Soaring up into the grey northern sky of St. Petersburg, like radiant blue torches, are the minarets of the city's Central Mosque. The austere background of the granite revetment serves to accentuate their geometry and monumental dimensions. The majolica turquoise of the round conical central dome of the mosque is in harmony with the bright oriental colorscheme of the carpet-like decor of the portals, embroidered with the Arabic script of suras from the Koran. This gem of the northern modernist architectural style has harboured a puzzle for many long years. This puzzle was a strange combination of dates inscribed on the main portal: February 23, 1910 and April 30, 1920. The first is the date of the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of the temple. But what about the second? It does not fit the opening of religious services in the mosque, which was in 1913, or the completion of its construction (as historians tell us, the building was finished not in 10, but just in 3 to 4 years only).
While dealing with this chronological puzzle our experts have relied on documents from the archives of the State Museum of the History of Religion which were not revealed until 1995. These take us back to the foundation ceremony which was timed to the 25th anniversary of the reign of Emir Abdul-Akhat-Khan of Bukhara. Thanks to his cultural interests and background, combined with effective aid and assistance, the northern capital of Russia acquired a mosque designed and built in accordance with the rules of what experts call the "golden crosssection" and suffused with the genuine ascetic spirituality of Islam.
The construction of the central city mosque was quite an event in the life of the Moslem community of St. Petersburg which had more than 8 thousand members at that time. And the event had been preceded by the Russian conquest of Central Asia (1864- 1873), and its gaining control over the Great Cotton Way which was of vital importance for the textile industry of the postreformist Russia. By that time there was appeared mounting interest among the general public and in the scholarly circles towards the culture of the Orient and its contribution to the development of universal civilization. Systematic studies were started of the history of the Golden Horde, Turkestan and the Khanate of Khiva.
In November 1884 the St. Petersburg University, together with a specially established Archeographic Commission, sent on an expedition to Central Asia Nikolai \eselovsky, an archeologist and orientalist who later became Corresponding Member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. Having discovered during his travels monuments dating back to the Antiquity, he became the first student of the Samarkand architecture of the Middle Ages. He completed his studies in 1905 with the publication of an atlas called "The Mosques of Samarkand". Since that time the grandiose architectural structures of the Timur-Tamerlane epoch took a place in the history of world culture similar to that of the Moslem monuments in Spain.
In January 1906 the then Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Stolypin, authorized the establishment of a special committee in charge of the construction of a Central or "Cathedral" Mosque in St. Petersburg. A contest of architectural projects was conducted under the patronage of the Emir of Bukhara. The indispensable conditions included: observance of the oriental style, austere interior (decor void of any images of living beings); having a (musicians') gallery of two tiers and having an additional hall in the basement for the faithful to celebrate annual Moslem feasts. The facing of the walls had to be of natural stone only. The mosque had to be crowned with a dome and there had to be two minarets, which could be of different height.
The contest was one of the most representative ones in the history of the St. Petersburg Imperial Society of Architects and a total of 45 projects were submitted. The results were summed up on March 11, 1908 with the First Prize being awarded to three of the contestants at one and the same time: N. 'Vasilyev, M. Lyalevich and M. Peretyatkovich. But for the actual construction
experts recommended just one of the designs submitted by N. ^Vasilyev under the title of "Tamerlane".
The architect suggested using for wall facing blocks of granite, and the decor in the cupolas of the mosque, its minarets and portals was to be of majolica. Its commercial production was started in 1906 at the "Geldwein-Waulin" workshop located in Kikirino near St. Petersburg (now the GORN factory of ceramics) on rich deposits of blue Cambrian clay. In order to avoid any frivolities in the making of majolica decor, the head master of the workshop, specialist in ceramics P. Waulin, dispatched to Turkestan a painter P. Maksimov. As a result the workshop specialists were able to reproduce the medieval technique of making Oriental carved majolica.
The project was put into its final shape with the assistance of specially invited highly professional specialists: A. von Gogen and architect S. Krichinsky They produced what was called a "structural blend" of the two prize-winning designs of the mosque produced by N. Visilyev - the "Tamerlane" and the "Arabesques". Borrowed from the first were the shape of the dome, portal and the minarets, which were moved into a by-street, and also the general "Samarkandian" air of the temple. Taken from the second project was the general plan, the shaping of the central massif and of the lengthwise facade. Moving the parade vestibule with the flanking minarets from the main western facade to the northern one served to increase the length of the building from 38 to 47.5 m. The minarets were placed on both sides of the entrance for women.
The final architectural project of the mosque was submitted to City Council on December 14,1908 and a certificate authorizing the preparations for the construction was obtained on April 3, 1909. At the same time the project was submitted for expert assessment to the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts where it received general endorsement. The only objection concerned the proposed building site-the Kronwerk Prospekt (avenue). All of the experts reasonably argued that building a mosque near the first Orthodox site of St. Peters-burg-the Church of the Holy Trinity, and next to the country- house of Peter the Great - would break up the historical continuity of the oldest city quarter.
The ceremony of laying the foundation stone was held on February 10, 1910. It was opened by a writer and publicist, Doctor of Theology, editor and publisher of Russia's first Moslem newspaper "Nur", A. Bayazitov He said: "...Our mosque will be beautiful and will do a service to the city with its architecture and beauty Neither Paris, nor London have mosques like the one which there will be in St. Petersburg."
