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Kalon Minaret

Scholars have long been confident that even where towers were built as part of some religious complex, in which they had a liturgical significance - as a minaret from which the muezzin would summon the faithful to prayer - they had an alternative role as a marker for the traveller from afar; possibly as a watchtower for the community as well, from which early warning might be given of impending attack. Certainly the resemblance between the Kalan Tower and a lighthouse was too striking to be ignored. They would have burned pitch on that parapet above the gallery, to steer to safety some important caravan whose arrival was anticipated on an extremely black and moonless night.

The Kalan Tower (minaret) had another function besides the religious and the navigational, and this one typified the deep streak of cruelty that runs like a fault line through Bukhara's past. When the Tsar's envoy Nicholas Ignatieff reached Bukhara in 1858, intent on making a trade treaty with the emir, he observed that the path to the ruler's dwelling "was flanked by blackened heads on pikes, trophies of justice and revenge". The emir's predecessor had ordered the bludgeoning to death of an Italian watchmaker, Giovanni Orlandi of Parma, though no one seemed quite sure whether it was because he refused to become a Muslim or because he allowed the emir's clock to stop. Another of these potentates, aware that he had not much longer to live, summoned his favourite wife and three daughters and had them killed beside his bed so that he could be quite sure no one else would enjoy them after he'd gone. For every ruler, the Kalan Tower was a regular instrument of execution. Criminals, or the merely dissident, were taken struggling up its winding stairs and allowed to see the city spread far below. Then they were tied in a sack and thrown off the parapet. According to Gustav Krist, who visited the city both during and after the Great War, this continued well into the twentieth century. When the last of the Tsars, Nicholas II, let it be known that he thought little of this practice in what was by then effectively a client emirate, the ruler briefly decapitated his subjects instead; but with the Russians otherwise preoccupied in the war, death by jaculation was resumed.

"Apples in the Snow" by Geoffrey Moorhouse

The Poi Kalyan complex means "the pediment of the Great" consists of three architectural constructions: Kalon minaret, Kalon mosque and Mir Arab madrasah which altogether constitute an entire architectural complex, the most historically significant and majestic landmark of Bukhara.

The Kalon Minaret is one of the defining symbols of Bukhara. Towering over the city at over 48 metres high, this 'javelin thrust into the heart of the old town' has dominated the Bukharan skyline for over eight and a half centuries; the initial augur to exhausted caravans that they had, at last, arrived at a truly great city. From it top, the call for prayers had gathered the muslim population of the city for many centuries. The supremacy of the minaret over the city meant predominance of Islam for all the people living in Bukhara. Minaret represents a gigantic vertical pillar which is constructed from bricks. It's an incredible piece of work, 47m tall with 10m-deep foundations (including reeds stacked underneath in an early form of earthquake-proofing), and has stood for 880 years. Diameter by the plinth reaches 9 metres. This magnificent conical pillar is complimented by cylindrical lamp-rotunda on the stalactitic wreath. The lamp rotunda has 16 reach-through ark holes. Throughout the whole length of the minaret there are 12 decorative belts on each of which there is a unique ornament.

On three of its belts the ancient construction date inscriptions can still be seen - 1127 as well as the name of the contributor - the governor of Bukhara, Arslankhan and the name of the architect is Usto Bako, whose grave, according to the legend, is situated in one of the neighboring blocks. When it was built by the Karakhanid ruler Arslan Khan in 1127, the Kalon Minaret was probably the tallest building in Central Asia - kalon means 'great' in Tajik. 

A minaret has stood here since 919, for after all, every Friday mosque needs its Friday minaret. The original minaret was destroyed by an act of God in 1068 and the subsequent wooden minaret built by the Karakhanid Arslan Khan collapsed within a fragile few years onto the packed Friday mosque with an equally inauspicious, and it seems quite devastating, loss of life.

A legend says that Arslan Khan killed an imam after a quarrel. That night in a dream the imam told him, 'You have killed me; now oblige me by laying my head on a spot where nobody can tread', and the tower was built over his grave.

