hidden europe 34

Where cultures meet: Kazan

by Laurence Mitchell

Picture above: Kazan's Kul Sharif Mosque, the largest in Russia and a popular backdrop for wedding photos (photo © Laurence Mitchell).


Kazan, with its gleaming new developments and clean streets, is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. Laurence Mitchell, a long-standing writer for hidden europe, introduces us to a part of Europe that has deeply Islamic roots.

Striding along the bridge that crosses the Kazanka River it is impossible to ignore the nose-to-tail rush-hour traffic streaming north out of the city. It is a sign of Tatarstan’s growing fortunes and rising prosperity. Traffic jams come with the territory, as do American-style fast food and glitzy urban development.

Away to the left lies Kazan’s latest bold construction project — a sports stadium, gleaming new business hotel and pyramidal entertainment complex, all so new that the dust has not yet settled and the construction workers not yet left the site.

In the days of Imperial Russia, those with power built churches with domes that stretched heavenwards; in the Soviet period, it was monumental statuary; these days, it is sports stadia and business hotels, the latest incarnation of missionstatement architecture. The fumes and incessant honking are distracting but it is still a beautiful day, with a lurid orange, late afternoon sun lowering over the mud of the river. Still only early September, it somehow feels later in the year, as if this is the last shout of summer before the onset of autumn.

It’s a relief to reach the far bank. Arriving at the end of the protective barrier, I descend a slope towards the river where two men stand fishing, completely oblivious of one another. Thus far, I have resisted the temptation to turn around — the bridge was no place to linger — but now it seems appropriate. Back across the water, as picture perfect as the film set for a multi-million rouble blockbuster, the impressive sweep of Kazan’s Kremlin dominates the view to the south.

Naturally, I had been aware of its presence whilst walking across the river — minarets and onion domes had loomed large over a high wall that had clearly contained something special. Now the Kazan Kremlin is visible in all its panoramic glory: a pristine cluster of neat Orthodox churches, a red-brick Tower of Babel, elegant pastel-hued residences and an improbably large mosque — a combined effect so extraordinary that it is little wonder that the complex entered the new millennium as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As the setting sun turns the white limestone walls the colour of apricots, the fishermen pack up to leave empty-handed and a dredger slumps past low in the water. The rush-hour exodus has almost ended, although a ghost of red tail-light tracery is still weaving its way north to far-flung city suburbs. It’s time to return across the bridge to the city centre. Just a few lonely figures are heading the same way, their shadows throwing monstrous shapes on the Kremlin walls as they pass.

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