During the reign of Khan Uzbek in the 14th century, Islam became the official religion of the Golden Horde. At this time the city of Bolgar became a centre for all the Muslim Khan. The construction of the Cathedral Mosque marked a period of new prosperity.
Built of white limestone, the Cathedral Mosque stood proud in the central square. Situated on a high promontory, it was visible from all points of the city, including the lower plateau. The entrance was situated on the Northern side next to a 24-metre tall minaret, offering a stunning view of the shoreline.
The construction of the Cathedral Mosque commenced soon after the invasion of the Golden Horde, at sometime around the 1260’s. The construction is believed to have been a very slow process since the stone needed to be brought from the Sukeev stone quarries on the opposite shore of the Volga River. Twenty four-sided columns supported the arches and the wooden roof. Opposite the door was the altar niche or mihrab decorated with fine wood carving.
It took about 50 years to complete but everything was destroyed by fire and work had to begin anew almost from scratch. During reconstruction work, the dimensions were increased and window apertures were added to the Western and Eastern sides: the way in which the walls were constructed also changed – they were manufactured from durable limestone solution with the addition of crushed stone. The number of internal columns, now hexagonal, also increased to 36, and the Mosque itself was supported by additional towers.
The architecture of the Cathedral Mosque and other monuments in the Bolgar settlement is a unique branch of Eastern architecture.
The white-stone buildings, some decorated with wood carvings and others not, are very different from the more elegant buildings of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Central Asia and Asia Minor. This was in part due to the specific nature of the climate – the Middle Volga region formed the Northern border of the spread of Islam at that time. Precise architecture required a wealth of experience and mathematical knowledge, and the builders needed to learn as they worked.
The Mosque, the surrounding mausoleums and central square form a special world in this Eastern city. The stone paved streets emanate from the central square like rays of light. During city festivals, welcoming of emissaries and other important events, the citizens and guests of the city would pour down these streets towards the Cathedral Mosque. The ruler was obliged to meet the people with his entourage and personal guard. This was the place where the emissaries of the Golden Horde were received, and rich notaries and their families and servants entered through the official entrance either on foot or by carriage. Water bearers and food sellers would trade their wares around the fountain.
Today only ruins of the Cathedral Mosque remain. They can only give us a mere notion of what it must have looked like.
Almost like detectives, archaeologists have been unravelling the secrets of its walls, corner towers, portals and columns. Partial restoration of the Cathedral Mosque and reconstruction of the Large Minaret has been the crowning glory of the 200-year story of the saving of the complex, begun by the untiring efforts of Peter the Great.
In the 1960’s, when the ruins of the Cathedral Mosque were cleared for the first time, the primary objective was to conserve and protect the ancient masonry. Today the walls have been partially rebuilt, the towers have been lined with artificial blocks, a new floor has been laid and columns have been erected.