Tashkent: New Ensembles of the Old City

Issue #2 • 2951

Architecture is music that stands still
F. Schelling

Aesthetics of contemporary urban environment of Tashkent is a blend of majestic past and amazing present of the capital of Uzbekistan. Its town-planning culture that evolved during two millennia, through the prism of historical strata, reflects a dynamic progress seen in new buildings, fountains and sculptural monuments. An introduction into selected historical and cultural complexes of the city will enable one to feel its wholesome appearance.

The ensembles of the Amir Temur, The Friendship of Peoples, the Chorsu, the Remembrance, the Independence and Humanism, the Khamid Olimjan squares and of the International Business Centre represent dominant accents in the city structure. The old city area that has changed beyond recognition looks quite unusual, especially when the Eski Juva panorama is looked upon from the height of the observation deck of the House of Children’s Art. This building at the centre of renewed “old” Tashkent, the outline of which resembles the legendary tower of Babel, represents a spiral-shape composition sky-rocketing into the future. Ascending wide helical parapet along its outer wall, one can look into well-lit spacious halls intended for children’s art exhibitions and survey the panorama of the city. The roof of the House cleverly turned by the architects and designers into an observation deck, offers a good view upon unique sites of our city: the domes, portals and the inner yard of Kukeldash madrasah that was built by Dervish-khan in 1570 and is part of the old Registan ensemble; a restored three-domed Khoja Ahrar Vali mosque – the main Friday mosque of Tashkent; a 23-storey building of Chorsu hotel; a new sports and fitness facility “Jar”; the city circus; the planetarium; the domes of the Chorsu market-place; the old and new TV towers; the heart of the old city, which is now under restoration – the Khazreti Imam ensemble, including a thousand years old Kaffal Shashi mausoleum; and the House of Style. It is not by chance that UNESCO included Tashkent in the number of cities with unique architectural heritage and unparalleled modern urban ensembles.

The tower-like House of Children’s Art is situated at the centre of Binkat – medieval Tashkent that existed in the 9th-11th centuries and was mentioned in the works of Beruni. The plan is to create an architectural museum-reserve under the sky with an idea to preserve narrow streets with old earthen houses that surround the Khazreti Imam ensemble – the Great Imam as they called Abubakr Muhammad Kaffal-al-Shashi. Kaffal Shashi preached Islam in Shash area among Turkic nomads who originally observed various archaic religious cults. Kaffal Shashi lived in the 10th century and became famous due to the fact that he brought from Baghdad to Tashkent the Koran of caliph Usman that was stained with his godly blood, which was referred to as the only true value as it “brings good to the country where it is kept”.

The Kaffal Shashi mausoleum is the most ancient on the territory of Tashkent. It is no second in antiquity even to the monuments of noble Bukhara. When the Sheibanids reconstructed the mausoleum in the 16th century, the restorers discovered an underground chillakhona. The tradition of building mausoleums among the people of Central Asia is connected to the cult of ancestor worshiping. Mausoleums were also the place for spiritual perfection; people came to these sacred stones to pray to the Most High for help and protection from misfortune and illness, to share the joy of the birth of a child, or to read a payer (namaz) and give alms (zyakat) to the needy.

The building of mausoleums, mosques and madrasah was considered a god-pleasing deed. “The man is mortal, but his deeds are eternal…” say Koranic inscriptions on the walls of medieval architecture. An inscription above the door of the Kaffal Shashi mausoleum contains the name of the architect – Gulyam Khusein, and the artist who created the inscriptions – Qatib Kudrat:
“When you read this inscription, say a kind prayer for my soul… God! Forgive the writer and reader!” (1)

The Kaffal Shashi mausoleum represents the type of mausoleum called khazira. It has a linear-axis composition that traditionally comprises the entrance portal peshtak with a gallery for musicians and azanchi; dome-covered ziyaratkhona – a room for remembrance prayers; and a burial-vault, gurkhana, oriented towards Mecca, where the tombstone, sagana, is separated by wooden screen, panjara. The sepulchers of muftis Zainutdin and Babakhan with tombstones were built in the 20th century, adjacent to the mausoleum. Pure, austere, resounding and light space of the Kaffal Shashi mausoleum, with doves nestling under its dome, conveys the sensation on inner freedom and the absence of fear of death, for true Muslims do not die but only transit from the earthly doors into the doors if Eternity.

East of Kaffal Shashi mausoleum there stood large nine-nave 19th century mosque, namazgokh, intended for a large number of people. Twice a year, on the most important Muslim holidays, Kurban and Ramazan, Muslims gathered here since night time, so that in the morning, when the sun rises above the horizon to the height of one spear, they could begin a common prayer that runs like a wave over the bent heads of the faithful and is offered up to heaven. Presently the building of the Namazgokh mosque houses the Islamic Institute named after Imam al-Bukhari, which is one of the two higher Muslim schools in Uzbekistan that trains not only men, but also women.

