The Mir-i-Arab Madrassah has ranked as the most prestigious educational establishment in Bukhara for centuries. Today it stands at the forefront of Uzbekistan's Islamic renaissance, a place where the past, the present and the future blur into one and where, as the Soviet century recedes to dim memory, the 16th century looms on the near horizon.
In 1535 the Shaybani Ubaydullah Khan sold his share of a consignment of 3,000 Persian slaves for a profit that apparently lay heavy on his soul, for almost immediately afterwards he commissioned a madrassah to face his newly-built Kalon Mosque. Responsibility for its construction fell to his close friend and spiritual adviser Sheikh Abdullah of Yemen, the Prince of the Arabs (Mir-i-Arab), at whose feet the khan was eventually buried in the northern domed ilai skhana of the madrassah. Even today the tombs are marked on the northern wall of the madrassah with a goat's tail and white flag, the customary symbols of sainthood.
The life of a madrassah student has changed little over the years. Up to the end of the 19th century, students received a religious stipend from the state and could freely marry, as long as their wives did not cross the holy threshold of the college. Tuition was solely in Arabic, writing and mathematics were deeply frowned upon and any student caught in the heinous study of literature, history or poetry was expelled on the spot. As Bukharan isolation intensified, the madrassah slid into a bastion of religious obscurantism and dogmatic fanaticism.
At present approximately 180 resident students study a four-year course of Arabic, theology and the Koran at the madrassah and its spill-over classrooms in the Kalon Mosque, on the first step to becoming fully fledged imams. Thus the madrassah is formally closed to tourists, who can only squint through the entrance grill at the intense tilework of its inner court. The two storey facade alone is reward enough though, with its guldasta (fortress-like buttresses) and twin domes which rise from lecture room and mosque like jade balloons. At night warm pin pricks of light dilluse from the alabaster grills of student cells.
The madrassah was closed from 1925-1946, after which it was re-opened as part of Stalin's post-war package of concessions to the region. These years were a time of startling juxtapositions and Gustav Krist recounts in his 1957 book Alone Through the Forbidden Land how, as he was ushered into the hujra cell of the madrassah's holiest imam, he found himself opposite a wall laden with sacred books tilled in Kufic Arabic, above which hung a poster in Uzbek screaming "PROLETARIANS Of ALL LANDS UNITE!" in a distinctly unholy shade of reel.
The southern steps of the Poi Kalon square relay the traveller back to the 20th century and the facade of the Emir Alim Khan Madrassah. The machassah was built with a unique triple courtyard by the last emir towards the end of his rule (1914) and has been used as the city's children's library since 1924.
The library or kitab khanah is heir to an ancient and illustrious tradition of Bukharan libraries. During the tenth century the state library, the treasury of Wisdom, was rivalled only by Baghdad and the great philosopher and physician Avicenna availed himself of its archives as his reward for curing the sick sultan. Calligraphers, miniaturists and scribes copied texts which were then categorized by their field of study and stored in great rows of wooden chests in madrassah storehouses. The library unfortunately could not survive the fires which regularly gutted the city.
A quick diversion west from the Poi Kalon square into the old town reveals the marvellously decorated Khodja Zainuddin Ensemble, consisting of functioning district mosque, khanagha hostel with five cells, the mazacu tomb of Zainuddin himself, concealed in a niche in the western facade, and a hauz water supply. The unexpected highlight of the early 16th-century building is the interior decoration of the dome, rising from majolica panelling, through a band of stalactite niches to the exuberant gold, blue and red paintwork set on the inside of the dome to represent the heavens. The painting is kundal, a technique used to create ornamental relief by the multiple application of sticky mineral paints by brush capped by a coat of gold leaf and is similar to that seen in the Balyand Mosque.
Outside the iwan-fringed mosque oozes one of Bukhara's earliest water pools, sunk next to the mosque not only for ablutions but also to persuade locals to combine two daily necessities, water and prayer, into one social centre. Note the dragon-mouthed, inscribed water pipes that line and feed the pool.