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Sher Dor Medressa

Opposite it, either to satisfy some desire for symmetry or through lack of inventiveness, the Shir Dar rises, a replica of the Ulug Beg, though constructed two centuries later. The architect Jalank Toush was an important personage at the Emir's court. The ribbed, egg-shaped cupolas still stand, overshadowed by the immense fagade. It is mostly in Turkestan that the domes are raised on lofty cylindrical drums. Also, something that is not found anywhere else, the angles of the walls as well as the minarets curve outwards near the top.

Contrary to custom, an animal is figured on the mosaics the facade, a sort of lion, and on all sides phrases in Arabic characters are woven into the decoration. One says: "The architect has built the arch of this portal with such perfection that the entire heavens gnaws its fingers in astonishment, thinking it sees the rising of some new moon.'

In another place occurs the phrase, "Only the eagle of thought could presume to attain the peak of this madrasah"; and again, and this still enchants me, "Never in all the centuries will an artist, thought's acrobat, even with the bow of phantasy, scale the forbidden peaks of this minaret." And again: "Thou art the great warrior, Jalank Toush Bahadur, and were the numbers of thy name summed up, the date of the foundation would be given" (1028 of the Hegira).

I found it impossible to go over the Shir Dar, for at the time of my visit the Bassmatchi, whose trial had been in preparation for some months, were then imprisoned in it.

"Turkestan Solo" by Dervla Murphy

"The skilled acrobat of thought climbing the rope of imagination will never reach the summits of its forbidden minarets." Such is the inscription extolling the Registan's second madrassah, built by Governor Yalangtush between 1619 and 1636. Ruler of Samarkand, Yalangtush Bakhodur, ordered the construction of the Sher-Dor and Tillya-Kori madrasahs. The Sher-Dor (Having Tigers) Madrasah was designed by the architect Abdujabor. The decoration of the madrasah is not as refined as that on the Ulugh Beg madrasah of the 15th century - the "golden age" of Timurid Samarkand architecture. Yet the harmony of large and small rooms, exquisite mosaic decor, monumentality and efficient symmetry, all place the structure among the finest architectural monuments of Samarkand. It took 17 years to build but hasn’t held up as well as the Ulugbek Medressa, built in just three years. His architects strove to match the first in scale and nobility, though Koranic prohibition against symmetry forbade an exact mirror-image.

Facade length is identical, 51 metres from minaret to minaret, and the tall, fluted domes flanking the pishtak suggest the Ulug Beg once bore the same over its front darskhana. Structural differences include the lack of mosque, rear darskhana and auxiliary entrances in the lateral facades. Every inch seems covered with richly coloured geometric, floral and epigraphic patterns. While experts detect proportional and decorative decline since the Timurid period, the stylized representation of animal life is a striking development. Above the pishtak arch, in hot pursuit of two startled white does, through spiralling shoots and flowers, run the lions that give the madrassah its name, Shir Dor-'lion-bearing'. The striped beasts resemble tigers and from their backs rise beam-fringed suns with human faces.

Roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions, perhaps were intend to flout Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals.

Various theories explain this break with Islamic taboo on figurative art. The powerful lion-tiger is perhaps Yalangtush himself, swallowing his neighbours as the sun radiates his glory, or rather the animal-sun shows the tenacity of pre-Islamic Zoroastrian solar symbolism. Legend claims the architect responsible died for his heresy, yet other 17th century madrassah are similarly adorned-see those built by Nadir Divanbegi in Samarkand and Bukhara. The choice of colours, blue, white, yellow and green, also reflects Bukharan influence.

I had once seen a painting which depicted a grisly moment in Samarkand's not too distant past. A great crowd of men were assembled before the ShirDor madrassa which forms one side of the Registan, and although the building was splendidly decorated it was also mottled by the absence of many tiles which had obviously dropped off the frontage, the minarets and the dome in the course of time. On the sand in front of the portal a dozen tall posts had been driven into the ground, and on each of these was a human head. The crowd was listening to a fellow whose arm waved contemptuously at these trophies of victory by the Uzbeks over invading Russian troops. Some of the spectators sat on camels, others on horses, one upon an ass, but most were sitting or standing in the sand. What made the painting bearable in spite of those ghastly heads and the incitement to further atrocity, was the Sher Dorexotic counterpoint of the building and the crowd; which was dressed as all Uzbek men would have been until recently, with great individuality. Some wore furry caps with flaps that came over the ears, others sported skin bonnets that rose in a cone. Most wore heavy turbans, yet the yards of cloth had not been wound round every head in a uniform way, but with subtle differences that told of tribal allegiance, family grouping, personal taste. They were dressed in long coats and cloaks, which fitted loosely for greater comfort in the summer heat; and these had been worn vividly in a multitude of designs and different hues. The tackle that each man had at his waist, or attached to his mount, or lying beside him on the ground, also expressed his preferences: knives of different shape, saddlery made by his own hand for his special convenience, water vessels that might be goatskin, leather bottle or canvas bag, depending on his experience, his prejudice, his whim. Everything about these people was not only colourful but emphasised their attractive variety.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse