The history of Islamic
and significant Muslim spots
in St. Petersburg
TEXT: Renat Beckin
Muslims have been living in St. Petersburg since the first days of its history: workers, military personnel and diplomats of the Islamic faith, together with Christians, took a great part in the construction and development of the city on the Neva. We offer a short guide to places that can tell the tales about Muslims in the region.
The Cathedral Mosque
The main Islamic attraction in St. Petersburg is the Cathedral Mosque. Before its construction, Muslims living in the city had specially rented premises for their Friday and Eid prayers. From the second half of the 18th century, the Muslims of the capital appealed to the authorities with a request to allow them to build a mosque, and only in 1904, Emperor Nicholas II allowed Muslims to purchase a plot of land for construction.
On February 3, 1910, the laying of the Cathedral Mosque took place in St. Petersburg — it was timed to the 25th anniversary of the accession to the throne of the Emirate of Bukhara, Seyyid Abdul-Ahad-Khan. The emir and his son Seyyid-Mir Alim-Khan became the main sponsors of the construction. At the same time, Muslims from all over the Russian Empire took part in raising funds for the construction of the Cathedral Mosque.
The mosque’s architect is Nikolai Vasiliev, who, among other things, also built the German Theatre in Tallinn and the Astoria Hotel in Tallinn. It was co-authored by a civil engineer, a Muslim and a native of the family of Polish-Lithuanian Tatars, Stepan Krichinsky, as well as the architect of the Imperial Court, academician Alexander von Gauguin. The mosque was built at the junction of two styles: northern Art Nouveau and classical Muslim architecture of Central Asia. The building blends harmoniously with the surrounding landscape. For example, the neighbouring building — the mansion of the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya — is also made in the Northern Art Nouveau style.
The official opening of the mosque took place on February 21, 1913, coinciding with the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. However, regular services here began only seven years later as work on the mosque had to be completed.
During the atheistic campaigns of the late 1920s to the early 1930s, the mosque continued to operate and serve as the centre of the religious and cultural life of the Leningrad Tatars, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the city’s Muslim population during the imperial and Soviet periods. The city authorities intended to close the Cathedral Mosque for divine services: the parish council at the mosque was accused of not fulfilling obligations for repairs.
In 1940, the Leningrad City Council of Working People’s Deputies adopted a resolution to close the mosque. During the war and post-war years, it worked as a warehouse, and the Muslims of Leningrad gathered on the days of Muslim holidays at the Tatar cemetery in the Volkova village. Only in 1956 the adhan — the Islamic call to prayer — was sounded in the mosque again and regular services began to be held.
The house of the Emir of Bukhara
The idea of building a large apartment building belonged to the Muslim Charitable Society in St. Petersburg. According to the members of the society, the money raised from the operation of the house was to be spent on the needs of the Cathedral Mosque. In 1911, Seyyid-Mir Alim-Khan, the last emir of Bukhara and an honorary trustee of the society, completed the business started by his late father and donated capital for the construction. In addition to the premises for the clergy, the house was supposed to arrange a school for children, a library, a reading room and evening classes for adults.
The project of a tenement house on the site along the Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt was commissioned by the emir in 1913, developed by the architect Stepan Krichinsky. The building has a main facade and two transverse courtyard buildings connected by wings. The courtyard is separated from Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt by an arch.
The house was designed for residents of different classes, including the emir himself. There was even a winter garden in his apartment. However, after the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the royal house of the Romanovs in 1913, the Emir of Bukhara did not visit St. Petersburg. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, the construction of the house was delayed and was completed only in the first years of Soviet power.
Today in the House of the Emir of Bukhara there are apartments: both separate and communal. And there is also a legend that stipulates that the basement of the House of the Emir of Bukhara leads a secret passage to the mosque. But so far no one has managed to find this.
The Tatar cemetery
The Tatar cemetery is one of the oldest active Muslim burial grounds in Europe. The date of its foundation is considered to be 1826, when, in response to another petition of the Muslims of St. Petersburg, the highest permission was obtained to provide Muslims with land in the area of the Volkova village, three miles away from the city.
However, the first burials for Muslims were made in this place much earlier — possibly already in the 1770s where Turkish prisoners of war, as well as Muslims residents of the city, were buried.
Initially, the cemetery was intended for the burial of military ranks but later became the resting spot for prominent scientists and educators, philanthropic entrepreneurs, doctors and spiritual leaders.
Among the historical burials at the Tatar Cemetery are the graves of Sheikh Muhammad Ayyad at-Tantawi, an extraordinary professor of the Faculty of Oriental Languages of St. Petersburg University (1810–1861); major general, hero of the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. Maimed Enemuk (1839-1894); military surgeon, teacher and philanthropist, chief physician of the Nikolaev military hospital Salikh Yanovich-Chainsky (1834-1903); the merchant of the first guild, the owner of the Samarkand restaurant in the New Village, Rakhmatulla Khalitov (1831 or 1834–1898); Sufi sheikh Mahmud-Ishan Hasani Afghani Hafiz Kalamullah (d. 1846); Major General, Persian Prince Shafi Khan (1853-1909); Persian merchants from the city of Rasht: Agha Mirza Sadyk (died 1844) and Agha Muhammad Haji (died 1843). The last three were buried in the Persian cemetery site.
After the closure of the mosque for believers in 1940, the importance of the Novo-Volkovsky cemetery in the life of the Muslims of Leningrad and its environs increased. It was here that Friday prayers began to be held, bringing together several hundred people. And on the days of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, up to 7,000 people gathered at the cemetery.
At the cemetery, people settled down right on the ground between the grave hills, laying down the rugs they brought with them. Prayers were conducted by unofficial imams, and during prayers, they raised money for the repair of the mosque. Only in 1956, when the Cathedral Mosque reopened, did the funeral and Friday prayers cease to be performed at the cemetery. The Tatar area was declared semi-closed for burials in 1964. Now, only those whose relatives were buried here were allowed to be buried in the cemetery.
photos: Alice Kuchinski