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Ulug Beg & Abdul Aziz Madrassahs

But what still survives, moves one more deeply than anything in any other region of the world. Unforgettable is the amazing flowery freshness of the facade of coloured tiles of Abdul Aziz. Purity of line, elegance of proportion, riot of colour, in this posy is contained all the beauty of the madrasah with the lovely sounding name; its open, laughing courtyard, its two chambers with frescoes of purple and gold, and its stalactite ceilings.

Opposite it, the austere Ulug Beg with its narrow courtyard, its high walls framing the silence, inspires to meditation. What mystery lies in the classic proportions! The lofty Iwan-arch lined by a row of spiral columns, moves me to veneration. Built in the fifteenth century, two hundred years before the tottering Abdul Aziz, it still stands solid and demands no prop.

"Turkestan Solo" by Ella Maillart

A few hundred yards east from the Poi Kalon, beyond the Tok-i-Zargaron bazaar, lies the second of Bukhara's kosh madrassahs, separated by Khodja Nurobod Street and two hundred years of Bukharan history. This is the only construction located and preserved in Bukhara in commemoration of a great astronomer Ulugbek.

The Ulug Beg Madrassah (1417) was the earliest of three commissioned by the enlightened Timurid ruler (the other two stand in Samarkand and Gijduvan) and his secular influence dominates the exterior design of the religious college. Star motifs reflect Ulug's fascination with astronomy, girikh designs reflect the already established synthesis of science and art and an inscription on the entrance panel proclaims "It is the sacred duty of every Muslim man and woman to seek after knowledge". An earlier inscription on the door knocker further blessed the pursuit of wisdom; "Above the circle of people well schooled in the wisdom of books, let the doors of Allah's blessing be open every instant."

The name of the architect "Ismael, son of Tahir, son of the master craftsman Mahmud of Isfahan" is crammed into a star-shaped inscription above the main portal, but subsequent reconstruction work in 1586 under Khan Abdullah II added a darker majolica tint to the Timurid facade. Present day whitewashed remont was clumsily added in the rush to celebrate Ulug Beg's 600th anniversary in October 1994 and much of its charm has sadly been lost in the dust.

The walls and arks are decorated in quite a simple manner. The madrasah is designed with the astral ornament which was undoubtedly a reflection of Ulugbek's view of the world as an astronomer. Simple ascetic life was led here - prayers in the mosque, lectures in darskhana, and conversations in shadowed galleries.

Through the twisted border of the balanced facade lie a lecture hall on the left, mosque on the right and hidden library on the second floor. The mosque now plays host to an Exhibition on the History of Renovation, which includes examples of original tilework and interesting photographs of the Kalon Minaret with its crown blasted off and a band of old turbaned men plotting ceramic designs. The compact central courtyard, with what Ella Maillart described as its "high walls framing the silence", now houses fledgling Uzbek entrepreneurs keen to lure foreign tourists into their rented cells crammed with crafted memorabilia. Quality is generally high.

Facing the Ulug Beg is the Abdul Aziz Madrassah (1652), glittering in mercifully unrestored 17th century glory. Modelled on the Mir-i Arab Madrassa, it was constructed for Abd al-Aziz after his defeat of the Mughal army in Balkh. The madrassa's footprint measures 60m by 48m, and the entire site is sumptuously decorated with mosaics in riotous colours and equally bright ghanch stalactites. The soul of the madrassah lies in its decoration which bursts out of the artistic straightjackets of the age in an attempt "to break free onto the path of progress by rejecting the restricting traditions of the past", but which "could not find enough strength for such an active step" (G.A. Pugachenkova).

Colourful mosaic vases of eternal happiness lead up to richly starred stalactites and access the Chinese-influenced landscape decoration of the left-hand lecture hall and stunning interior decoration of the right-hand mosque. Inside the main courtyard look out for the twin-level hujra cell equipped with fireplace left on display in the far right corner, the rich ganch iroki stalactites of the southern portal, the three dimensional vases of the eastern portal and the Iranian-influenced yellows of the northern portal. The right-hand side of the courtyard and the left side of the main facade stand undecorated and unfinished, victims like their master of a successful coup, the rest seemingly more spectacular for the contrast. The madrassa includes both summer and winter mosques, the latter of which now houses the Museum of Woodcarving (09.00-17.00 daily; US$1).