The Registan Mithra
On encountering the Sher-Dor madrassa in the Registan of Samarkand, from Paul Kriwaczek's In Search of Zarathustra:
Over the grand archway through which the students would pass from blazing sunlight into the cool, dim, quiet interior, are depicted a symmetrical pair of tigers pursuing deer across a flower-strewn field. Over the back of each tiger rises an anthropomorphic sun, golden rays of light streaming out around a patently Mongol face. How astonishing on a building dedicated to educating the clergy of a religion which abhors the depiction of any living thing! The vision certainly perplexed our Pakistan-born Muslim anthropologist, the presenter of the series of films about Islam which had brought us and our television crew to Samarkand.
Standing in the middle of the square in trainers and trademark navy-blue shalwar-kamiz, Pakistani national dress, a short stocky figure dwarfed by the magnificence all around, he looked up at the images outraged and nonplussed, his piety affronted. How could decoration like this be applied to a madraseh of all places? Such pictures are strictly forbidden by Islamic law. It must be an error of some kind. Our local minder explained that the buildings had been restored in the 1920s and then again in the 1950s. Well then, the tigers and faces must have been added by the Soviet-era restorers: communist atheists who knew little and cared less about the principles of Islam; perhaps it was even done on purpose, to desecrate the sanctity of the architecture.
I was surprised that a man claiming the title Professor and nursing aspirations for high diplomatic office didn't recognise the device. For the sun rising over the back of a lion was the familiar symbol of both the nineteenth-century Qajar and the twentieth-century Pahlavi dynasties of Iran—not to mention the Mojahedin-e-Khalq pro-Shah terrorists of today. This version, with tigers for lions and faces on the suns, could only be an earlier expression of the same motif.
The images are certainly as old as the Sher-dar Madraseh itself, the work of a certain Muhammad Abbas, whose signature peeps discreetly through the tilework tendrils, and whose praises are sung in the self-congratulatory dedication executed in stylised Arabic script around the archway. 'The sky bit its finger in amazement,' gushes the building of itself after a great deal more in the same vein, 'thinking there was a new moon.'
What the design actually means is another matter. Muslims and scholars disagree. Locals guess that the tiger and deer motif refer to the king's pursuit of his enemies or perhaps to some Samarkandi legend. The orthodox interpretation is that the tiger stands for a lion, a reference to the Caliph 'Ali, the 'Lion of Islam'—the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and, in Shi-ite eyes, his only rightful successor—while the sun stands for the light of Islam.
But the sun-rayed face, seen on other buildings in the region too, actually belongs to another and older tradition than Islam. For the ever-rising and unconquered sun was always one of the symbols of Mithra, in Zoroastrian belief the intermediary between God and humanity, guarantor of contracts and fair dealing, who bestows the light of his grace on the lawful ruler. Tradition led Iranian kings and emperors down the ages to see themselves as Mithra's representatives on earth. In this tiger-and-sun design, the governor was glorifying his feudal master with the mandate of heaven. The Sher-dar madraseh is yet another sign that Islam in the Iranian world is like a woman's plain chador worn over party finery, a cloak that covers, disguises, or incorporates much traditionally Iranian, pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian belief. This time, General Alchin Yalangtush Bahadur had let the veil slip and revealed his real religious underwear.
To this day tiles decorated with elegant sun-rayed Mithra faces, not Mongolian now but Aryan, are on sale in Iranian markets. Ask what they represent and you will likely be told, as I was: 'Just a face.'
More on Mithra here. Some video footage of the Registan ensemble, comprising the Ulugh Beg, Sher-Dor (Tiger-Bearing), and Tilla-Kari (Gold-Work) madrasahs, below: