The magnificent Kul Sharif Mosque, named for Kazan’s last great Imam before Ivan the Terrible invaded and seized the city, is the largest Muslim place of worship in Europe, and serves as home to a rich collection of ancient books. It was last reconstructed in 2005, during which time the original 16th century facade damaged by Ivan was finally replaced.
As an equally important place of Orthodox worship, the Annunciation Cathedral within Kazan’s Kremlin is an architectural gem not to be missed. Completed in 1561, a full nine years after the city was conquered, the cathedral is said to have been designed by none other than Postnik Yakovlev, the same architect who was said to have been blinded after completing work on St. Basil’s Cathedral on Moscow’s Red Square.
But the one sight that defines Kazan more than any other is its mighty Kremlin, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. Newly arrived travelers are often awestruck by its pristine white walls, which mirror the ivory government buildings and Tatarstan’s presidential palace. The Kremlin of Kazan reflects not only the ethnic mix of Tatars and Russians that make up this important region of the Russian Federation, but also the combined strength of the region’s two great religions: Islam and Orthodox Christianity.
Like many ancient cities, Kazan abounds with legends. Among the many prominent structures featured in the city’s Kremlin is the Söyembikä Tower, named for the incredibly beautiful mother of the last Tatar Khan of Kazan. Even though she was in her 30s, Söyembikä captured the interest of Ivan the Terrible when he conquered the great city. Struck with her beauty, the Russian Tsar proposed a Christian marriage to her, a prospect that Söyembikä, a Muslim, became unhappy about even at the thought. To avoid invoking his wrath upon her people, she told Ivan that she would accept the proposal if he would build for her the tallest tower in Kazan in seven days. Ivan ordered his men to carry out the task, and they built a seven-tier structure, finishing one tier by the end of each day of construction. When Ivan completed the task, Söyembikä somberly climbed to the highest tier, looked out over her beloved city, and with tearful eyes, jumped to her death from it. Although the tower still stands, visitors today are not allowed to climb it because, rather like the leaning Tower of Pisa, the Söyembikä Tower has begun to tilt despite efforts to stabilize its foundations.
The future of Kazan appears to be equally strongly tied into its unique mixture of religious beliefs. Philanthropist Ildar Khanov began work on his Temple of All Religions in 1992 near the shores of the Volga River, and this unique building is still under construction. The Temple makes use of religious architecture from all over the world, including an Orthodox church dome, a minaret, synagogue-like fixtures, and other items representative of 16 of the world’s many faiths. Khanov, who is known for his work at treating alcoholism, drug addiction, and other social diseases, resides at the structure, which is used as a sort of cultural center. Many of his assistants in building the temple were at one time recipients of his treatments. Ultimately, Khanov hopes to create for his home city a beautifully decorated monument to “culture and truth,” a perfect symbol for such a cosmopolitan city.
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