Kazan. Part 2. On Religion, Ethnicity, Food

I spent the next day walking around exploring the interior of the Kul Sharif mosque and spending some extra time in there to escape the scorching heat. I also had my first encounter with the Kazan’s own version of the Moscow Arbat (a central pedestrianized street) followed by crossing through the Kazanka River to see the qazan-shaped family center with gorgeous views of the Kremlin. To gratify another food craving, I tried a legendary Kazan specialty which is horse meat.

On this second full day I am sitting in the corner enjoying the postcard view representing this cultural blend of Kazan Ihave been experiencing for almost two days: the Spasskaya Tower, the Kremlin Wall and the Kul Sharif Mosque in their unonbstructed glory. Also, on my right is the Nikolskaya Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Science of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Given its geographical position, Kazan is still considered central Russia. I think what makes this place even more enchanting is that all those differences can be found so relatively «close» from home. When a friend from Montenegro texted me asking what had brought me to this place, I said that I had been meaning to come and visit Kazan that combinesRussian, Islamic and Tatar culture. And it is «just» 800 km east of Moscow. Yes, we, Russians, seem to have a special idea of what close and far means. Our national identities must shape our sense of distance after all. Given the current travelling restrictions, we feel particularly confined to our seemingly boundless Mother Russia… 

It is my encounter with the Islamic heritage of the Republic that caught my international friends’ interest as well. I guess they wouldn’t normally associate Russia with Islam. I was also still in the process of getting used to experiencing one of the largest mosques in Russia (and in Europe outside Istanbul) built in 2005 in place of the original one dating back to the 16th century. It was named after a religious scholar Kul Sharif who died in the Siege of Kazan (1552) and the former mosque was destroyed by Ivan the Terrible after the Khanate of Kazan had become part of the Russian Empire. Just before and in the process of writing this, I have been texting back and forth with my friends from Afghanistan, Jordan, Brazil, India… They all loved the Kul Sharif mosque. 

I also shared a photo of me covering my head inside the mosque, which felt just as an act of courtesy. When in Rome, you know… Even though I am not a believer, looking up at the dome after going up a series of stairs felt nothing short of incredible — you literally feel your breath taken away. I also spent a while exploring its Museum of Islam.

The interior of the mosque
Museum of Islam, Kul Sharif Mosque

I kept my head covered to enter the largest building of the Kazan Kremlin — the Annunciation Cathedral built in 1561-1562. Orthodox Christianity is supposed to be my «regional» religion as I was baptized at the age of 5 (it was impossible earlier during the state atheism back in the USSR). I guess we have to actually grow up to be able to choose our own faith or not to convert at all. I didn’t stay inside for too long… 

The interior of the Annunciation Cathedral

Steps away there is Söyembikä Tower, one of the highest structures of the Kazan Kremlin. This is the name of a ruler of the Kazan Khanate, a national hero. There is a lot of secrecy surrounding the history of this formerly leaning structure. According to a romantic legend, Ivan the Terrible had this tower built in a week in exchange for Söyembikä’s hand in marriage. When the construction had been finished, Söyembikä went up to top of the tower and jumped off. This legend doesn’t stand up to scrutinity as suicide would have been considered a mortal sin for Muslims. Anyway, now it is a popular place and tourists love to make a wish for never-ending love while touching its gate. 

Söyembikä Tower

It is amazing how clothes take us back to our roots (or at least gets us to fantasize about multiple possible variants). There has also been a lot of reaction to a picture of me wearing a tubeteika, which is a national Tatar cap. Was I getting in touch with my ethnic identity? Given the cultural mix of the area and the way it must have influenced the rest of central Russia and beyond, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that there was some Tatar blood in me as well. In the process of trying on all those different colours of hats at a souvenir shop, I also got in touch with my gender identity. 

I liked this tubetejka the most

Another fascinating thing is how we can instantly share all those impressions across continents — I was thinking of how there are gigantic changes in store for the tourism industry given the current state of affairs. It is either going to crumble down and become reduced to occasional personal experiences shared online (like a virtual reality) or get a new lease of life with other forms of exploring places emerging globally. 

I also got a question about Tatars from another friend. It seems very complicated to explain the origin of Russia’s secondlargest ethnic group making up half of the population of the Republic of Tatarstan.Of course, the origin of this people is related to nomadism of the Turkic population from what is now Mongolia. As a result, there was a Turkic khaganate. When they reached the Volga River region and mixed with Bulgars, then the Volga Bulgaria was formed (I will be visiting it later on the trip). Later this state was converted into Islam, which was a milestone for the nation. In the 13th century the famous Golden Horde led by Genghis Khan captured the territory. Two centuries later the Golden Horde collapsed into separate khanates. People who lived in the former Kazan, Crimean, Astrakhan, Qasim and Siberian Khanates were referred to as Tatars. I think as Russians, we might sometimes differentitate ourselves from Tatars in the degree of conversatism and religion, but I also feel that we are all part of this country and we don’t honestly even contemplate the origin of this nation which seems seamlessly blended into Russia’s ethnic landscape. 

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