The Kalon Minaret is one of the defining symbols of Bukhara. Towering over the city at over 48 metres (155 feet) 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.
The Kalon Minaret has stood here since 919, for after all, every Friday mosque needs its Friday minaret. The original Kalon Minaret in Bukhara was destroyed by an act of God in 1068 and the subsequent wooden minaret in Bukhara built by the Karakhanid Arslan Khan collapsed within a fragile few years onto the packed Friday mosque with an equally inauspicious, and the Minaret Kalon seems quite devastating, loss of life.
Thus in 1127, when the impatient khan rather ambitiously ordered the construction of the greatest minaret Kalon the world had hitherto seen, the architect wisely decided not to rush the job.
Foundations were dug to a depth of 13 metres (45 feet), a base measuring nine metres (30 feet) 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 Kalon minaret in Bukhara explored a dimension his environment rarely provided. As he gazed up in wonder, historians recount how, in a rare gesture of humility, he bowed at the foot of the Great Minaret Kalon in Bukhara to pick up his fallen hat and quietly ordered the minaret spared the ensuing orgy of destruction.
The Kalon 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 Kalon in Bukhara was further damaged in the 1976 Gazli earthquake, but has since been restored and is now under UNESCO protection.
The minaret Kalon 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 Kalon 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 Kalon in Bukhara rises golden from an octagonal base and tapers elegantly through ten individual bands of lacy brickwork up to a 16-windowed rotunda gallery. A band of blue tiles underneath the stalactite lantern stands out as probably the first usage of coloured majolica tilework to be seen in Transoxiana and a brick inscription dates it to 1127. 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 Kalon. The conical stump that crowns the minaret in Bukhara is all that remains of an original extension which pushed the Kalon minaret even higher than it stands today. The honey bricks glow in the late afternoon light, when the Poi Kalon 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. Today the height of the minaret can be reached even by infidel tourists, on payment of a small fee within the Kalon Mosque.