City Of Tolerance: Kazan

Elegant mosques share the same sky with temples of other faiths over the Tatarstan capital of Kazan, an impressive city with unique architecture as well as lakes, rivers and nature parks of extraordinary beauty.

If you’re tired of revisiting the usual vacation spots, Kazan could be an ideal choice for you. A real discovery. Don’t be fooled by the city’s modern appearance, because when you look  a little closer it will offer you a host of pleasant surprises from architecture and history to nature and culture.

We proceed from Kazan International Airport to the city center along a well-lit highway seemingly through the middle of nowhere. It’s almost morning. My head is filled with information I’ve gleaned about what awaits me here. Albert, the driver, is explaining how the city was impacted by the 2013 Summer Universiade, which ended in July. Indeed, an Olympics atmosphere still reigns in the city. The ultra modern structures built for the games strike the eye at first glance. Behind them are the familiar images we know from Russian cities: broad avenues, vast squares. But it's only when I come upon the Kremlin that I really feel I'm in Kazan. This entire district, named today for the ancient fortress, was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2001.

Inside the Kremlin, the Qol Sharif Mosque is striking with its magnificent architecture. The Tatarstan President, Mintimer Shaeymiev, drew attention to the mosque’s importance when he presided over the opening ceremony in 2006: “This is a new symbol for Kazan and Tatarstan, a bridge between our past and our future.”  Kazan truly is a city of tolerance that is home to a large number of mosques and churches, some of them side by side in the same street. This city, the majority of whose population is Muslim, has always stood out as a cultural center with its universities, libraries, theaters and concert halls. Numerous educational institutions opened in the 1800’s in Kazan, which trains a large number of scholars at its famous Kashgar, Ujum and Qolsharif madrasas. Founded in 1804, Kazan State University once numbered Tolstoy among its students. There are close to 20 universities and dozens of vocational schools as well as theaters, museums and hundreds of cultural venues in the city today.

Kazan is one of those cities best explored on foot. You can spend hours taking walks: from the Kremlin to Kazanka and the banks of the Volga River, to Lake Qaban, to Nikolai Bauman Avenue, to Professor Ligovsky Avenue, to the ever bustling Tuqay Square and its outdoor Kolkhoz Bazaar. Professor Ligovsky Avenue, where the Ekiyet State Puppet Theater is located, appeals to people of all ages. This avenue is like an open air museum, and the houses that line it are built of wood in the Tatar architectural tradition. Reminiscent of village houses, their interiors are decked with Tatar handicrafts. With its historic buildings, Nikolai Bauman Avenue is a pedestrian zone in the city center and a major area for shopping, eating and drinking, and entertainment as well as art and culture. Its restaurants, cafes and shopping centers are a popular stop with locals and foreign visitors alike. With its stores selling not only local costumes and souvenirs but the famous brands as well, this avenue will be your headquarters during your stay in the city.

But the city’s ancient texture also makes itself felt here and there amidst the modern buildings in Kazan. Extending from the location of the Kamal Theater, Lake Qaban was once connected to the Kazan River by the Bolaq canal. Boat cruises are available on these lakes, known as Big Qaban, Middle Qaban and Little Qaban, and on to the river via the canal. The structures of historical and architectural value in the old residential districts have not yet been restored. Among them is the house where Sheikh Shamil, symbol of the struggle for independence in the Caucasus, stayed briefly and later gifted to his daughter. In short, if the conventional itineraries no longer satisfy you, Tatarstan’s capital Kazan holds out promise.


Soyembika Tower

History in Kazan dates back to ancient times, and one of the monuments that has managed to survive unscathed is the Soyembika Tower. This 53-meter high tower made of red brick was built inside Kazan Fortress at the city’s highest point.

State Museum
Besides the State Museum with its 700,000-piece collection, the Tuqay Museum, the National Library, the Opera House, the local markets and Sultan and the Qol Sharif Mosque and Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral are among the sights worth seeing.

Tatar cuisine is heavy on meat and dough-based dishes. There are many places in the city center where you can sample the local dishes. Try the triangular buns stuffed with meat and potatoes, and the chak-chak sweet pastry balls no bigger than a pea.

Kolkhoz Bazaar
The Kolkhoz Bazaar is one of the city’s must-see’s. The sheer diversity of this market rich in vegetables and wild fruits would be hard to match. Plus, you can get along in Turkish with the local merchants.

Opera House
While you’re in Kazan, we recommend that you take in a performance at the Opera House,  which was constructed along rather classical lines but with all the advantages of modern technology.  We might add that ticket prices are also quite reasonable. 

Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Kazan-Istanbul flights four days a week. Departure times are 9:40 p.m. from Istanbul and 3:40 a.m. from Kazan.

Write-Photos: Levent Özçelik