Landmarks are by their very definition supposed to leave you with the impression of greatness, but the Kalon Minaret is a special case. Not only was it built with that purpose in mind from the very beginning, but it was supposedly spared destruction by Genghis Khan because he was so impressed by how great it was. The word “Kalon” means “great” in the Tajik language, so when it was given this name by Arslan Khan Muhammad in the year 1127, the intent was that everyone who sees it realizes just how great the Kalon Minaret truly is.
The Muslim faith was barely 500 years old at the time of the Minaret’s construction, and the Muslim conquest of Central Asia had only been secured in the year 751 at the Battle of Talas between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Tang Dynasty. As a member of the ancient Karakhanid dynasty, Arslan Khan Muhammad was an unwavering defender of the faith, fighting off infidels during his 27 year rule and preserving the security of the kingdom’s frontier, but he is perhaps best known for his role as an urban planner, though not always a successful one.
Just 40km southwest of Bukhara are the remains of the ancient city of Paikend, one of the major cities of the Islamic world for nearly 200 years during the 9th and 10th centuries, rivaling Samarkand in importance as a trading center of the silk road. Archeological excavations have uncovered the remains of a major cathedral mosque, and a 9th century minaret that rivaled the Kalon Minaret in size. Something catastrophic happened to the city’s water supply in the early 12th century, and saving Paikend became one of Arslan Khan’s major urban planning projects. Unfortunately for the city, his efforts to extend a channel of the Zeravshan River were unsuccessful, and Paikend eventually disappeared into the sands of time.
In the year 1127, just three years before his death in a siege on Samarkand, Arslan Khan commissioned the greatest urban project of his reign, the Kalon Minaret. The minaret and neighboring Kalon Mosque were built in tandem, replacing an earlier 8th century mosque and collapsed minaret that corresponded to the Bukhara’s slow conversion to Islam in the hundred years between the Battle of Talas and Bukhara becoming capital of the Samanid Empire.
At 46.5 meters (~150 feet) in height, the Kalon Minaret defines the ancient skyline of Bukhara. Although its primary purpose was to call the citizens of Bukhara to prayer, it has also served as a watchtower during its 900 year history, and no doubt played a part in warning citizens of early 13th century Bukhara of the approaching Mongul Horde of Genghis Khan. According to local legend, when Genghis Khan entered the square of the mosque having already leveled half the city, he was so impressed by the tower that he ordered it spared. The mosque was subsequently destroyed along with the rest of the city, but the Kalon Minaret survives to this day, and remains one of the few remaining examples of Karakhanid architecture.
The fired brick construction technique of the Kalon Minaret has proven exceptionally durable, especially considering how much more recent landmarks from the Timirud era succumbed to rapid decay, and have since required extensive restoration. After 900 years of invasions, earthquakes, and exposure to the elements, the monument appears today much as it did when it was first constructed. Only minor renovations and repairs have been carried out since, and these were only first necessary in the early 20th century following artillery bombardment by the Bolshevik Red Army during the 1920 Bukhara Operation against the Emir.
Today visitors will hardly notice the damage inflicted during the revolution, and will instead be amazed by the minaret’s massive size, and 14 decorative bands of brickwork each with a unique design. Three of the belts bear inscriptions confirming the tower’s origins – one for Arslan Khan Muhammad, the other the name of the architect, and a third confirms the year of construction as 1127. Additional bands are decorated in religious texts, geometric patterns, and blue tiles, among the first use of blue tile in Central Asia until popularized later by Amir Timur. The monument is topped with what looks like a sombrero. It is thought that the cone-shaped top may once have been the core of an even taller section that was later dismantled or destroyed, but this top platform is where for centuries imams issued the call to prayer, and from where criminals were executed wrapped in bags and hurled to the ground as recently as 1920. For this reason, the minaret is also sometimes referred to as the Tower of Death.
This impressive landmark is visible from everywhere in the city, and is an easy way for directionally challenged travelers to get their bearings. For historical contrast, the rest of the ensemble of Po-i-Kalyan which includes the 16th century Kalon Mosque and Mir-i Arab Madrassa, are significantly different in architectural style. As one of the few surviving examples of Islamic architecture from before the 13th century invasion of Genghis Khan, it’s evident that designers of minarets across Central Asia have used the Kalon Minaret as inspiration. The massiveness of the structure can be best appreciated at its huge 9 meter base, where looking up, one can marvel as Genghis Khan once did at the greatness of this 12th century architectural masterpiece.