kalon mosqueThe Great Friday Mosque is the fuma, or Kalon 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 in Samarkand held a larger capacity and that was just a bit too large, collapsing around its congregation soon after completion. It was the Kalon Mosque in Bukhara 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 Holy 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 Kalon Mosque in Bukhara was burnt to cinders and the city razed to the ground.

Thus the present Kalon Mosque in Bukhara 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.

KALON MOSQUE IN BUKHARA

The plan of the Kalon Mosque in Bukhara forms a 127- by 78-metre (415- by 255-foot) open rectangle with four iwans on its axis and seven entrance gates drawing in all corners of the city. The main entrance of the Friday Mosque 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 Kalon 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 Kalon Mosque in Bukhara. 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.

In spite of its vicious introspection, Bukhara was still a suprisingly cosmopolitan city and it counted among its populationjews, Afghans, Armenians, Russians, Persians, Chinese and Hindus and even a shadowy European pharmacist named Reinhardt, the only Westerner ever granted Bukharandomocile. Teahouses and bazaars w