The light of knowledge not only spiritual, but also secular, is concentrated in the library of the 18th century Muyi Muborak madrasah that was built by the Kokand khan Mirza Akhmed Kushbegi. The name Muyi Muborak translates as “the hair of the prophet”: its library, apart from the unique 7th century Koran of caliph Osman, keeps one hair from the head of Mohammed – a sacred relic of Muslims. In addition to the library that counts twenty thousand volumes, of which three thousand are unique manuscripts, the Muyi Muborak madrasah comprises a summer mosque with an avian and columns and a winter domed mosque – cathedral mosques of Tilla-sheikh (the golden sheikh). The Muyi Muborak madrasah was built in front of an older 16th century Barak-khan madrasah following the oriental principle of kosh (literally meaning ‘eyebrows’), when the portal of one madrasah directly faces the portal of another.

Madrasah of a belligerent ruler of Tashkent Nauruz-Akhmed (Sheibani dynasty), who was also known as Barak-khan, with two mausoleums included in its composition, is a remarkable architectural monument of Central Asia. The 16th century Barak-khan madrasah is not typical for the Tashkent school of architecture. The building stands out by its austere fortress-like style and is adorned with wonderful mosaic and majolica decoration that was restored in 1955-1963 by a famous master Usta Shirin Mamedov. In 2006-2007 the government of Uzbekistan and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims have allocated resources for a new restoration of the Khazreti Imam ensemble as in 2007 Tashkent was listed among four world leading centres of Islam. This is how historical and cultural traditions of the past and present have intertwined in Uzbekistan.

The layout of the Barak-khan madrasah is traditional: there is an entrance portal with beautifully decorated vault, kolab-kori, it is decorated with majolica in the tympanums of the mikhrab arch; the pylons of the portal are lined with composition mosaic made of glazed brick; beyond the entrance portal there is an inner rectangular yard surrounded by khujra – cells for students. The classroom, darskhona, with its glazed lining on the fa?ade and the inner mosque for five-time prayer really stand out. A reminder of the five pillars of Islam – faith in one god, daily five-time prayer, alms to the needy (zyakat), fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca – is fixed in an imprint of a palm with five outstretched fingers on the stones of the yard. The Barak-khan madrasah is unusual in that its layout incorporates two mausoleums. The Nameless one, presumably built by Khoja Akhrar, and the Kok-gumbazi mausoleum, “the blue dome”, that belonged to Barak-khan’s father, Suyunij-khan, who was the grandson of Ulugbek and the uncle of Sheibani-khan. Under Barak-khan who ruled the entire Mavarannakhr by 1522, Tashkent for a brief period became the capital city of the Sheibani state.

Thus, the roots of the Temuri and Sheibani dynasties connected in the monuments of medieval architecture. Presently, under the dome of Suyunij-khan mausoleum there is a conference hall of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims. As in the olden times, a visit to the Khazreti Imam ensemble is a source of spiritual joy.

Each city, be it Samarqand or Bukhara, had its own central ensemble – Registan. The ensemble of the Tashkent Registan encompassed a large 16th century madrasah Kukeldash, with remarkable stellar ghirikh in the portal mosaics. Despite numerous modern compounds built in the 20th and early 21st centuries on the Chorsu square, madrasah Kukeldash is a historical dominant of this area. What not have these walls seen over their history of many centuries!

Built in 1570 by the governor Dervish-khan who was a vizir of the Tashkent khans and had a nickname Kukeldash, which means “foster-brother” of the khan, originally it was a Muslim school. In the 18th century the madrasah was converted into a caravanserai for transiting merchants, and at that same time the towers that crowed it, guldasta, collapsed. In the 19th century the madrasah served as fortress for the khans of Kokand (the blue domes over the mosque and darskhona were dismantled), and its portal was used to bombard with cannon-fire the inhabitants of Tashkent who were fighting for their independence. Before 1865 madrasah Kukeldash was also the place for execution in public. Wives found unfaithful to their husbands were put in a sack and thrown down from the upper parapet of the central portal onto a stone-paved spot, for the sake of improving people’s morals. In the 20th century madrasah Kukeldash housed an exhibition of atheistic propaganda that looked rather unconvincing on the background of the stately shapes of Islamic architecture. Not so long ago, here there was a museum of Uzbek traditional musical instruments. Nowadays the building reacquired its original purpose: after a long period of restoration it again functions as a spiritual school for Muslims, where studies are done without any touch of religious fanaticism and where the classical traditions of Islamic Renaissance are revived. D?cor that adorns the walls of madrasah Kukeldash contains an inscription the old wisdom of which is constantly proved by history: “Death is inevitable for the man, but the work he has done lives forever”. Also present in the inscription is the name of the author: “Vignette master Alimjan, the son of master Salim”.

