To the Muslims of Uzbekistan, the madrasa is one of the most important cultural institutions in daily life. You need only look as far as their grand and glorious entranceways—enormous gate-like portals (called “iwan”) lined with glittering tiles and precise geometric design—to be moved to imagine what wonders lie within. The answer is both purely simple and highly revered—within each madrasa, you will find the wisdom of the ages.
“Madrasa” comes from an ancient word meaning “a place of learning or study.” Today, it refers to any type of school, whether it teaches children or young adults, from kindergarten to university. But madrasas date back to at least 859 when the first one was established in Fez, Morocco. Back then, students studied the teachings of the Koran, first aid, handwriting, athletics and other elements of wellness and wholeness. Over time, subjects taught at a madrasa evolved with shifts in culture, civics and science. For a time, “religious science” was often given priority over philosophy and secular science. That changed during the Islamic Golden Age, when fields such as astronomy, mathematics and botany saw major advances. Law and medicine, too, found their ways into the hallowed halls.
Many madrasas include mosques as part of their complexes. Thanks to this religious element, the schools often enjoy an intimate link to a city’s social life. Outreach to local communities may include aid to the poor and other types of support to under-served populations. Citizens and students alike also benefit in a more organic way: The moral and spiritual teachings of a madrasa spill into a school’s community, while members of the community in turn contribute to the values upheld by the madrasa.
So essential is the madrasa to Uzbek life, it is impossible to spend a day in any major city without passing one by. The most fantastic ones may well be at Registan, the public square at the heart of Samarkand. Here, royal proclamations were once announced by horns forged from giant copper pipes called dzharchis. Registan is surrounded by three madrasas, making for a magnificent tableau of towering portals whose tiles glimmer in the sun. The Ulugh Beg Madrasa (1420), constructed by its namesake sultan, astronomer and mathematician, is the oldest. Its founder was a prominent teacher there, as was the great Persian poet and mystic Abdul-Rahman Jami. The Sher-Dor Madrasa (1636) is interesting for its mosaics. The tigers depicted in the glazed tiles ignored the Islamic ban that forbade the illustrations of living beings on religious buildings. Finally, the Tilya-Kori Madrasa (1660) doubled as a mosque. Its turquoise dome rises behind the façade.
Join Discovery Tours during our Discover Uzbekistan small-group adventure to learn more about the revered madrasas that grace this proud nation’s stunning cities.