Our journey to Kazan began on a train ride from Nizhny Novgorod. We happened to meet in our coach a woman who introduced herself as an authentic Tatar Muslim. She was very open with us, even about her personal life, and said that Kazan was her city and home, and offered to show it to us. Even though she was Muslim, she didn’t cover her hair. In fact, during our entire time in the city, we hardly encountered any woman who did cover her hair. Knowing that Kazan hosts a big Muslim community (which composes almost half the city!), this surprised me, as in both India and America, I have mostly seen that Muslim women cover their hair.
It was our Tatar companion on the train who told us that Kazan (qazan) was actually a Tatar word that meant ‘the melting pot’. My friends and I then pictured how such a large city could easily be perceived as a melting pot of people; although I later discovered that the rumors about why Kazan had earned this name were quite different. Some believe that the city, because of being on the shore of river Kazanka (Qazansu), a river in which it is rumored that a Bulgar governor’s son dropped a copper cauldron. Another explanatory legend is that the city, as it sits on top of the hill, once looked like an overturned melting pot.
When I reached the city, I was surprised at how modern, open, and European it was. I had assumed that a city as replete with history and monuments as Kazan would for the most part retain a very vintage air, so that the European modernity of its canals and high rises was a pleasant surprise. Further, our exploration of the city revealed that this modernization was done rather tastefully, so that the old and the new blend harmoniously.
Our first experience of the old was in the Kazan Kremlin, which we reached by the Kremlaskaya station on the metro. The Kazan metro is actually very interesting – it shares the Moscow Metro’s tradition of having elaborately designed metro stations, although these are fewer in number and done with a special Tatar style. Stations like the Kazan Kremlin station feature giant dragons on the ceiling along with other artwork, along with instructions in not only English and Russian, but also Tatar. This was a surprise to our eyes at first, as Russian and Tatar share several alphabets (which is apparently true only of Tatars in Russia), although Tatar ultimately has a larger alphabet. This alphabet is also represented through Arabic letters in places like China, which is how Tatar was originally written.
Unlike other Russian cities that offered to us beautiful Russian Orthodox churches and monasteries, Kazan offered us a refreshing glimpse at Islamic mosques alongside Christian places of worship. Such a mosque, the Qolsärif Mosque, sits harmoniously beside the Annunciation Cathedral in the walls of the Kazan Kremlin. Although the style of it seems to hint that the mosque is very old, it is actually only ten years old. The original Qolsärif Mosque, however, was built in the 16th century, with a traditional Volga-Bulgarian design and four minarets around the dome. Unfortunately, Ivan the Terrible destroyed it during the siege of Kazan and the fall of the Khanate. Many sites of importance to the Muslim community were lost in this process and during fires, wars, and the rise of the Soviet Union. Luckily, since the 21st century, restoration or reconstruction of such sites has begun. This is how a new Qolsärif Mosque was built in 2005, with generous aid from many countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
Inside the mosque, there is a model of the mosque made of gemstones, along with a museum downstairs and an active place of prayer upstairs. The museum traced the history of how Islam reached Tatarstan and had the Quran copied on sheets of silver. My friends and I also saw a man who wrote our names in Arabic on a placard, along with our cities and with geometric patterns.
Following our visit to Qolsärif, we went to see the graves of the Khanate, the Church of Ascension, and the Tower of Söyembikä (also Süyümbike). The last of these is perhaps the most interesting, because of the mysterious history that surrounds it. Legend says that Ivan the Terrible built the tower, which is eponymous of Tatar Princess Söyembikä (Süyümbike), after the princess laid down the condition that he must build a tower of seven tiers – with one for each day of the week – if she is to marry him. He supposedly had it constructed within a week in 1552, after which the princess climbed to the top of the tower and jumped, as she could not bear to marry the tsar because of her love for her people. The princess was a khanbika (a Tatar queen), and her name translates to “lovely woman” or “lovely queen”.
This legend is, of course, heavily disputed. Scholars still aren’t sure about even which century the tower was built in, based on which the buildings that influenced it and that it influenced differ greatly. Most people don’t think that the princess, who is a Tatar hero, could have jumped off the tower, as her religion frowns upon suicide and as she died a prisoner to Muscovite forces in 1551. In fact, the legend floated around two centuries after her death, which is also one time that researchers think could possibly be when the tower was constructed. This center of controversy is one of a few of its kind, not only for having this background, but also for having an architecture that isn’t visible in the rest of Russia except in a Kazan metro station built of an imitating style.
After soaking in the history, the breathtaking views of the city and the skyline from the Kremlin, we stepped out to explore the rest of the city.