Kosh Madrassah

kosh madrassah in bukharaKosh means ‘double’ and is a general architectural term that can refer to any two opposing or facing halves of an ensemble. In Bukhara, it refers more specifically to the Modari Khan and Abdullah Khan Madrassah, situated a few hundred metres from the southwest corner of the Registan towards the old Shirgaron Gate.

Both were built on the orders of Abdullah Shaybani Khan (1533-1597), one of the greatest sponsors of religious and especially secular buildings Bukhara has ever seen.

The smaller and less ambitious of the madrassah is the Modar-i-Khan (1566-7), built in two brief years at the beginning of Abdullah’s reign, in honour of his mother (modar in Persian). The madrassah in Bukhara has an orthodox layout with restrained fagade tilework and reflects the uncertainty of Abdullah’s early few years as ruler.

It takes one look at the Abdullah Khan Madrassah in Bukhara opposite, built 23 years later, to realize that Abdullah probably loved himself more than he did his mother. The girikh designs of the fagade are more complicated, the violets, greens and whites more vibrant and the portal more impressive than his mother’s opposite. In fact Abdullah probably even loved himself more than he did Allah. For here, in a bold break with tradition, the artistic took precedent over the spiritual and the personal transcended the religious. The maverick madrassah and mosques were orientated not towards Mecca but rather to the cardinal points, partly so that the line of the fagade reflected the symmetry of its kosh madrassah partner, but mostly so that Abdullah’s future tomb could follow the customary north-south axis. At a time when the omnipotent clergy frowned upon lavish memorial mausoleums, it seems that Abdullah planned all along to be laid to rest in his smokescreen madrassah in Bukhara.

In another bold break with tradition, a two-storeyed octagonal chamber known as Abdullah’s Lantern’ bulges out of the northern wall to give the madrassah in Bukhara a unique plan. Narrow stairs access second floor cells to give an intriguing look behind the scenes at the bare bones of a kosh madrassah and continue up to the roof to reveal piles of neglected 16th century tiles scattered around bubbled domes and hujra chimney vents. The kosh madrassah is a veritable architectural adventure-playground, unfettered by museum attendants or nannying Intourist guides. Unexpected access is gained through the neighbouring building site/lorry park.