This ensemble of majestic, tilting medressas – a near-overload of majolica, azure mosaics and vast, well-proportioned spaces – is the centrepiece of the city, and arguably the most awesome single sight in Central Asia. The Registan, which translates to ‘Sandy Place’ in Tajik, was medieval Samarkand’s commercial centre and the plaza was probably a wall-to-wall bazaar.

The three grand edifices here are among the world’s oldest preserved medressas, anything older having been destroyed by Chinggis Khan. They have taken their knocks over the years courtesy of the frequent earthquakes that buffet the region; that they are still standing is a testament to the incredible craftsmanship of their builders. The Soviets, to their credit, worked feverishly to restore these beleaguered treasures, but they also took some questionable liberties, such as the capricious addition of a blue outer dome to the Tilla-Kari Medressa. For an idea of just how ruined the medressas were at the start of the twentieth century, check out the excellent photo exhibit inside the Tilla-Kari Medressa.

Ulugbek Medressa, on the west side, is the original medressa, finished in 1420 under Ulugbek (who is said to have taught mathematics here; other subjects taught here included theology, astronomy and philosophy). Beneath the little corner domes were lecture halls, and at the rear a large mosque with a beautiful interior and an austere teaching room to one side.

The other buildings are rough imitations by the Shaybanid Emir Yalangtush. The entrance portal of the Sher Dor (Lion) Medressa, opposite Ulugbek’s and finished in 1636, is decorated with roaring felines that look like tigers but are meant to be lions, flouting Islamic prohibitions against the depiction of live animals. It took 17 years to build but hasn’t held up as well as the Ulugbek Medressa, built in just three years.

In between them is the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa, completed in 1660, with a pleasant, gardenlike courtyard. The highlight here is the mosque, which is on the left-hand side of the courtyard and is intricately decorated with gold to symbolise Samarkand’s wealth at the time it was built. The mosque’s delicate ceiling, oozing gold leaf, is flat but its tapered design makes it look domed from the inside. Inside the mosque is a magnificent picture gallery featuring blown-up black-and-white photos of old Samarkand.

Another interesting picture gallery is the Ulugbek Medressa’s mosque. Many of the medressas’ former dormitory rooms are now art and souvenir shops. In the high season mock weddings are put on for tourists in the Sher Dor courtyard, while tacky sound-and-light shows take place in the square.

From dawn until opening time police guards offer to clandestinely escort visitors to the top of a minaret for 10,000S or more, but this is negotiable. If you come during the day, note that your ticket is valid all day long, allowing you to come back and photograph the complex at the various times of day needed for the sunlight to be coming from the right direction. However, tell the complex security guards if you'd like to do this, otherwise they will tear your ticket and you won't be able to reuse it.