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Kalon Mosque

But where the grandiose is concerned, the Kalan mosque—which means the great—has no compare. From the height of the hundred and seventy feet of the Tower of Death which flanks it, and from which the Emir caused those condemned to death to be flung, one looks down upon the immense courtyard, the turquoise cupola over the sanctuary, and its central pediment facing the little pavilion for ablutions. During festivals a colossal red carpet used to cover the stones of the pavement. How magical the effect must have been against the lovely silk brocades worn by the great ones of the earth!

Since the Kalan dates from the eleventh century, from my point of vantage I could have seen Jenghiz Khan in 1220 go into the pulpit—having just taken the city with one hundred and fifty thousand men—and proclaim himself the Scourge of Allah. I could have seen him command sages to give food to his horses from the wooden cases in which the Korans were kept.

On each side of the courtyard a triple-vaulted arcade stands, supported on enormous cubical pillars. It is dark under them, and an oppressive weight, as in some Romanesque cathedral, seems to bear down on my shoulders. The altar, mirhab, is only an oblong of designs in enamel. The light is of so rare a quality that it demands pure simple lines to strike upon; stained glass and sculpture lose all point in it.

"Turkestan Solo" by Ella Maillart

At the foot of the Kalon minaret, on the site of an earlier mosque destroyed by Genghis Khan, is the 16th-century congregational Kalon Mosque, big enough for 10,000 people. Used in Soviet times as a warehouse, it was reopened as a place of worship in 1991.

The Kalon (Great) Mosque is the Juma, or Friday, mosque of Bukhara, built to house the entire male population of the city during its main weekly namaz prayer. Not only is it one of the most ancient mosques in Central Asia, it is also the second biggest, with a stadium like open- air capacity of 10-12,000 souls. Only the Bibi Khanum held a larger capacity and that was just a bit too large, collapsing around its congregation soon after completion.

It was the Kalon Mosque into which Genghis Khan rode defiantly in 1219, believing it to be the palace of the sultan. When informed that he was in the house of God, Genghis scornfully ordered the Koran holders be overturned into mangers for his horses and the pages of the Koran trampled in the dirt beneath their feet. He ascended the pulpit, cried out "The hay is cut! Give your horses fodder!" and his troops burst out of the mosque, with the knowledge that they had the khan's tacit permission to decimate the city. The mosque was burnt to cinders and the city razed to the ground. Thus the present mosque is simply the latest in a series of Friday mosques to be grafted onto the dead remains of the past. The original mosque, built in 795 by the city's Arab governor was enlarged by Ismael Samani, suffered collapse twice during his nephew Nasr's reign, burnt to the ground in 1068 and then suffered the Mongol wrath in 1219. The present structure was finished in 1514 (witness an inscription on the mosque's facade) and the mihrab was embellished in 1541 under the Shaybani Ubaydullah.

The plan of the mosque forms a 127- by 78-metre open rectangle with four iwans on its axis and seven entrance gates drawing in all corners of the city. The main entrance lies through the beautiful eastern portal and steps descend through time from 1970s restoration to the original 15th century ground level. The huge central open-air plaza opens like a rectangular burst of white heat and is encased in a colonnaded arcade of 208 pillars and 288 domes which rise from the roof in cool bubbles of shade. To the west the turquoise swell of the Kok Gumbaz (Blue Dome) gives the mosque its popular nickname and shelters the brilliant, gilded tilework of the mihrab niche, an opulence financed by Ubaydullah's victorious campaign to Gijduvan and signed by the architect Buyazid Purani. The white Kufic inscription running around the dome reads 'al-baqa' lillah' (Immortality Belongs To God).

The 19th century octagonal pavilion set in front of the mihrab is an intriguing late addition to the mosque. Some say it marks the ancient well used for centuries for ritual ablution, others that it was built to shade the emir during his weekly visits. Most probably, it served as an early tannoy system, from where a second imam would echo the words and motions of the first for the benefit of the congregation.

Today the mosque is a relic from a more devout age. Its doors have re-opened to embrace Islam, but its irregular and ageing cluster of a congregation huddles disconsolately in what is only a tiny corner of its deep cloister, a remnant from a past age.

Opposite the mosque, its luminous blue domes in sharp contrast to the surrounding brown, is the working Mir-i-Arab Medressa. Especially at sunset, it's among Uzbekistan's most striking medressas. Mir-i-Arab was a 16th-century Naqshbandi sheikh from Yemen who had a strong influence on the Shaybanid ruler Ubaidullah Khan.

Tourists can technically only go as far as the foyer. However, if you ask permission you may be allowed to view the tombs of Mir-i-Arab and Ubaidullah Khan in a room under the northern dome.

From there you get a decent view of the courtyard, where you might see students playing ping-pong.