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Registan by Geoffrey Moorhouse

The other three sides were enclosed by high portals, by arcades and galleries, by solid walls, by domes and by minarets, though not oppressively: every piece in that composition could be enjoyed at a distance, across intervening space. Whatever shape and texture these buildings might have had, that balance between space and substance would have been satisfying enough. The shapes were upright, crossed by strong horizontals, with the roundness of domes a little distance behind; and the relationship between each shape, the substance of the whole, was just enough to maintain the enclosure, to prevent the composition disintegrating into the space. Yet it was not only a triumph of building, but a crowning exhibition of purely decorative art as well.

Patterns that were only tentative in Bukhara had reached their full flourish here. Colours which had mingled blithely there achieved even more spectacular harmonies now. Tiles which glistened with light at certain times of day, were even more seductively lambent when the sun had shifted a point or two and transformed their surfaces into matt. Not an inch of any exterior had escaped the genius responsible for illuminating these walls. For all the sumptuous inlay of its semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal in Agra was made to seem virginal beside the Registan in Samarkand. Nor was this stunning effect confined to what was visible outside. Most marvellous of all the interiors was on the north side of the square, where the seventeenth-century Tillya Kari madrassa and mosque stood. Here was a richness of colour greater than I had ever seen anywhere before, a splendour of red beyond the opulence of rubies and a royal blue of such intensity that it would have hurt the eyes if it had been unrelieved. It was made perfect not only by the alliance with red, but by flashes of orange and dull gleamings of gold which punctuated it and which also emphasised the edge of wall, the curve of arch, the honeycomb of vault, as well as the lozenges, trefoils and other motifs that patterned the topmost smoothness of the dome.

I was enchanted by that chamber, as I was by what lay outside, even though I knew that not one piece of glazed tile, not one fragile sliver of gold leaf, was more than a few years old. The entire decoration of the Registan, some of the building too, was an eye-catching fake to anyone taking an adamantly purist view. One of the minarets on the west side of the square had developed such a tilt after standing for five hundred years that in 1922 it was jacked up to the vertical again, before it came crashing down. That was but a modest intervention compared with the meddling that had followed more recently. Within the past decade or so a new dome had been constructed above the Tillya Kari mosque, to imitate one that had long since collapsed and been scavenged for its materials. Meanwhile, the teams of craftsmen who had settled on the Registan like a cloud of insects were laying fresh bricks to replace shattered ones, reglazing entire frontages with brand new coloured tiles, delicately brushing in the luscious pigments that had me standing beneath that new dome as amazed as Genghiz Khan once was before the Kalan Tower.

To the purist it mattered not that long and painstaking experiment had preceded the bricklaying, the tiling and the application of paint, in order to reproduce exactly the original texture, designs and colourings. That, in a sense, made the offence of the restorers even worse, for not only had they meddled with something whose value was partly its antiquity, in whatever condition it might have survived the passage of time, but they were counterfeiting its originality, which was not theirs to touch. Moreover, the restoration of the Registan was merely the beginning of this pernicious work. Half a mile down the road were the remains of the Bibi Khanum mosque, its tumbled portals standing massively above the adjacent bazaar to give an inkling of its full fifteenth-century magnificence, when it was rivalled in size among all the religious buildings of Christendom only by the cathedral at Milan. A superstructure of scaffolding already encased one of the high archways and a nearby dome, and the derrick of a crane pointed obdurately at the sky above, to signal that the time for restoration had come here, too. And after that, I expect, the dilapidated mausolea at Shakhi Zinda would have their turn, including the grave of Kussam ibn Abbas, who was cousin to the Prophet himself and responsible for bringing Islam to Samarkand, after the Arab conquest, in ad 710. Intent on developing the tourist industry to fortify their feeble economy, the Soviet authorities would not be content until the antiquities of Samarkand had been clad in a meticulous semblance of a pristine past.

And the loss would be great. I could see this well enough, for all that I admired and was charmed by what the restorers had done. There was wonder in the knowledge that a glazed spiral of intricate design in three distinctly different versions of blue, which still clung to the shattered wreck of a Bibi Khanum arch, had been set into the underlying brick by an artisan who almost certainly had seen Tamburlaine the Great ride past: a sense of gratitude as well, because it had managed to hold fast to the wall for five centuries and more, the last remaining fragment of a decoration that would have spiralled dizzyingly in a gigantic ellipse along the full leading edge of the arch. In all the ruins of Samarkand's halcyon days, there was always enough intact for one to see what the original vision must have been. The full power of that buttress could be felt at its base before, higher up, it had crumbled away. The immense sweep of an arch could be told from the way it still sprang from the wall, even though three-quarters of it had vanished in some tremendous collapse. The abstract patterns on these surfaces had nowhere survived without losing many of their pieces, but it was still possible to see how the rhythms must have continued where nothing but pockmarked brick now remained.

And, in spite of the bright colouring that characterised everything built here, the predominantly blue tiling that spelt Islam as much as the domes and the minarets, these dilapidations contained strange reflections of places I had known ever since I was a child. They lacked Graeco-Roman angularity, but they might almost have shared a Gothic pedigree, visible in the curvature of those arches and in those pillars which climbed aspiring into the sky. Walking through Shakhi Zinda and Bibi Khanum, and later venturing south to see what was left of the palace Tamburlaine built at Shahr i Sabz, where he was born, I was reminded most strongly of some English remains. These ruins, notwithstanding the obvious differences, encouraged the imagination to play with them as much as the broken walls at Fountains, at Tintern, at Jervaulx. But pigeons roosted in the mouldering brickwork, instead of the jackdaws and rooks which flew among the stones.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse