The Lyab-i Hauz—Tajik for “by the pool”—complex is the tourist hub of the storied city of Bukhara in Uzbekistan, surrounded by the ubiquitous accoutrements of such centres: bed-and-breakfasts, money-changers, souvenir shops and bistros. The rectangular Hauz was created in the seventeenth century—next to the decades-older Kukeldash Madrasa, at the time the biggest Islamic school in Central Asia—by Nadir, vizier to Imam Quli, the khan of Bukhara. A khanqah, or Sufi hermitage, and a caravanserai, both named after Nadir, flank the pool. However, while inaugurating the complex, Imam Quli called the caravanserai a madrasa. As the khan could not be wrong, Nadir added to the structure, commissioning a magnificent portal and adjoining loggia, as well as an additional floor with cells for students.
When I entered the Madrasa of Nadir Divan-Beghi, in September 2018, instead of the sound of young voices reciting the Quran or teachers declaiming on theological questions, I was greeted by the tapping of mallet on chisel. The madrasa is today a workplace for artisans practising Uzbekistan’s many exquisite crafts. The cells that once housed scholars and students are now little shops and studios, selling clay figurines, colourful pottery, brass pitchers and wall plates, woven and embroidered textiles, and wooden bric-a-brac. “Our crafts are a big attraction for tourists, and the madrasa spaces offer a good opportunity for them to be showcased,” Ravshan Saidjanov, our Bukharan guide, said.
In the tourist centres of Uzbekistan, medieval madrasas have become buzzing marketplaces, representing the latest swing in the country’s complicated religious history. In Turkestan—a traditional name for the region encompassing the five contemporary “stans”: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan—the ebb and flow of Islam has been synchronous with the upheavals that this “crossroads of Asia” has witnessed over the centuries.