While there are many modern attractions, there’s no denying that many of Kazan’s landmarks have been around for centuries. From the Kremlin to the striking 18th- and 19th-century buildings, the most historic neighborhood in the capital of Tatarstan should have a priority in your travel itinerary. We suggest going back to the roots of Tatarstan by spending some quality time within the bounds of the Old Tatar neighborhood. This is where the landmark houses of rich Tatar merchants can be found, as well as the most beautiful mosques in the entire country.
After Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible captured Kazan in 1552, all Muslim Tatars were not allowed to live in the upper part of the city. Legend has it that the treasures of the Khanate of Kazan were sealed in barrels and drowned in the Kaban. Many searched for the treasures, but to no avail. The Muslim Tatars were evicted to settle outside the city walls where they created a suburb called Tatarskya Sloboda on the other side of Lake Kaban. The name Staro-Tatarskaya Sloboda literally means ‘Old Tatar Neighborhood’. Its central square is Yunusovskaya Ploschad, named after the prosperous merchants Yunusovs (also spelled Yunısovs) who funded the construction of several mosques and kept an orphanage.
The neighborhood preserved several old mosques and the first one we’ll cover is the Al-Marjani (Märcani) Mosque, made of stone, and built as early as 1767. Interestingly, for the first two centuries after the Russian conquest, the Tatars were not allowed to build their mosques from stone. But in 1767 Empress Catherine II was ‘touring’ the Russian Empire and made a stopover in Kazan. A delegation of Tatar murzas (i.e. noble people) asked her to lift the ban. The Empress obliged and issued a decree stating that there should be no more religious disputes in Kazan. Subsequently, construction of mosques from stone began. This mosque changed the name several times. First, it was called Äfände (meaning the Lord’s) and then the Yunusov’s Mosque. After some time, when it was known as the First Congregational Mosque, the outstanding Tatar historian and scholar Shihabetdin Märcani (also spelled Marjani) became the mosque’s imam. Eventually, the mosque was named after him. In the Soviet times of state-promoted atheism, it was the only operating mosque in the entire Kazan.
Next on our route is the Apanay (Apanayevskaya) Mosque that was built entirely on a donation by the Tartar merchant Yakub Sultangaley in 1768–1771. The unpretentious Baroque style mosque was named after the Apanay family, a merchant family who lived in the congregation and supported the mosque. In Soviet times, the minaret was demolished and the carved facade coated with plaster: the building was turned into a nursery school. Only in 1995 was the sanctuary restored.
Many wooden houses in the Old Tatar Neighborhood still stand restored to their original form and color. The Shamil House is a true masterpiece of the neighborhood. The eclectic facade resembles a gothic medieval castle with its spikes, but the decor echoes with the traditional Tatar patterns. Although it was reconstructed, the building retained its unique architecture and now houses the Gabdulla Tuqay Literature Museum. Gabdulla Tuqay was a classic Tatar poet and a publisher. The museum exhibits his personal belongings and lifetime publications, and tells the story of Kazan’s cultural life in 19th and early 20th centuries.
Now, let’s come back to Yunusovskaya Ploschad. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a Muslim cemetery occupied this land. However, following the new master plan approved by Empress Catherine II, the district was re-developed. The main street of the neighborhood moved here, away from the shores of Lake Kaban. Rich merchants and murzas liked the new central street and lined it with their houses, designed by the best Tatar architects. The square became a place of community gatherings and manifestations for the Tatars. The Yunusovs’ mansion now houses the City Polyclinic No. 7. In his will, Gabdulla Yunusov gave a large donation to build the Nurullah Mosque. Painted in traditional white and green colors, the mosque is two-storied, has a hall with cupola and a three-storied cylindrical minaret over the southern entry.
The 1872 Burnay (Burnayevskaya) Mosque was built in a very peculiary style – national romantic eclecticism. Legend has it that the merchant Möxämmätsadíq Bornay was very fond of traveling and, with his donation, they built a red brick mosque decorated with Turkish, Tatar and Russian elements. Returned to believers in 1994, it’s reputed as ‘foreign’, also for the fact that the majority of its congregation are immigrants.
And another landmark that we suggest to see is the Äcem (Azimovskaya) Mosque. In 1887–1890 the construction was sponsored by the wealthy Tatar merchant Mortaza Acem, hence the name. The one-storied mosque has a 51-meter high minaret above the entrance and its interior is inspired by the medieval Oriental traditions. The sanctuary was closed by the Soviet authorities in 1930 and eventually found itself in an unfavorable industrial area, but it has been absolutely gorgeously restored back to the original national romantic style.
It’s all worth seeing with your own eyes. Enjoy the walk and grab a camera – this place is a treasure trove for architecture admirers.