According to the guide book there is no rival for the Registan in Samarkand anywhere in the world.  And really, one would be hard-pressed to dispute that.  I am just playing devil’s advocate for a moment and will suggest that the central square in Esfahan, the Naghsh-e-Shahan does come very, very close to it, if not… do I dare say it, indeed surpass the Registan.  But perhaps, that is a matter of taste.

One thing is for sure, there is no equal to this grandeur anywhere I can think of in the Western world.  Central, public squares in Europe tend to have a variety of important, if not all grand, buildings rather than the repetition of three (picture three Notre Dames arranged in horse-shoe).  And it is this repetition, in addition to the grand scale of the open space between these buildings that contributes to this unsurpassed magnificence.  It is truly breathtaking.

The Registan, which oddly means “Sandy Place” used to be the heart of the empire of Timur and his son Ulug Beg.  The three buildings, which at first glance look very similar functioned as bazaar (shopping center), madrassah (religious school), and khanaga (caravanserai).  You have to sit there and actually look for a long time, before you see the differences of each building emerge.  It’s like looking at a series of French cathedrals.  First, they all seem to look the same or at least awfully similar.  The façade has the rose window, the three portals, the tympani, the rows of carved saints.  And then you begin to see the differences.  The arches may be a bit more pointed (therefore later), or the figures may be a bit more stiff (therefore earlier).  The same thing will happen as you take time to observe the calligraphy, the tiles, the blind arches, the shapes and the sizes of the pishtak (portal).  Subtle differences emerge and it is fun to speculate on who built what first, or who was trying to copy or outdo whom.  Costly public buildings like these are always an expression of power and politics, not just function and beauty.

Massive restoration was necessary to get what we see today.  Hundreds of years of neglect, earthquakes and lack of interest and funds had left most of these buildings in pitiful states. In one part of the Registan a show chronicles this decay in quite powerful historical photographs.  It was under the Soviets that restoration started on a large scale.  Today, the mark of restoration has often been overshot and turned into full-scale rebuilding that would put Sir Arthur Evan’s controversial reconstruction of Knossos to shame.  But just as Knossos would only be half as enjoyable as it is, where it is still no more than knee-high rubble walls, so would the Registan lack any of its splendor would it present itself today in a dull, brick-only crumbled beige.

The Registan’s main function today is to house local handicraft stalls in each of the three court yards.  Uzbekistan is truly impressive as far as the preservation of traditional crafts is concerned.  Another achievement one has to attribute to the Soviets, who made full wage-earners of women who used to pursue their skills only for home use.  The numbers of highly trained and skilled miniaturists, sword- and knife-makers, metal workers, wood carvers, embroiderers, and ceramicists are truly astonishing.

Once in a while you will find shopkeepers such as Dilshot who speak fluent English and take great pride in their country’s handicraft past.  Most tourists are too rushed to sit and listen, but to Dilshot’s and my delight, I spent much more than an hour at his stall trying to get a grasp on the different embroidery types and the differences between an embroidery from Samarkand versus Bukhara, or one from a rural village.  Not that I remember it all, but at least this much:  It became very clear that these crafts had a lot more significance in society than to produce functional objects.

Just one example:  A maturing woman had to create four pieces of embroidery before she could consider marriage:  One 1.5 meter table square; one huge 2×4 meter (or larger) wall hanging, one prayer rug, and one bed spread.  The embroidery looks more like cutout velvet stitched on to a piece of cotton, that’s how close the stitches had to be!  If you could actually see the stitches, the embroidery was really quite lousy.  The symbols for each piece were quite limited in scope and predetermined iconography.  Interestingly, many of them were Zoroastrian in their roots of origin.  There were the dual colors (black-white), there were the four elements (water, earth, fire, rain), and there was color symbolism.  There was the triangle for the evil eye, and clouds and stars in the sky as symbols of bad turning into good, etc.

Tradition has it that a potential mother-in-law would come to a prospective daughter-in-law’s house and girl unseen, would inspect the embroidery.  If the embroidery passed muster, the girl was a candidate.  It did not matter how beautiful, skinny or fat a girl was; if she was a good embroiderer, she was considered to be a good mate.  Embroidery meant everything.  I found that fascinating!

Ever since Khiva, I have been impressed with the number of “street” artists who are actually fully established masters.  With a careful eye you can see the differences.  Some artists are just… OK; others are astonishing.  I have made it a point to talk to quite a few of them throughout the country.   All of them have gone to art academies and studied many years.  Many of the older ones have gone on to teach.  One of the artists whose work I purchased, I stumbled on later in the day at the main art gallery, where his work was exhibited as part of a one-man retrospective!  His range of styles was fascinating.  On one hand, he painted in the traditional miniature style, but in this show, he exhibited a much more personal, modern, abstract, and almost psychedelic style.

Uzbekistan is a county full of art academies, from music schools to arts schools, teaching the full range of Western and traditional arts.  Theaters and opera houses can be found throughout the country as well.  These institutions seem to be another of the more successful legacies of the Soviet era.  There may be fewer performances now than there were 20-30 years ago as state subsidies most surely would have dried up.  Will these institutions survive?  Will they find new sponsors in an independent and newly awakening Uzbekistan?   The greatest threat to all these artists currently seems not a changing religious or political climate, but a changing economy which re-focuses spending internally, but also brings fewer tourists with less money to spend.   I surely hope that enough people realize the value of these crafts and help to support these unique and high quality arts.  I did my best (about 4 kilos worth…) given the limits of my cash reserves and my suitcase.

In the evening, I had some delicious soup at a tourist-trap restaurant right across from the Registan.  I wish some of these places had wifi…  The internet situation remains dismal.  In my B&B the internet is still “broken”.   I walked deep into the Soviet part (to the left of my hotel) today to find an internet café that was open and to find the second of the synagogues in town.  I did not find the synagogue, but I did find the villa of Jewish Millionaire Abraham Kolontarov whose personal collection of local artifacts, ranging from prehistoric flint stones,  Zoroastrian clay ossuaries, to Samarkand embroidery is on display in this house-museum.  It had a full floor dedicated to the history of Jews in this area!

And I found an internet cafe with a waiting line for all the kids wanting to play games… No wifi.  I must have looked really disappointed since the clerk took pity on me and hard-wired my little notebook.  Finally, a chance to blog again!

These were two long, long days!  Good night.

3 comments so far

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  1. Morning coffee in NY. I’m still not 100% caught up with your columns but for 30 minutes most mornings you transport me into a different world. Thank you for that. And never stop traveling and writing about it. Your columns should be turned into a book.
    When I saw your reference to Esfahan I was reminded of a great book a read just recently:
    “The Blood of Flowers” by Anita Amirrezvani which takes place in Esfahan during the 17th century. While most Americans probably never had heard of Esfahan, the city was very familiar to me, because of my good friend, avid traveler and fantastic writer ET.

  2. This is all so new to me for to be honest, I have never even heard of Registan and Samarkand – new places to my ears and opening windows of the world to me. Thanks, Elisabeth! Is there hope they will take a visa card?

  3. I dropped you an email…