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Russia: After Decades of Neglect, St. Petersburg's Mosque Re-emerges As City Landmark

  • Jeremy Bransten

St. Petersburg is famous the world over for its Winter Palace, which houses the vast Hermitage museum. The Mariinskii Theater, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and St. Isaac's Cathedral also rank high on the itineraries of most visitors. These landmark monuments are symbols of the city and the pride of its inhabitants. What few in the non-Muslim world may know is that St. Petersburg is also home to one of Europe's great mosques. After decades of official neglect and disrepair, this unique building is benefiting from the city's restoration program, ahead of next year's celebrations of the 300th anniversary of the city's founding.

St. Petersburg, 27 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When foreigners, and most Russians, think of St. Petersburg, many associations come to mind, but Muslim architecture is usually not one of them.

And yet, St. Petersburg boasts one of Europe's largest and certainly one of its most beautiful mosques. Opened in 1913, amid celebrations to mark the 300th anniversary of Russia's ruling Romanov dynasty, the unveiling ceremony was attended by many visiting dignitaries, among them the emir of Bukhara and the khan of Khiva.

The building itself, whose 48-meter-high minarets tower rises above a dome of blue ceramic tile, was modeled after the Gur-Emir mosque in Samarkand and built to comfortably hold up to 5,000 worshipers at a time.

The arrival of Soviet power soon brought hardship for the mosque and St. Petersburg's Muslim community. For 17 years, from 1939 to 1956, the Communists banned services altogether, turning the building into a storehouse. But unlike the Romanovs, or the emir of Bukhara and the khan of Khiva, the mosque survived.

And if all goes according to plan, thanks to an injection of funds from city authorities, it will emerge from its encasement of scaffolding early next year, to mark another 300th anniversary -- this time, of St. Petersburg's founding. The cupola has already been restored and at present, craftsmen are working on several floors of scaffolding to reconstruct the building's richly decorated Western portal. One hundred square meters of tile have already been restored and a further 180 square meters are being applied anew. More than 85,000 separate tile fragments had to be remade from scratch, as Aleksandra Averyanova of the city's Committee for the Preservation of Historic Monuments, explained. "Originally, the tile work was glued onto a cement mixture, which in turn was affixed to metal rods [which were attached to the building's facade], and over the life of the building -- due to the westerly winds that blow here -- [moisture] seeped into these metal joints and they became completely corroded. The tile work had to be taken down. The individual tiles could not be removed one at a time as whole chunks would come loose. It was impossible to restore them, so the decision was taken to create them anew, following the original design. Blocks of tile work 60 centimeters long were made from scratch. In each block are tens or rather hundreds of individual details. The block's base is made of stainless steel, and these blocks are then screwed onto the mosque's outer wall, also by stainless-steel attachments," Averyanova said.

While years of official neglect are largely responsible for the mosque's exterior state of decay, St. Petersburg's wet and cold climate is also a factor. Restorers hope modern innovations such as stainless-steel joints will ensure their work remains looking new for decades to come.

The mosque's guardian for 25 years, St. Petersburg Mufti Zhafar Ponchaev, told RFE/RL the restoration is the realization of a dream. It is, he believes, a visual and spiritual gift for all of the city's residents and visitors. "For us, and for everyone living in our city, not just Muslims, this restoration is a great joy. In Central Asia, everyone knows that there is this mosque here, that prayers are said here. So the fact that the mosque is being restored, I repeat, brings joy to all of us: to Muslims and all the inhabitants of this city. When passersby walk past, I hear them saying, 'Look! Look at that decoration!'" Ponchaev said.

Ponchaev noted that over the past 10 years, tens of thousands of Muslims from the former Soviet Union have migrated to St. Petersburg, creating a diaspora he estimates now forms 10 percent of the city's population of 5 million. "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many [Muslims] from Uzbekistan and other regions, from the Caucasus, have come here -- over 500,000 in total," Ponchaev said.

Ponchaev invited a small group of journalists for a look inside the building. A spectacular, 3-ton filigree brass chandelier, hanging under the central dome, forms the centerpiece of the whitewashed interior. It is an original -- dating to 1913 -- as are the delicately carved wooden screens on the second floor, reserved for women. "The Koran says that both sexes are equal. But men must not think of the flesh when they come here," Ponchaev explained. "And how could you not think of the flesh if you had all those attractive ladies to gaze at, in their short skirts, in front of you? That is why tradition has it that women should remain upstairs."

Every Friday, some 3,000 worshippers gather in the building for weekly prayers, while Muslim holy days easily attract five times that number, filling the mosque's outer courtyard. The restoration of St. Petersburg's mosque, Ponchaev said, will act as a beacon, helping to draw more people back to their faith while, he hopes, helping to promote understanding among nations. "Muslim nationals from all over the world are represented here. They all come here on Fridays and for the big holidays. We make no differences between Tatars, Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs, Kyrgyz, Ingush, or others. We make no difference. God is one," Ponchaev said.

But St. Petersburg is all the richer for the variety of its temples of worship.

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