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Palace of Peace and Harmony

In September 2003, Astana hosted the First Congress of World and Traditional Religions. Encouraged by the success of the event, which had been his initiative, President Nazarbaev decided to make it a triennial occasion. He also decided that a permanent home would be constructed for meetings of the Congress, which would be a global centre for religious understanding and the renunciation of violence.

In the following year Foster and Partners were brought in as architects, and the building was designed and constructed in the short period of two years, allowing for its opening in September 2006 to host the Second Congress. Taking the form of a pyramid, as a structure with no denominational connotations, the building is named the Palace of Peace and Harmony. The building lies along the axis running through the KazMunaiGas building, Baiterek Tower and Ak Orda, but stands on the opposite side of the Ishim River to the Ak Orda. It is a long walk to get here.

The building makes for an impressive sight. On a 15m-high earth-covered mound the 62m pyramid rises up, constructed of a steel frame, its lower levels covered in granite. You enter from the east side of the structure, into the side of the mound. It is compulsory to take a guided tour. The first impression given on entering the pyramid is, like Doctor Who's Tardis, one of much greater size inside than out. This is largely explained by the fact that the earth-covered mound is itself part of the structure.

The half-hour tour shows you a 1350-seat opera hall, the 3rd-floor atrium where the religions congress is held, and the apex with its circular conference table and windows filled with stained-glass doves (by British artist Brian Clarke). The guided tour will take you first to an exhibition covering the inspirations for and construction of the building, including architectural sketches and displays placing the pyramid among the ranks of the great religious buildings of the world. You are then taken to see the 1,350-seat opera house which lies at the bottom of the building, with three rows of curved balconies. Montserrat Caballe performed at the inauguration of the opera house, though it does not yet host regular performances. Light enters the opera house from the atrium above, through triangular glass slivers arranged in a circle to make the form of the sun. You are then taken up a flight of stairs to view a large model of the ambitious future development plans for Astana.

The next destination on the tour is the Cheops Atrium (the rooms in the pyramid have mostly been given Egyptian names), a marble-floored central space, rising 40m high. You will also be shown models of the other grand projects in Kazakhstan on which the Turkish construction company, Sembol, is working, including a mooted development to be called Indoor City, which aims to provide exactly that: a complex of apartments, shops, even medical and educational facilities, allowing for life with minimal exposure to the tough Astana winters in a complex in which internal transportation will be provided by boats floating down a canal. A slanted elevator then takes you up the side of the pyramid. The seventh floor holds the State Museum of Gold and Precious. This has a replica of the costume of the Golden Man, with further display cases containing copies of individual elements from the Golden Man costume. A second hall contains items of Kazakh silver jewellery, as well as hunting implements and items of horse decoration. 'The guided tours don't always cover this museum, which isn't, frankly, a great tragedy.

The elevator also takes you to the eighth floor, where you are deposited at the base of the Winter Garden. A flight of steps winds up the sides of the pyramid past walls lined with plants in a curious 'hanging garden' effect. The steps take you to the Cradle, the uppermost space of the pyramid. A circular white conference table runs around the room, the space in the middle dropping down into the atrium adding to its resemblance to a giant Polo mint. The walls of the Cradle are stained glass, the work of British artist Brian Clarke. Beneath a central sun are depicted 130 doves, representing the 130 nationalities living in peace in Kazakhstan. The doves are depicted in a realistic style, only very large, giving them a slightly sinister quality. Looking at them you get a sense of how the Tippi Hedren character must have felt in The Birds.

Full of symmetry and symbolism, the pyramid is beautifully illuminated and a highlight of the city. It has a decent cafe, too.

Facing the pyramid across Manasa is the 91m-high tall Kazak Yeli (Kazakh Country) monument, topped by a golden eagle and with a 5m bronze relief of President Nazarbaev tucked into its base. Behind stand the Shabyt, a high, concave ring of blue glass that will house an arts university, and the Palace of Independence, well worth a visit especially for its huge scale model of how Astana is planned to look in 2030. It also holds an interesting ethnographic hall with exhibits similar to those at the Presidential Culture Centre.

The jewel in the crown is the Palace of Peace and Harmony, a gigantic 200-million-dollar pyramid designed by the British architect Norman Foster. Conceived by the president as a meeting-place for the world's religious leaders to promote tolerance and understanding, the pyramid has been built on a site of 90,000 square metres in the heart of the capital. A rapid building schedule was imposed on the architects, whose design team developed a construction plan using prefabricated components manufactured in Turkey during the harsh winter months, and later erected during the summer.

The pyramid was opened in September 2006, and an architectural journalist who visited the site a week before described hundreds of workers - many of them women - and contingents of the Kazakh Army furiously working to transform a 'shrieking, fiery pandemonium into a mysterious kind of heaven ... The interior, all swirling smoke and deafening clamour, shot through with torrents of sparks, was William Blake crossed with Piranesi... more Inca than Egyptian; like a temple ... a place to wonder at.'

The pyramid is a tubular steel frame sixty metres high built on a man-made hill concealing a 1,500-seat opera house. The base is clad in pale granite, and the entrance at the side of the hill leads into a black granite foyer and then the floor of the main hall. This has triangular glass panels set into the floor that look down into the opera house below, a two-tiered, horseshoe-shaped room lined with wood. (The architect for this was Anne Minors, who worked on both the Royal Opera House and the new theatre at Glyndebourne.) Funicular elevators, like those of the Eiffel Tower, rise up the inward leaning walls to the floors above. Two of these have been set aside to provide offices representing every one of Kazakhstan's different ethnic groups. Above them are floors housing chapels for eighteen of the country's principal religions

-    which number forty-six in all. At the top, a ramp surrounded by a hanging garden leads to a chamber where the world's religious leaders meet in a triennial congress. A massive lens in the floor floods the atrium below with light, filtered through an apex of blue and yellow stained glass, with a motif of giant doves in flight

-    the work of a British artist, Brian Clarke.

The pyramid is extraordinary both in concept and in structure, a modern multi-faith cathedral, described by Lord Foster as 'A contemporary reconsideration of religious architecture ... dedicated to the renunciation of violence and the promotion of faith and human equality.' The architect directly in charge of the pyramid's construction, Lord Foster's colleague David Nelson, said: it was one of those things that captures the imagination. We felt that if someone wants to bring together the world's religions, that is something that's well worth doing at the moment. As a symbol, the pyramid's not owned by any of today's religions.'

In Search of Kazakhstan by Christopher Robbins