The Kalon Mosque is the anchor for the religious complex Po-i-Kalyan in Bukhara, together with the iconic Kalon Minaret and the Mir-i Arab Madrassah. As the primary cathedral mosque of Bukhara, the present day Kalon Mosque dates from the early 16th century, about the year 1514, but incorporates into its construction characteristic brickwork from the pre-existing Karakhanid mosque which dates from the 12th century. That structure was destroyed during the mongol invasion of Genghis Khan, but the adjoining minaret was spared. Several earlier iterations of the complex existed on the site centuries prior, with archeological evidence suggesting a temple for fire worshipers was in use well before the first mosque was built here in the early 8th century.
Following the burning of Bukhara by Genghis Khan in the year 1220, the entire complex lay in ruins. There is some evidence to suggest another mosque was constructed over the ruins in the interim, but it took nearly 300 years for a successor to take shape that could approach the grandeur of the original, and serve as a worthy companion to the Kalon Minaret which was spared destruction.
During the Timurid era from 1307 to 1405, the emphasis on monumental architecture was centered in Samarkand, capital of Timur’s empire. It wasn’t until the Shaybanid era in Central Asia, a Persian/Mongol rival dynasty to the Timurid dynasty and descended directly from Genghis Khan, that the construction on the Kalon mosque was completed. Timur’s grandson, Ulugbek, was more focused on the monumental madrassah bearing his name a few hundred meters to the east, and a hundred years earlier. So while the Kalon Mosque is constructed in the Timurid style and influence, the structure itself is a century and an entire empire removed from the famous conqueror.
When it was completed, the Kalon Mosque was the second largest in Central Asia, failing to surpass only Timur’s Bibi-Khanym Mosque in nearby Samarkand. With a rectangular perimeter of 130 x 80 meters, the massive interior courtyard is capable of holding up to 12,000 worshipers at the same time. To put this is perspective, a regulation international football (soccer) pitch should not exceed 110 x 75 meters. The perimeter of the courtyard is lined with 288 domed galleries supported by 208 pillars. The light play within the resulting maze of corridors makes for a mesmerizing experience enough to get any photographer excited about the possibilities.
A guided tour isn’t necessary to appreciate this peaceful and serene place today. Instead we found ourselves wandering the corridors alongside locals who still come for thoughtful meditation. As a museum in the modern era, the mosque is only in use for religious purposes during special festivals, so not a truly working mosque since before Soviet times. The best times to visit are when tour groups are not, which can make or break the experience. Suggest trying early afternoon or late in the evening, after the busses have deposited their contents at local restaurants for feeding time.