The word of the prophet Muhammad is believed to have arrived on present-day Russian territory early in the 8th century AD. Seven of Russia’s 22 republics have Muslim majorities and – although official census figures are lacking – according to Sheikh Rawil Gaynetdin, Russia’s Grand Mufti, the country is home to around 25 million Muslims.
Moscow and St Petersburg have significant Muslim communities, as do Russian regions including Tatarstan, Bashkortostan and the Caucasus. In each of these locations are sights that speak to over a millennium of Islamic culture in Russia.
The number of Muslims living in Moscow is believed to be as many as 1.5 million, more than double the Islamic population of London. There are, however, only four official mosques, the main one being the Cathedral Mosque. A mosque was first built here in 1904 and it survived through the grim anti-religion days of the Soviet Union, only to succumb to wear and tear in 2011. Entirely rebuilt at a cost of US$170 million, the current building reopened in 2015, its six stories and attached halls offering space for up to 10,000 worshippers. Lavishly decorated in Byzantine style, the mosque sports 72m-high minarets and a central dome decorated with 12kg of gold leaf inside and out.
St Petersburg is fortunate to have its original Cathedral Mosque, ceremonially opened in 1913 to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. Modelled after Samarkand’s Gur-e Amir (the mausoleum of the 14th-century conqueror Tamerlane), the building dazzles with its decorative mosaics of lapis-blue tiles. So intricate is its design that it wasn’t until 1920 that the mosque was fully completed and ready for daily worship.
Across the Neva River, the State Hermitage Museum holds Islamic artefacts and treasures dating back to the Golden Horde, the Mongol-Turkic khanate that ruled across much of present-day Russian territory between the 13th and 15th centuries. The galleries devoted to the fine arts of Byzantium and Persia, including metalwork, ceramics, carpets and paintings, hold their own against the surrounding Russian imperial splendours.
Bolgar and Kazan
The Golden Horde’s heartland was centred on the Volga River, where impressive remains of the empire’s capital can be found in the Unesco World Heritage–listed Bolgar State Historical-Architectural Museum Reserve. In 922, the Volga Bulgarian ruler Aydai Khan converted to Islam, kicking off the creation of a centre of Islamic civilisation. Elsewhere in the town you can view the more recent White Mosque, built in 2012 and nicknamed Russia’s Taj Mahal for its architectural similarity to the Indian icon. At the river station that connects Bolgar to Tartarstan’s capital Kazan, learn more about the roots of Islam in the region at the Museum of Bolgar Civilization.
By the mid-15th century Kazan had long eclipsed Bolgar and the territory’s wealth attracted the attention of Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible), whose troops conquered the city in 1552. Russian Orthodox and Muslim cultures have coexisted here ever since, a religious duality symbolised by the beautiful Kul Sharif Mosque side-by-side with the Annunciation Cathedral within Kazan’s stone Kremlin fortress.
Kul Sharif was completed in 2005, in time for Kazan’s millennium celebrations, the same year that the annual Kazan International Muslim Film Festival was established. The city’s oldest mosque is the Mardzhani, which dates from the 1770s. You’ll find this handsome green-roofed building with its single, central minaret in the Old Tatar Settlement, once the ghetto for the city’s ethnic Tatars between the 16th and 18th centuries. The area is dotted with historic timbered homes; here you’ll also find the halal restaurant Tatarskaya Usadba, which serves traditional Tatar cuisine including the classic Kazan sweet treat chak chak.
East to the Urals, south to the Caspian Sea
Close to the low-lying Ural Mountains that divide European Russia from Asian Russia, Muslim culture endures in Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan. For centuries the republic has been home to the Muslim Turkic Bashkirs, who since 1830 have worshipped at the city’s Old Mosque (commonly called the Turkayev Mosque, after the street on which it’s located). In the 1990s, its role as the city’s principal mosque was supplanted by the Lala Tyulpan Mosque in Victory Park; tyulpan means ‘tulip’ in Russian and the mosque’s twin 53m-tall minarets are built to resemble the flower.
Where the Volga River splinters into a multi-fingered delta filtering into the Caspian Sea, lies Astrakhan which was the capital of a Khanate for a century from 1459. As with Kazan, Ivan the Terrible captured the city in 1556 and built a Kremlin to establish a trading gate with Central Asia – a role the city retains today. Explore the Kryusha Quarter to discover a trio of mosques: the White Mosque, dating from 1810 and the city’s oldest such place of worship; the Red Mosque with its detailed brick facade; and the newly restored Black Mosque, so called because of its black domes. For more Central Asian flavour, the Tatar-Bazar with its stalls heaped with watermelons and other produce shouldn’t be missed.
Into the Caucasus
Chechnya and Dagestan in the southeast Caucasus are the most Islamic parts of Russia, but they’re also among the most potentially dangerous. The bloody wars that engulfed Chechnya in the 1990s have ended, but Islamic extremism continues to thrive here, leading to occasional violent clashes between security forces and militants. Elements of Islamic law are in force in Chechnya, where the situation for the local LGBT community is dire.
For these reasons, Lonely Planet does not research these destinations. That said, we are aware that tours are being successfully run in the region by expert local guides including Caucasus Explorer. Principal sites of interest include Unesco World Heritage–listed Derbent, an ancient town on the Caspian Sea crowned by a magnificent fortress and home to the Juma Mosque (Russia’s oldest mosque believed to date back to 733). In Chechnya’s capital Grozny, the magnificent Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, completed in 2008 and the focal point of a 14-hectare park, is modelled after Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque.
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