In May 1910 German architect and contractor G. Kami started preparations for the facing of the building for which he rented in Finland a deposit of "kovantsar" granite and light-grey tiurulian gneisses. The contractor approached the selection of facing materials with a profound understanding of the architectural role of the new structures which were being built near the historic Troitskaya (Trinity) Square.
When masonry and ferro-concrete structures were being installed the contractors were closely watching the quality of these operations and their timely completion. For sculptural details (reinforcement belts, cornices,
medallions and ornamental compositions) gypsum models were first produced in keeping with the blueprints of the architects. The bulk of the construction was completed by the year's end. Problems arose with the roof, hidden behind low parapets as is typical for Moslem cult buildings. In the cold and humid climate of St. Petersburg the roof and drains required complex engineering solutions so that their location, profiles and fixings would not spoil the general aesthetics of the building.
In 1911 the builders completed the installation of the ferro-concrete dome, started the granite facing of the facade and produced decorative Arabic inscriptions from the Koran. In August of that year N. Vasilyev designed a two-storey service wing - the house of ablutions. Apart from the special rooms required by the religious traditions, the building contained a boiler room for heating of the whole mosque and rooms for service staff. The construction was completed in the autumn of 1913.
And although the building construction was still in progress, the first prayer service was conducted in the new mosque on February 21, 1913 to commemorate the 300 years of the reign of the Romanovs Family, which was attended by the Emir of Buhara and the Khan of Khiva.
In 1914 the granite facing of the southern facade was completed as well as the majolica facing of the mihrab* niche in the central hall. The parquette flooring was finished on the second and third floors, and marble floors were installed on the parade stairs. After that the builders replaced temporary windows in wooden frames with those in metal ones. And the most important thing-they installed in the central hall the large chandelier which was nearly 3 m in diameter and about 5 m high. It was made of platinum-plated bronze and contained 80 candles with opal, or milky glass, decor. The main chandelier is designed in the form of a flat ornamented cup with 16 hanging twin openwork lamps and its bronze frame is decorated with ornamental Arabic script of quotations from the Koran.
With the outbreak of World War I (1914) the finishing trimming of the building went on at a slower pace because of shrinking donations, soaring taxes and because many of the workmen were called up into the army. In order to raise the necessary funds visitors to the mosque had to pay an entrance fee as of September 1914. And the trimming of the portals went on with the use of earlier accumulated materials. This was because the ceramics factory where these materials had been produced was switched to the production of military ammunition for the front as of 1916 and later all of the factory equipment was destroyed in a big fire (in 1917). As a result the majolica lining of the interior could not be completed although it can still be fully reproduced today from the original drawings in the process of the forthcoming restoration of the mosque.
In 1918 the builders continued replacing the temporary glazing with permanent one, but the work came to a sudden halt when all of the accounts were arrested later that year. But no matter what, regular services began in the mosque on April 30, 1920. In 1921 a large handmade floor carpet for the central hall (of about 400 m 2 ) was brought from Bukhara - the final gift of the Emir of Bukhara, which became the central element of the ritual decor of the mosque.
* Mihrab - an ornamental niche in the wall of a mosque indicating the direction to Mecca . - Ed.
In 1921 a porch was attached to the building and in 1923 an iron latticed fencing (architect S. Krichinsky) was built on a granite- faced brick foundation. Later on they planted all around the temple walls maples, lime-trees, birches, lilacs, acacias and dogroses.
Preserved among the documents of that time has been a petition of May 17, 1921, sent to the Sovnarkom (Soviet of People's Commissars) by the Building Committee and requesting "...a permission for two Committee members to go to Finland for the formal acceptance of the building parts and materials required for the completion of the construction; these materials had been ordered even before the war and the order has now been fulfilled. Without these building supplies the construction could not be finished up to this time..." What the whole problem must have been about are granite slabs for the porch of the entrance for women and the foundation of the metal fence around the mosque. But the request remained unanswered.
In 1924 the authorities conducted a distrait of the mosque property and some of it was confiscated. In June 1940 there came an official ban on religious services in the mosque. These were resumed in the 1950s in reply to numerous petitions from members of the local Moslem community (which numbered 15 thousand at that time). Their petitions were supported by some of the foreign leaders (of the same faith) belonging to the Internal Liberation Movement, including President Sukarno of Indonesia and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India. From 1955 and to this day the mosque has been what they call a religious- educational center which combines worship with studies of the Koran and the Arabic and Tatar languages.
In 1968 the Central Mosque received the formal status of an architectural monument and is now protected by the state. But its general appearance today is strikingly different from the original concepts because of numerous losses and alterations. Confiscated in 1924-1928 from the property of the mosque were the main large carpet, four bronze lanterns, three chandeliers and some pieces of furniture. In the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s there were alterations in the structure of the roof which upset its geometry and the original system of drains-something which affected the granite and majolica facing. In the 1940s the original carved wooden folding doors of the northern and eastern portals were replaced with iron ones. Certain fragments of the majolica ornaments of the northern and eastern portals were lost in the 1950s.
The aforesaid circumstances have precipitated a progressing erosion of the facing so that in 1996 the original majolica was replaced with what is called technical porcelain. This altered not only certain technical, but also aesthetic characteristics of the structure.
Summing it up, this remarkable architectural monument was in the design stage in 1907-1909, construction work, started in 1909, went on till 1918 and was completed in 1921. But the interior of the mosque still remains unfinished. The list of these dates can be augmented with yet another one-in 1956 the mosque was returned to the Moslem community of St. Petersburg.
The newly found archive documents make it possible to translate into reality the plans of the author and reveal to the world this unique gem of the "Silver Age" of our architecture.
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