embody the political and cultural ideals of Tamerlane and his descendants, who forged a dynastic identity that combined Turko-Mongol and Islamic values. For the Timurids, the patronage of Islamic institutions served not only to buttress the appearance of Islamic religious piety but also to maintain dynastic affiliation. Tamerlane’s extensive conquests in Iran, Anatolia, and Mesopotamia were modeled on the campaigns of the Mongol leader Genghis Khan, and Timurid claims to Genghizid ancestry were expressed in titles, inscriptions, political rhetoric, and artistic production. The Timurid concern with genealogy infused central Asian arts and architecture with motifs intended to appropriate political legitimacy through their associations with traditional Mongol formula, and it established a model of artistic patronage that would inspire central Asian rulers through the seventeenth century.

After the fall of the Timurid Dynasty in the early sixteenth century, western-central Asia was organized into a political system led by descendants of Genghis Khan’s eldest son Jochi Tuqay-Timur. The first period of Jochid rule, also known as Shibanid rule, lasted through the sixteenth century under descendants of Genghis Khan’s grandson, and Jochi’s son, Shiban. It was followed in the seventeenth century with the rule of another grandson, named Tuqay-Timur as well, who gained sovereignty and initiated a period of prosperity centered in the oasis cities of Samarqand and Bukhara.

Under the Tuqay-Timurid branch, new investments in public architecture benefited from the wealth generated by trade routes through western-central Asia. These sources of income allowed for the construction of civic structures such as bazaars, hostels, bridges, and reservoirs, as well as religious structures such as madrasas and hospices that supported a learned class of Muslim scholars and Sufi brotherhoods. The patronage of religious institutions was an integral component of a symbiotic relationship between the state and the learned class, which offered legitimacy to the khans and tribal leaders who governed local populations.

The madrasa gained popularity in Islamic lands beginning in the eleventh century. As an institution for higher learning, it supported scholarship and instruction in Islamic law and sciences, and often provided residence for scholars. The Shirdar Madrasa was ordered in the second decade of the seventeenth century by Yalangtush Bahador, a Tuqay-Timurid general who served as the governor of Samarqand under the region’s great khan, Imām Qulī Khan Imām Qulī Khan . The location and orientation of the madrasa were carefully chosen to appropriate the symbolic value of earlier buildings on the site constructed under Timurid rulers. Initially, in the fourteenth century, the site had housed a large trading market built by Tamerlane’s consort Tuman Aqa. Between 1417 and 1421, however, Tamerlane’s grandson Ulūgh Beg had replaced the market with a Sufi hospice and a madrasa, the latter of which remains on the site into the twenty-first century. By the end of the sixteenth century, the site had accrued a funerary madrasa as well as a congregational mosque and madrasa complex

The construction of the Shirdar Madrasa utterly changed the appearance of the site, replacing its fifteenth century hospice with a massive structure mirroring Ulūgh Beg’s madrasa in its positioning, scale, and form. The madrasa, known as the Shirdar, or lion bearing, because of the lionlike tigers that decorate its entry portal, was built atop a hill of rubble and sand. A barely decipherable inscription attributes the structure to the architect Abdul Jabbar Abdul Jabbar and its decoration to Muḥammad ՙAbbās Muḥammad ՙAbbās . Its general form is based upon the four-iwan plan, a standard Iranian formula in which each of a structure’s four walls is marked by a monumental portal, or iwan. The spatial composition of the college consisted of students’ cells stacked in two stories around a central courtyard. Three of the structure’s monumental arched portals would have been used as open-air classrooms

The college’s main entrance facade was oriented directly onto the Registan Square, and its rectangular entrance facade and twin minarets were composed to echo Ulūgh Beg’s madrasa directly opposite it. On either side of the structure’s entrance iwan, a ribbed dome sits high upon a cylindrical drum—a configuration that became popular in Timurid architecture of the fifteenth century and served to enhance a structure’s visibility from afar. The building, like that of Timurid prototypes, is cloaked in a tapestry of polychrome ceramic tiles. Its highly decorated facade mimics the zigzagging compartments and geometric Arabic inscriptions that cover the Ulūgh Beg Madrasa across the square. The zoomorphic forms over the Shirdar’s portal, on the other hand, represent a major deviation from the earlier structure’s program. In the spandrels over the madrasa’s arched portal, an unusual program presents symmetrical images of deer chased by lions with human-faced suns rising from their backs

Together with the Tila Kari Madrasa Tila Kari Madrasa , built between 1646 and 1660, the two symmetrically opposed madrasas form a three-sided facade overlooking Samarqand’s renowned Registan Square. Despite the additive nature of building activities on the site, which spanned more than two centuries, the three surviving structures retain a unified appearance. Possibly inspired by the U-shaped complex (1620) in Bukhara known as the Lab-i Haws (edge of the reservoir), the square’s unity is owed to the harmonious proportions, symmetry, and coherent decorative programs of the three madrasas. The transformation of the site that was initiated with the construction of the Shirdar Madrasa left a legacy that would last long after the Tuqay-Timurid state declined in the late seventeenth century.


The construction of the madrasas at Registan Square reflects the complex political dynamics in central Asia between the fall of the Timurid Dynasty in the early sixteenth century and the ascendancy of the Russians in the nineteenth century. Religious institutions such as colleges and hospices were constructed under the auspices of the ruling khans (descendants of Genghis Khan), but were patronized at the local level by members of tribal groups who held military and administrative ranks. Institutions such as the Shirdar Madrasa were built to support a third powerful group, composed of Islamic scholars and religious leaders who, in turn, legitimized ruling khans and governors with their support.

In its colossal silhouettes, virtuoso domes and minarets, and profuse ornamentation, the Shirdar Madrasa typifies the aesthetic of high visibility and extravagance that was defined by Timurid architects and designers in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. It represents the culmination of an architectural tradition that lasted for four centuries in central Asia, and would have significant resonance in the architectural achievements of the Mughal emperors in India (1526-1857) and the Ṣafavid Dynasty (1501-1736) in Iran.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam: 1250-1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994. Blair and Bloom provide a concise introduction to the Registan ensemble in a chapter on central Asian art and architecture between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Includes photographs, maps, and site plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bosworth, Clifford Edmund. The New Islamic Dynasties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. This revised edition of a classic genealogical manual offers complete bibliographies and tables of dates, titles, and names.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bulatova, V., and G. Shishkina. Samarkand: A Museum in the Open. Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Izdatel’tvo literatury i iskusstva imeni Gafura Guliama, 1986. A monograph on Samarqand’s urban history and architectural sites. Contains nineteenth century photographs of city life and contemporary photographs showing multiple views of monuments.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kalter, Johannes, and Margareta Pavaloi, eds. Uzbekistan: Heirs to the Silk Road. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997. A catalog for a large exhibition of objects from central Asia. An essay by Thomas Leisten provides a general introduction to Islamic monuments of central Asia in the territory that is now called Uzbekistan. Includes photographs, maps, and site plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knobloch, Edgar. Monuments of Central Asia: A Guide to the Archaeology, Art, and Architecture of Turkestan. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001. An introduction to architectural sites in central Asia, with illustrations, photographs, maps, and plans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McChesney, Robert D. “Central Asia, VI: In the Tenth-Twelfth/Sixteenth-Eighteenth Centuries.” Encyclopaedia Iranica 5 (1985): 176-193. An introduction to the central Asian political system, which also provides an economic and historical context for Tuqay-Timurid architectural patronage. Contains tables of the Shibanid and Tuqay-Timurid Dynasties.
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Categories: History