The Shir Dar or Sher Dor madrasa was built in the seventeenth century, as a teaching institution and residential school of Islamic sciences. It forms the famed Registan Square ensemble in Samarkand, with the earlier constructed Ulugh Beg madrasa (1417-1421) and later built Tilla Kari madrasa (1646-60). The structure marks a significant continuation of the four iwan, square plan, and Iranian madrasa typology. It reinforces the Timurid emphasis on scale, and resultantly on external facades.
The madrasa was constructed by a Shaybanid feudal general, Alchin Yalantush Bahadur in erratic stages between 1619 and 1636. A barely readable inscription attributes construction to a certain Abdul Jabbar and decoration to Mohammad Abbas. The site had originally housed a large tim or cupola covered trading market built by Timur's consort, Tuman-Aka in the 14th century. Timur's successor, Ulugh Beg had this tim dismantled, to build a domed khanqah or hospice, ancillary to his madrasa. Yalantush thus replaced a part of Ulugh Beg's original ensemble, and did not initiate the creation of a new one, as is often assumed. The Shir Dar was built atop a hill of accumulated rubble and deposited sand. Attempts by its architects to mirror Ulugh Beg's madrasa imposed squatter proportions. A symmetrical façade and a dominant but recessed portal that does not project beyond the façade's curtain walls characterize the building. Minarets mark the corners in the façade to Registan Square, to be replaced by turrets at the rear elevation. Exterior elevations are unbroken though richly decorated with geometric and polychromatic tile patterns.
The madrasa is derived from a symmetrical deployment of hujra or typical student cells on two stories around a central courtyard. Central iwans of the internal court's northern, eastern and southern facades served as open classrooms. These spaces were flanked on each side by three arched hujra cells and their preceding vestibules. There exists no chapel mosque, though a ziarat khana or hall of pious visit was accommodated. The main exterior façade can be analyzed to consist of three contrasting volumes: the imposing rectangular portal, the twin ribbed domes and two slender, framing minarets. The dome's transition from high cylindrical drums to stalactites and then to enamel tiled ribs is particularly noteworthy. The tympani on the entrance portal depict lion-like tigers pursuing gazelles, overlooked by human-faced rising suns. Thus, the portal appears to determine the name, Shir Dar, which translates to 'lion bearing'. This zoomorphic motif violates orthodox Islamic conventions probably in an attempt to borrow political legitimacy from its use of a traditional Mongol motif. A volute braid defines the portal arch, which is further decorated with mosaics of small, compactly fitted, glazed tessarae. The structure is renowned for its extensive decoration in glazed tiles and paintings of polychrome vegetal themes.
The structure was first restored in 1920s and 1930s after Russian invasion, but extensive reconstructions were carried out in 1950s. Tilting minarets were straightened and steel bands used to reinforce cracking domes and buckling walls. Large sections of the inner courtyard's upper alcoves were rebuilt with substantial repairs to stucco and tile ornament in 1962. Many scholars opine that the Shir Dar's over accentuated lines, large patterns and exalted floral ornaments signify a decline of craftsmanship, as a result of Samarkand's declining prosperity in the seventeenth century.
Blair, Sheila, and Jonathan Bloom. The Art & Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, 204-5. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Borodina, Iraida. Central Asia: Gems of 9th-19th Century Architecture, 80, 86. Moscow: Planeta publishers, 1987.
Bulatova, V., and G. Shishkina. Samarkand: A Museum in the Open, 55. Tashkent, 1986.
Edgar Knobloch. Monuments of Central Asia, 110. London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2001.