The Tilla Kari madrasa was commissioned a decade after the adjacent Shir Dar madrasa (1619-1636) by the same patron, Shaybanid feudal general, Alchin Yalantush Bahadur between 1646-60. Once part of the complex built by Timur's wife, Tuman-Aka in the fourteenth century, the site had housed the Mirzoi caravan sarai. Built originally as a theological seminary, this madrasa with its large prayer hall soon became Samarkand's congregational mosque with the collapse of the Bibi Khanum Mosque (b. 1399) and the dismantling of Alikeh Kukeltash Mosque (1439-40).
The Tilla Kari madrasa was conceived as the last, largest and most embellished structure of the famed Registan Square. It's name means ''gold-covered', referring to the lavish gilt decoration of its mosque's domed chamber. Yalantush defined the northern edge of the Registan Square with the Tilla Kari's 120 meter-long façade, relieving the square's oppressive symmetry with the off-axis placement of its preponderant dome. The composition is strengthened with the use of domed corner minarets on the main elevation that harmonize with the square's character and scale. Exterior elevations were richly decorated with polychromatic tiles with geometric patterns. Four, recessed alcove bays flank the entrance portal, and mark a significant change from earlier unbroken elevations. The Tilla Kari also deviates from the ensemble's dominant madrasa typology of with internal court iwans and rear elevation minarets. It has a larger built-open volume ratio, with a small square courtyard. The Tilla Kari madrasa makes reference to a madrasa typology seen in Bukhara in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with its deeply recessed five-sided portal niche and small cylindrical corner towers crowned by cupolas. The madrasa consists of student rooms with preceding vestibules surrounding three-sides of a square courtyard, with the domed mosque occupying the fourth. At the center of each façade is an iwan with a tall pishtaq; the iwan to the west gives access to the mosque.
The mosque has a central chamber below the great dome, and is connected to domed side galleries by archways. The dome rises in four stages. A high rectangular plinth forms the primary prayer hall and rises above the madrasa walls. Next, two terraced octagonal tiers rise to support a high cylindrical drum. The dome's monochrome blue color contrasts with the drum's polychromatic decoration with calligraphic bands. The interior space is flat-roofed, though a domed effect is achieved by an intricately crafted tromp l'oeil, composed of blind arches supporting three tiers of muqarna rings. The central chamber is richly gilt in relief ornamentation (kundal) and embellished with glazed mosaic faience inlay (kashi after their production center in Kashan) and incised stucco. Shades of blue and gold dominate the interior. The marble mihrab's intricate multi-colored and gilt motifs are magnificent specimens of the Mawara'u'n-nahr region's famed workmanship.
The madrasa has been the focus of several rebuilding initiatives in the 1920s, 1930s and 1950s by Russian archaeologists. The originally incomplete dome was built while corner minarets and portals were entirely rebuilt. The interior was restored in 1970. Despite these efforts, the structure's plinth is still threatened by seepage from the high water table. This, along with extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations has caused large surfaces of decorative paintings and tile facings to peel off. The city's World Heritage status has ensured global surveillance and concern, but insufficient financial assistance for required restoration and upkeep expenses.
Blair, Shiela, and Jonathan Bloom. The Art & Architecture of Islam 1250-1800, 205. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Borodina, Iraida. Central Asia: Gems of 9th-19th Century Architecture, 80, 94. Moscow: Planeta Publishers, 1987.
Bulatova, Vera A., and Galina V. Shishkina. Samarkand: A Museum in the Open, 143-168. Tashkent: Izd-vo Lit-ry Iskusstva Im. Gafura Galiama, 1986.
Herdeg, Klaus. Formal Structure in Islamic Architecture of Iran & Turkistan, 54-6. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.
UNESCO. "Samarkand - Crossroads of Cultures." Accessed October 23, 2013. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/603