Kazan: The Mosque Inside the Kremlin Walls
David and I arrived in Kazan on a brilliant, sunny Saturday afternoon, perfect for wandering around the city. We decided to start with the city's Kremlin, a massive 16th-century fortress perched on the banks of the Kazanka River.
As I stood on a grassy slope outside the Kremlin, I was shocked to find I'd completely forgotten about the giant turquoise-domed mosque towering over the walls. I've forgotten plenty of things since the 1995 trip, but this seemed extreme -- it's a pretty bizarre sight, seeing a mosque's dome and minarets looming over such a classically Russian setting. That's it, I thought -- no more vodka shots for me, ever.
This was a short-lived resolution. When we went inside the Kremlin, we found a small monument commemorating a decree by the President of Tatarstan to "recreate the Kul Sharif Mosque." The decree was dated November 13, 1995 -- just five days after Gary and I left Kazan on the first Russian Chronicles trip. The mosque had been designed and built within the last ten years.
This was no small accomplishment, as the Kul Sharif mosque is not only exquisitely ornate, it is also apparently one of the largest mosques in Europe. The minarets soar 187 feet into the air, and the gleaming cupola rises 128 feet. The cavernous prayer hall reportedly can accommodate 1,500 people, in addition to another 9,000 out on the square.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, religious faiths of all kinds have seen a gradual resurgence in Russia. It's not so surprising that a new mosque was built here, as Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, an autonomous republic with more than 2 million mostly Muslim Tatars. But I did find it surprising that the new mosque was built right inside the Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As it turns out, the mosque was built on roughly the same spot as an earlier Kul Sharif mosque, which was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible's armies in 1552. The Russian tsar had stormed across Tatarstan, slaughtering Muslims and razing their mosques in an attempt to bring Russian Orthodoxy to the land. Four and a half centuries later, the Russian and Tatar governments combined forces -- with some financial help from a few oil companies and thousands of private donors -- to recreate the largest and most beautiful of the mosques that were destroyed.
This bloody history, and the subsequent rebuilding of the Kul Sharif mosque, left me wondering once again about the relatively warm relations between the Muslim Tatars and Russians -- especially as compared to the unbridled hatred between Muslim Chechens and Russians. In the next few days, we'll be asking people here what they think of the Chechnya conflict and the status of Islam in Russia.
We'll also try to track down the family and fiancée of Zhenya Mamykin, a young soldier who was killed in Chechnya in 1995, to find out how their lives have changed over the last 10 years.
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