Next to madrasah Kukeldash, reflecting the sun in its domes, there is a large cathedral three-dome Friday mosque, the only specimen of a Friday mosque in Tashkent. It is planned around an open rectangular inner yard and is intended for a Friday prayer (juma-namaz). Originally, a one-dome building of the city’s Friday mosque was built by Khoja Ahrar Vali in the 15th century. Repeatedly restored, the mosque was and remains the main mosque of Tashkent. Jami shines its domes in all its glory, making one amazed by the grandeur and noble serenity of its architectural form.

The buildings of madrasah Kukeldash and the Khoja Ahrar Vali Friday mosque are raised significantly above the street level, as they were situated on the bank of an ancient gully, which is now Navoi avenue.
Wide two-way street with the first tram line in the city, the Navoi avenue, where formerly two donkey-carts were not able pass one another, ends with the panorama of a high-rise 23-storey building of Chorsu hotel that was erected in 1982 under the guidance of architect V. Spivak and chief designer A. Asanov. At the basis of the architectural composition of the building is a high-rise tree-pylon bulk with non-standard rounded profile of the walls. Natural stone, Gazgan marble, ceramic tiles and wood carving were used in the finishing. The interiors are designed by A. Bukharbaev and E. Kedrin.

Behind the Chorsu hotel there is a new sports and fitness compound called “Jar” that comprises a stadium for the national wrestling kurash, a swimming pool, tennis courts, track and field facilities, and cycle tracks, which are functionally well-designed and look aesthetically beautiful in a modern way.

The ensemble of the contemporary Chorsu square can no longer be imagined without the Main Department Store, GUM, built in 1972 based on the design of architects A. Freitag and A. Komissar. Modern pre-cast and in-situ concrete structures of original design positioned on the front fa?ade perform a decorative and sun-screening function; the side faces of the building feature a stylized pattern of traditional geometric ghirikh. On the roof of the GUM there is a caf? with a decorative pool – in keeping with the principles of urban architecture proclaimed by Le Corbusier and O. Right.

Speaking about the original buildings on Chorsu square, one cannot ignore the history of the square itself, one of the oldest in Tashkent, as it emerged as early as the 11th century as the centre of the old Binkat. The word Chorsu translates as four streams or crossroads, as trade routes from all city gates led to Chorsu square. The square was an important transport intersection and a trading place; from here they sent caravans to Samarqand, Bukhara, Khiva, China, India and Russia. For a thousand years the Chorsu market in the old city was a specific city centre that was always crowded and where one could buy basically anything, as well as share the news or meet with friends in a tea-house. The market-place was used by heralds to read out decrees, addresses and resolutions of the city authorities. Even today the domed market on Chorsu square and the adjacent area are one of the liveliest centres of commerce. Located in the vicinity is another ancient square that survived from the times of Binkat – Khadra (in the 11th century it was called Khadrah). In the distant past a little street came here from the central trading square and was named Khadra, literally meaning “the end of the road”. Contemporary Khadra square represents a kind of a hub transport intersection surrounded by public buildings.

The landmark of the contemporary Khadra square is the building of the Tashkent circus crowned with a blue dome. It was built in 1975 based on the design of architects G. Alexandrovich and R. Muftakhov, and renovated in 2000. The structural solution involving frame-rings instead of traditional props and beams enabled having a lobby free from columns and creating a whole single space under the cupola for the arena and three thousand seats. The interior of the circus lobby is solved in reserved light shades with the inclusion of bright stained-glass windows on the subject of circus art. Entrances to the hall and arena are highlighted with the traditional plaster carving (ganch), and wooden doors are also wrought using traditional ornamental carving technique.

The unrepeated exterior appearance of the circus building is accentuated: a huge ribbed dome with a rotunda crowns the cylindrical bulk of the building, flanked by protruding counterforts; geometrical grid, panjara, protects and adds to the ornamentation of its glassed walls; the original highlighting in the evening gives the building a unique an unparalleled look.

Behind the circus building there is another unique modern structure in the ensemble of the old Tashkent: it is the city Planetarium named after Ulugbek, built in 2004 for the purpose of propagating the knowledge of astronomy, cosmonautics, and sciences of Earth and Universe. At the base of the volume-space composition of the Planetarium is a cube covered by dome. This composition is traditional for Uzbekistan’s architecture: the square base symbolizes earth and a semicircle of the blue dome represents the vault of heaven. Semi-transparent walls of tinted glass decorated with the images of luminaries give the building a modern look. Inside, the Planetarium is supplied with modern lighting technology and equipment. Spread beyond the Planetarium is a wonderful green area of Abdulla Kodyri Park.

The charm of architectural complexes of the new “old” Tashkent is in the blend of modern and ancient structures that fill the city with the romantic air of its centuries-old existence.

Elena Yarygina

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