Rising over the majestic face-off between the Kalon Mosque and the Mir-Arab-Madrassah as a righteous arbiter, the Kalon minaret marks the center of gravity of Bukhara. For 900 years, it has been exerting a powerful pull on caravans, dervishes and invading armies alike, who knew on sight: Bukhoro-i-Sharif, Bukhara the Noble, was within reach.
A Friday Mosque has stood on the site of the current Kalon Mosque since at least the 10th century. The first Kalon minaret was built to accompany this mosque in 919, during the time of the Samanids, but it was destroyed by “an act of God”, perhaps an earthquake, in 1068.
A wooden minaret was built to replace it by Arslan Khan of the Karakhanids, who ruled Bukhara at the time, but this structure later collapsed, reportedly killing many people who were worshipping in the mosque at the time. Another account claims the minaret was destroyed during one of the many sieges of city in the 11th and early 12th century.
Regardless, in 1127 Arslan Khan ordered a new minaret (could be that it was completed, rather than ordered, in 1127).
Karakhanid victory towers
The Karakhanids planted their really big minarets in every corner of their territory: the Vabkent minaret nearby, the Burana Tower and the Uzgen minaret in Kyrgyzstan (the Jarkurgan minaret near Termez was of Persian make, but clearly inspired by the Karakhanid example). The Karakhanids were Turks, nomadic conquerors who had only recently taken control over these lands, and the majority of their subjects were the former Persian population. In other words:
The immigrant Karakhanid population was not large, its leadership was divided, and the Karakhanids’ control always tenuous. They therefore had to take special measures to “plant their flag.”
We have seen that one way they did so was to erect handsome mausoleums for their deceased rulers in the urban centers. Far more evocative, and hence more effective, would have been the erection of minarets that could dominate the cities and surrounding countryside, impressing all with the Karakhanids’ presence and might. This, one might hypothesize, was the main reason the Karakhanid rulers worked with such zeal to construct minarets.
The noted art historians Richard Ettinghausen and Igor Grabar were therefore almost certainly correct when they characterized these so-called minarets as “victory towers.”
Lost Enlightenment, S. Frederick Starr
Construction and destruction
When construction finished, the architect, a man named Bako, was dissatisfied by the end result: “The flight of my fancy was greater than the minaret I built,” he is claimed to have lamented. Reportedly he was buried 47m from the minaret, the same distance as its height.
A century later, only 2 structures in Bukhara survived the invasion of the city by Genghis Khan in 1220: the Ismail Samani Mausoleum and the Kalon Minaret. A harsh architecture critic then, that Genghis, but in the age of Rem Koolhaas, we can perhaps understand his despair.
700 years later, the minaret’s skylight was blown to bits by 10 Bolshevik shells during the 1920 civil war. It was subsequently repaired in 1924 and excavated in 1964, when centuries of accumulated earth and sand were removed from its base, adding another 2 metres to its official height.
In 1976, the minaret was damaged again in a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, but has since been restored once more.
Architecture and decoration
Foundations were dug to a depth of 13 metres, a base measuring 9 metres in diameter was sketched out and a lime mortar was mixed, fortified with camel’s milk, egg yoke and bull’s blood (this may sound weird to the uninitiated, but mortar admixtures of blood and milk were already common in Roman times, and bull’s blood mortar was used until the 19th century in Europe).
Reeds were stacked underneath to prevent earthquake damage, and the entire foundation was left to set for 2 years, after which the building of the 47m-high minaret began.
The current Kalon minaret stand on an octagonal base and has bands of geometric brick designs. On 3 of its belts the ancient construction date inscriptions can still be seen – 1127 – as well as the names of architect and ruler, Usto (master) Bako and Arslan Khan.
Proving the versatility of the simple brick, each band is composed of either circular, square or rectangular bricks arranged in differing patterns to give an extraordinary texture. There are some sculpted bricks and some with geometric reliefs and the more you look the more complex it becomes. It is a triumph of construction and much like the Ismail Samani mausoleum, the triumph derives from the use of a simple building material that becomes elevated by the ingenuity and creativity of the architect (Pompei79).
A band of glazed blue tiles constitutes the first use of the material that would later come to define architecture in Central Asia under Timur.
The gallery at the top is crowned by a magnificent cornice adorned with muqarnas (stalactites). 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.
A Silk Road echo in Venice
Rosemary Mack, in her book Bazaar to Piazza, finds echoes of Bukhara in the appearance of the Doge’s Palace which dominates St. Mark’s square in Venice. Looking at the diamond patterns on the palace’s marble façade, she observes a startling similarity between them and the brickwork pattern at the base of the Kalon minaret.
Is the similarity coincidence? Venetian travelers such as Marco Polo (there were many others) regularly followed the Silk Roads eastward and it is likely they brought back not just precious stones and silks but also detailed impressions of what they had seen.
And, as Mack suggests, adding a Central Asian motif on the Doge’s palace — whose decoration was completed in an era when Venetian traders could safely travel as far as China and India thanks to the Pax Mongolica (1240-1360)– would be a way to publicly underline the reach and power of Venice itself (via Tea and Carpets).
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, Geoffrey Moorhouse
Climbing the minaret
The minaret is linked to the roof of the Kalon mosque by a small bridge. This is the entrance to the minaret’s landing, 105 steps up. A brick staircase spirals upwards, becoming ever narrower as the tower slowly tapers from a diameter of 9m to 6m.
However, the best view in town at the top of the minaret has been inaccessible for tourists for a while now.