Leaning out through one of the 16 arches at the top of impressive Poi Kalyon grants you an unforgettable view of a peerless city.
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. The name, 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 46m above the city.
The best things to see in the Poi Kalyon square
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, which took two years to set. 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.
It used to be possible to climb the 104 steps of the spiral stairs to the top, where 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 (and again in 1917–20), much to the disgust of Lord Curzon. Now, however, there’s only access for researchers.
In the sundial-like shadow of the Kalyon Minar, the Kalyon Mosque stands on the foundations of the earlier, 8th-century mosque in which Genghis Khan ordered that the pages of the Qu’ran 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 mosque’s façade 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.
Passing through the eastern gate on Poi Kalyon, you enter a truly breathtakingly beautiful courtyard surrounded by 208 columns and 288 domes; the numerous pillars, forming triple aisles on either side, 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.
At the far (western) end 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’.
Mir-i Arab Madrasa
Opposite the mosque is the Mir-i Arab Madrasa, 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 1530–36 he endowed what is considered one of the most important educational establishments in the Islamic world.
With the exception of a 21-year period of closure from 1925 to 1946, it has remained fully functional, including throughout the Soviet period, and today around 120 students are studying here. They take a demanding four-year programme of Arabic and Qu’ranic studies, the first step on the path to becoming imams. There is limited access for tourists to the madrasa: 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, under the left dome, of Sheikh Abdullah of Yemen (also known as Sayyid Abd Yamaniy or Mir-i Arab, the prince of the Arabs), a close friend of Khan Ubaidullah who directed the madrasa’s construction. The tombs are marked with a white flag and a goat’s tail, the traditional signs of saints, and of Khan Ubaidullah himself.