On approaching Bukhara, travelers can see far in the distance Kalayn Minaret, towering over hardly noticeable buildings of Bukhara. In the Middle Ages the caravans that traveled hundreds of miles along the Great Silk Road used the minaret as a landmark, which is natural enough as the word ‘minaret’ is derived from Arabic minora, meaning ‘lighthouse’. In wartime, from the top of the minaret the guards watched the movements of the enemies in the vicinity of the town.
Right after Islam was established in Bukhara in 713, there was built a mosque and a minaret at the foot of the fortress. Early in the 12th century, during the rule of Arslankhan of the Karakhanids Dynasty, the mosque was relocated to urban area, at a distance from the fortress, the old minaret was taken apart, and instead a new minaret was erected opposite the southern flank of shakhristan. The minaret had to reflect the greatness of the town and the piety of its ruler. However, this new ‘beautifully made’ minaret collapsed shortly after: it fell on the main mosque and almost completely destroyed it. The decision was made then to build a mosque and a minaret not to be excelled by any others what so ever.
In 1127 the architect Bako laid foundations of the minaret for which he used bricks and mortar made of gunch-plaster mixed with camel milk. Then he left the town and returned only two years later, when the foundations had become as hard as stone. On these foundations he built the minaret later called Kalyan, which means ‘Great’. Made of baked bricks, this giant is about 47 meters tall with a base going underground at the depth of 10 meters. The strong, slightly tapered body of the minaret is topped with a cylindrical rotunda gallery having 16 arched windows. At its socle the minaret is 9 metres in diameter, while the diameter of its upper part at the base of the rotunda is 6 meters. The lower part of the rotunda is decorated with stalactites. Originally the height of the minaret was 50 meters; on the rotunda there was another section, of which only the central rod remains.
All over the surface the minaret is covered with ornamental bands of brickwork and turquoise glazed tilework. One of the lower bands contains the inscription with the year of the completion of the construction and the name of Arslankhan, Bukhara’s ruler. The upper frieze, which was lost during the restoration works, had the name of the architect Bako. The local people can show you his grave among the houses of the nearby mahalla-neighborhood. The minaret doorway is at a height of 5 meters. An arched bridge from the roof of Kalayn Mosque leads to this doorway. Inside the minaret there is a steep winding staircase with 105 stone steps leading to the rotunda. From the top you can have a marvelous view of old Bukhara townscape. In the past four azanchi-muezzins used to call for the five-time prayers; their voices could be heard in the very distant quarters of the town.
Together with Friday-prayer Kalyan Mosque and Miri-Arab Madrassah, built nearby, the minaret outlines the central square of Old Bukhara. The square is called Poi Kalyan, which means ‘The Foot of the Great One’.
The grand minaret has been standing there for almost nine centuries. Neither natural nor political disasters have been able to shake it. In various times in the past it was used as a watchtower and a lighthouse. It was also used for capital punishment, which was why the local people called it ‘Death Tower’.
The harmony of forms, exquisite ornamental geometrical patterns of the brickwork and majolica on the body of the minaret make it really bewitching. The legendary Kalyan Minaret is an outstanding architectural monument, a striking example of medieval Oriental engineering; its silhouette has for a long time been the symbol of Blessed Bukhara.