Thus in 1127, when the impatient khan rather ambitiously ordered the construction of the greatest minaret the world had hitherto seen, the architect wisely decided not to rush the job. Foundations were dug to a depth of 13 metres, a base measuring nine metres in diameter was sketched out and a special mortar mixed, using camel's milk, egg yoke and bull's blood for that little something extra. The architect then promptly disappeared. Two years later he reappeared, claiming that the mortar had sufficiently hardened and raised the tallest free-standing tower in the world at that time. The khan was delighted and the status of the city was raised to the pinnacle of the Islamic world. However, the perfectionist architect was still dissatisfied and died not long after with the words "The flight of my fantasy was greater than the minaret I built". He was finally laid to rest in the shadow of his work, as far from the minaret as it was tall.

If the architect was not impressed then Genghis Khan certainly was. To this steppe nomad the vertical minaret explored a dimension his environment rarely provided. As he gazed up in wonder, historians rectreadount how, in a rare gesture of humility, he bowed at the foot of the Great Minaret to pick up his fallen hat and quietly ordered the minaret spared the ensuing orgy of destruction.

The minaret did indeed survive the test of the ages, but only to see its skylight shattered by a Soviet shell during the 1920 civil skirmishes. It was subsequently repaired in 1924 and adorned with a bold red flag until excavated in 1964, when centuries of accumulated earth and sand where removed from its base and another two metres added to its official height. The minaret was further damaged in the 1976 Gazli earthquake, but has since been restored and is now under UNESCO protection.

The minaret was, of course, built to provide the call to prayer, a giant Islamic exclamation mark to overshadow the faithful. Four fit muezzins would sound the call and a forest of over 200 minarets would echo the call to outlying suburbs. But the outsize tower could be commandeered for an array of unholy causes, in times of war, its crow's nest provided an essential early warning system against the rival khanate armies which would regularly rise like mist from the sandy horizon and, in times of peace, beacons lit in its skylight created a lighthouse to guide lonely trade caravans through the desperate desert wastes of the Kara Kum. The minaret's most diabolically inspired variant was the twisted work of the degenerate Mangit Uzbeks. For here, on market days, particularly outrageous criminals were led up the 105 steps of this 'Tower of Death', whereupon their crimes would be enumerated to the transfixed crowd, the omniscient justice of the emir praised to the heavens and the accursed criminal tied in a sack and thrown off the top to hurtle to certain oblivion below. The gruesome spectacle was current well into the second half of the 19th century and only added to Bukhara's already widespread infamy, moving a young George Curzon to write in characteristic style:

This mode of punishment, whose publicity and horror are well calculated to act as a deterrent to the Oriental population, is not the only surviving proof that the nineteenth century can scarcely be considered as yet to have got a firm hold on Bukhara.

The minaret rises golden from an octagonal base and tapers elegantly through ten individual bands of lacy brickwork up to a 16-windowed rotunda gallery. Its 14 ornamental bands, all different, include the first use of the glazed blue tiles that were to saturate Central Asia under Timur. Up and down the south and east sides are faintly lighter patches, marking the restoration of damage caused by Frunze's artillery in 1920.

The geometric brick designs would first have been laid out on the ground onto a grid and then added onto the bare trunk of the minaret. The conical stump that crowns the minaret is all that remains of an original extension which pushed the minaret even higher than it stands today. The honey bricks glow in the late afternoon light, when the ensemble is at it most bewitching.

In 1832 'Bokhara' Burnes noted that access to the minaret was tightly restricted to prevent lecherous local Uzbeks or Tajiks spying down into the female courtyards of local houses. Minaret is linked to the roof of the Kalyan mosque by a small bridge. This is the point from which it is possible to get inside the minaret and lift up to the rotunda through a thin brick vintage ladder which has 105 steps. Those, however, have been closed off to tourists for several years but may reopen.

Minaret Kalyan Legend

There are many legends about Minaret Kalyan which is situated in ancient city of Bukhara. The name is translated as "Big Tower", but it is also known as "The Death Tower". In ancient times many people were executed being thrown down from its top.

One of the old legends relates that once upon a time there was a shah who had a wife. He was a very cruel man and decided to kill his wife throwing her down from the top of the tower. But she was a very smart woman and had asked her husband to make her last wish come true. He agreed. When the woman showed up on the execution day, she was dressed up in all her dresses and skirts. Being absolutely calm, this wise woman had raised up to the top of the tower and all the people had been waiting and watching her. When she jumped down from the tower, it looked like a miracle: she survived as her dresses blew up like a parachute and led her land safely on the ground. The emir was so impressed, so he spared her life. It is now a Bukharan tradition that every man must give his bride 40 dresses as a wedding present - just in case.