The Russian city of Kazan, which celebrated its millennium year in 2005, is at once modern and historic with its towers, museums, old quarters and magnificent buildings.
Turning our backs on the weary Idil (Volga), we gaze at the Kazan Kremlin, which spreads before us as far as the eye can see. We can almost discern the jerry-built rafts floating on the lazy river waters, and our thoughts turn to Kul Ali, Pushkin, Abdullah Tukay, and Tolstoy. Looking beyond the buildings, thoroughly Baroque yet with a local touch, our gaze fixes on the steppe beyond. An intense solitude permeates everything here, where it’s impossible to tell where the horizon begins and ends. We look again, and what do we see but Batu Khan, of Genghis’ lineage, galloping like the wind in the wake of the Mongol horde. From the other end of the steppe, the Khan of the Golden Horde hoves into view, making a splendid sight as he dashes off on his white horse, his sights set on the Bulgar Khanate. Horsemen race across the steppe in our mind’s eye. Before us, from the white minareted quarters of the city of Kazan, a mournful folk song rises, sung in a haunting Tatar accent. Blending into the history that surrounds us, we forge on. A magnificent chorus of conversations in Chuvash, Karakalpak, Bashkurt, Kazan Tatar, Russian and Finnish rings in our ears. There was a time when all these languages were spoken here in Kazan, capital city of the Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan, which is part of the Russian Federation, and some of them still are.
Kazan is an ancient city on the banks of the mighty Volga. After maintaining commercial and cultural ties with the Russian princedoms on behalf of the Volga Bulgar state for over three hundred years, it was later, for a century, capital of a principality that cultivated relations with the Russian princedoms in the Golden Horde. Capital of the Kazan Khanate from 1428 to 1552, Kazan was the Russian state’s gateway to the East for 150 years, situated at the meeting point of Islamic and Christian cultures. Capital of Kazan province for 200 years starting from 1708, it has been the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan for the last hundred.
SÜYÜMBİKE, ANGEL OF KAZAN
As the thump of hoofbeats recedes across the steppe, we leave behind Batu Khan’s ‘yarlık’, the Bulgar Khanate, and the successor states of the Golden Horde and return to the present. The Kazan Kremlin stands directly in front of us. This ‘pearl of the city’ was declared part of the World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in June 2001. According to our guidebook its tall central spire is called the ‘Süyümbike Tower’. Instantly we are plunged once again into the history we just left behind. When Safa Giray, the last of the Kazan khans, died, his son Ötemish was only three years old. So the boy’s mother, Süyümbike, a stunning Tatar beauty, took the throne. We recall how Kazan was conquered in a war waged in 1552, how Süyümbike, who fought fiercely alongside the men on the city walls, was taken prisoner and how, as she was boarding the ship that would take her into exile in faraway lands, she lamented: “Kazan... Distressed and blood-stained city... Your crown has fallen. Remember your ancient fests and days, and weep as I do.”
Here we are in Kazan with Süyümbike, angel of Kazan, and her memory. We stroll through the city, one of the world’s most beautiful, with mixed feelings of pain, joy and yearning. The Bulgar Turks founded Kazan as a commercial capital. Following an initial golden era, the city was later dragged into a history dominated by war. Batu Khan’s Mongols defeated the Bulgar Turks, the Golden Horde captured the city, and the Tatars fought among themselves and were later exiled to regions far from their beautiful city. During generations of exile they never stopped singing to each other: “Wait for me. I shall return.” As the snow turned to dust, they never gave up hope, and in the end they returned to their homeland.
ISTANBUL’S ‘SİSTER CITY’
Dominated for three centuries by states such as the Khanate of the Volga Bulgars, the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate, the geographical region where Kazan is located later became very important for Russia as well. Wider in places than the Bosphorus or the Dardanelles, the river that the Tatars call the Idil and the Russians the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea. As a result, it is possible today to travel by ship from Kazan to its ‘Sister City’ Istanbul.
The city of Kazan first appeared on the stage of history together with the empire of the famed Golden Horde. The city remembered today as old Kazan was situated much further up, along the upper reaches of the River Kazansu (Kazanka), which divides the city in half. In subsequent years the city was moved to its present location at the confluence of the Kazanka and the Volga.
Our Tatar hosts tell us that the Süyümbike Tower, a memento of the Kazan Khanate, is a must-see. Named for the queen whose story we summarized earlier, it is a seven-storey tower, 58 meters tall and built of red brick. The main building of Kazan University, the State Museum, the museum built in honor of Tukay (the most illustrious Tatar poet), the national library, the opera building (named for Musa Jelil), the culture center, the Tatar theater, the circus, the city’s oldest mosques—Merjani, Apanay, Ejim and Burnay, the cathedrals of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and Gorky Park are among the many places to be seen and visited in Kazan. Some streets in the city center are lined with houses preserved exactly as they were in the 19th century, and the elaborately decorated Tatar houses of timber construction in the city’s outlying districts are also worth a visit.
But the most important building in Kazan is surely the Kremlin Palace. Surrounded by high walls, its main gate was formerly called ‘the savior’. Here, within the bounds of the palace, it is possible to see mosques and churches as well as outstanding examples of the local architecture. And Kazan’s newest symbol, the Kul Sherif Mosque, built by a Turkish construction company and recently opened for worship, rises like a monument itself immediately next to the Kazan Kremlin’s Presidential Palace.
The city of Kazan is the cultural capital of the Volga-Ural region. Kazan University, founded in 1804 and one of Russia’s most highly respected institutions of higher learning where prominent figures like Tolstoy, Lobachevsky and Lenin studied, still attracts a large number of students from both Russia and abroad. Great importance is given to the arts in Kazan, as is evidenced by the city’s seven professional theaters, four state orchestras, dance and music ensembles, thirteen museums, and the Hermitage-Kazan, the only existing branch of
St. Petersburg’s famous Hermitage museum, as well as five exhibition halls and galleries, several art schools and the second largest concert hall in Russia. Furthermore, the city boasts three entertainment centers, 330 libraries, seven movie theaters and a host of cultural institutions.
NOT BEFORE VISITING A ‘MUNCHA’
Almost every Tatar house in the city’s outlying districts and surrounding villages has a ‘muncha’. Counterparts to the more familiar sauna but in this case Tatar-style, munchas are coal-powered, generating heat of up to 80 degrees Centigrade. Like ancient Roman baths, munchas play a central role in Tatar social life.
The Tatars are justly proud of their cuisine. Dishes such as belish, peremech, uch puchmak, gubediye and kistibiy are truly delicious. Post-prandial tea is de rigueur here, and the sweet known as ‘chek chek’ that accompanies it is nothing short of scrumptious.
A variety of jams, honeys, biscuits, chocolates and other pastries are always offered at Tatar tea time, which is in no way inferior to the famous tea ceremonies of Japan.
Our journey ended, we prepare to return on one of the scheduled flights recently introduced by Turkish Airlines. Strains of haunting Tatar melodies echo in our ears, and horsemen gallop along the banks of the Volga, flowing quietly into the heart of Tatar Kazan...