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.


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 were social magnets where friends and acquaintances greeted each other with a hand over the heart, a stroke of the beard and a line from the Koran, and also open stage for dancing boys, professional storytellers and even dentists, whose victims would kneel with their heads between an assistant’s knees as he used his body weight to lever out offending teeth.

Bloodletting, the only real medicine thought to rival a visit to a saint’s tomb as the most effective remedy for sickness, was also a teahouse profession. When executions and gutter dentistry failed to provide free entertainment, ram fighting, juggling and a melancholy quatrain from the rubbab filled the void. Tea was continually brewed in every dwelling but it seems the favourite drink in summer was a concoction of grape syrup poured over crushed ice, the latter buried in the winter months and stored underground to be dispensed almost free during the scorching summer heat. Life was a hedonistic blend of innocent charm and cynical depravity.

“By the turn of the 20th century, Bukhara was sunk in a pool of bottomless vice, wore a halo of departed glory, and was heavy with an air of immutability. But its nefarious days were numbered and the medieval would slowly and inexorably yield to the modern.

For my own part, on leaving the city I could not help rejoicing at having seen it in what might be described as the twilight epoch of its glory. Were I to go again in later years it might be to find electric light in the highways. It might be to see window-panes in the houses, and to meet with trousered figures in the streets. It might be to eat zakuska in a Russian restaurant and to sleep in a Russian hotel; to be ushered by a tchinovnik into the palace of the Ark, and to climb for fifty kopecks the Minor-i-Kalian. Civilisation may ride in the Devil’s Wagon but the Devil has a habit of exacting his toll. What could be saidfor a Bukhara without a Kosh Begi, a Divan Begi, and an Inak—without its Mullahs and kalanders, its toksabas and its mirzabashi, its shabraques and chupans and khalats? Already the mist of ages is beginning to rise and to dissolve. The lineaments are losing their beautiful vague mystery of outline. It is something, in the short interval between the old order and the new, to have seen Bukhara, while it may still be called the Noble, and before it has ceased to be the most interesting city in the world”.

George Curzon, 1889

Today the Kalon Mosque in Bukhara 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.