The Poi Kalyon square is the star in the Bukharan sapphire, the beating heart of the Old Town, and the visual high point (both literal and metaphorical) of the city's skyline. One of the most impressive monuments in Bukhara, the 12th-century Kalon Minaret can be climbed for fine views over the city. Next to it is the 16th-century Kalon Mosque, built on the site of an earlier mosque.
The title Po-i Kalan, which means 'at the foot of the Great', is derived from its place at the foot of the Kalyon Minar (the Great Minaret), the tapering, mud-brick tower which rises gracefully some 45m above the city.
The minaret was built in 1127 and it was, so an inscription tells us, the work of an architect named Bako. He ordered that the foundations be dug some 13m deep, and demanded the labourers use a special mortar that was mixed with bulls' blood, camel milk and eggs. It took two years to set. Local inhabitants believe that the architect was buried somewhere among houses of the neighboring residential quarter.
The exact original height of the minaret is unknown but it is thought to have been the tallest free-standing tower in the world. The uppermost section appears to have been lost (possibly due to an earthquake) and the part below reworked.
Bako died not long after the minaret was completed, purportedly broken hearted that it had failed to live up to his dreams. Genghis Khan looked upon it a little more favourably in the following century, however, and, having seen it for miles as he rode across the steppe and been suitably impressed, he spared the tower when all around it was razed.
There is a brick spiral staircase that twists up inside around the pillar, leading to the landing in sixteen-arched rotunda - skylight, which based on a magnificent stalactite cornice (sharafa). If you're feeling fit, you can climb to the top of the Kalyon Minar (US$3 for access). The 104 steps of the staircase spiral upwards, becoming ever narrower as the tower slowly tapers from a diameter of 9m to 6m. Leaning out through one of the 16 arches at the top grants you an unforgettable view of a peerless city. Don't lean too far, however, as the Mangits were fond of tying their prisoners up in sacks and chucking them off the top, a grisly but no doubt effective punishment that endured well into the 1800s, much to the disgust of Lord Curzon.
In the sun dial-like shadow of the Kalyon Minar, the Kalyon Mosque (the Great Mosque) stands on the foundations of the earlier, 8th-century mosque in which Genghis Khan ordered that the pages of the Quran be trampled beneath the feet of his horses and the entirety of Bukhara (with the exception of the Kalyon Minar) be destroyed. The mosque was burnt to a cinder.
This replacement, a worthy successor, is also known as the Juma or Friday Mosque and was built by the Shaybanids in 1514. An inscription on the mosques facade attests to this completion date. Since then it has served as the city's main mosque: there is space for more than 10,000 worshippers to pray, the entire male population of the city at the time of its construction.
You enter through the eastern gate on Poi Kalyon and descend into a truly breathtakingly beautiful courtyard surrounded by 208 columns and 288 domes; the numerous pillars evoke the legendary court of Solomon and are an evocative statement in mosques and palaces from the Alhambra in Moorish Spain, to the forts and palaces of emperors in Mughal India. On the western side of the plaza is the turquoise-tiled Kok Gumbaz (blue dome), an architectural bubble, the shape of which belies its weight and width. Beneath it lies the mosque's wonderfully gilded mihrab and an unusual octagonal structure designed to improve the building's acoustics, amplifying the voice of the Imam as he speaks his Friday sermon. The inscription on the dome itself, a spider-spun web of Kufic calligraphy, reads 'Immortality belongs to God.'
Having been used as a warehouse during the Soviet period, the Kalyon Mosque reopened to worshippers in 1991. It continues to be a place of prayer, albeit on a fraction of the scale for which it was originally intended, but visitors and their cameras are welcome to come inside providing they are appropriately dressed and behave in a respectful manner.
Opposite the mosque is the Mir-i Arab Madrassa, constructed, so they say, with the profits from the sale of 3,000 Persian slaves. Its benefactor, the Shaybanid Khan Ubaidullah, clearly felt a need to salve his conscience, and hence in 1535 he endowed what is considered one of the most important educational establishments in the Islamic world. With the exception of a 21-year period when it was closed from 1925-46, it has remained fully functional, including throughout the Soviet period, and today around 180 students are studying here. They take a demanding four-year programme of Arabic and Quranic studies, the first step on the path to becoming Imams.There is limited access for tourists to the madrassa: you can enter the foyer and look into the inner courtyard but, theoretically at least, can go no further. However, if you ask nicely and there is an appropriate guide present, you may also be permitted to view the tombs of Sheikh Abdullah of Yemen (known as Mir-i Arab, the prince of the Arabs), a close friend of Khan Ubaidullah who took responsibility for the madrassa's actual construction, and of Khan Ubaidullah himself. The tombs are marked with a white flag and a goat's tail, the traditional signs of saints.
Kalyan minaret. More properly, Minara-i Kalan, (Pesian/Tajik for the "Grand Minaret"). It is made in the form of a circular-pillar brick tower, narrowing upwards, of 9 meters diameter at the bottom, 6 meters overhead and 45.6 meters high. Also known as the Tower of Death, as for centuries criminals were executed by being tossed off the top.
Kalan Mosque (Masjid-i Kalan), arguably completed in 1514, is equal to the Bibi-Khanym Mosque in Samarkand in size. Although they are of the same type of building, they are absolutely different in terms of art of building.
Mir-i Arab Madrassah. Little is known about its origin, although its construction is ascribed to Sheikh Abdullah Yamani of Yemen, the spiritual mentor of early Shaybanids. He was in charge of donations of Ubaidollah Khan (gov. 1533-1539), devoted to construction of madrasah.
The Kalon Minaret was built by the Karakhanid ruler Arslan Khan in 1127. According to legend, Arslan Khan had killed an imam in a quarrel. That night, the imam appeared to him in a dream and said: "You have killed me, now oblige me by laying my head on a spot where nobody can tread." Thus the minaret was built over his grave.
When it was built, the Kalon Minaret (whose name means "great" in Tajik) was probably the tallest building in Central Asia. It stands 47m tall and is supported by 10km-deep foundations padded with reeds for earthquake-proofing. In 850 years, it has never needed any structural repairs.
In addition to its main purpose as a minaret, the Kalon Minaret served as a watchtower and a guide to approaching caravans on the Silk Route. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it had more grim use: men condemned by the emir were hurled to their deaths from the top.
Genghis Khan is said to have been so impressed by the minaret that he ordered it spared. He did, however, destroy the original mosque that stood next to it.
The present Kalon Mosque was built in the 16th century. It was used as a warehouse in Soviet times and only reopened as a working mosque in 1991.
What to See
The Kalon Minaret has 14 ornamental bands, each of them different. They include the first use of the glazed blue tiles that became ubiquitous across Central Asia. Slightly lighter patches can be seen on the south and east sides, which were damaged by artillery in 1920.
You can climb the minaret for excellent views over the center of Bukhara. The 105 stairs are accessible from the Kalon Mosque.
The congregational Kalon Mosque can house 10,000 worshippers. Its roof looks flat but actually consists of 288 domes.