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Minarets and Onion Domes in Kazan

In a world of religious strife, Tatarstan, a region with a long history and a large Muslim population in the heart of Russia, has begun marketing its capital, Kazan, as a unique tourist destination uniting Muslim and Russian Orthodox monuments.

Kazan, Russia Here, at the confluence of the Volga and Kazanka Rivers, about 450 miles east of Moscow, the city’s Kul-Sharif Mosque — a re-creation of the one destroyed by Ivan the Terrible — and its blue minarets stand nearly side-by-side with the onion-domed Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, first built in the 16th century, within the majestic white walls of the city’s Kremlin, a Unesco World Heritage site.

But there is more to Kazan than symbols of modern-day religious harmony. Kazan is, for instance, the only Russian city to have a branch of the Hermitage Museum, the Hermitage-Kazan Exhibition Center.

Kazan’s 1,000-year anniversary, celebrated in 2005, spurred a huge investment in real estate, including Mirage, a high-tech Italian-designed hotel at the foot of the Kremlin, and the charming Shalyapin Palace Hotel. Still, preservationists lament the destruction of entire city blocks of Tatar wooden houses, and elegant mansions. City officials say they will now focus on restoration.

City officials and entrepreneurs are hoping to capitalize on one of Pope John Paul II’s last gestures before his death in 2005: his return of an 18th-century copy of the revered Kazan Icon of the Mother of God that had been taken out of Bolshevik Russia and ended up, decades later, in his Vatican apartment. Tourists and pilgrims can already see the icon at the Church of the Elevation of the Cross at the Bogoroditsky Monastery, which is being restored on the site after being turned into a tobacco factory in Soviet times.

Others credit Mintimir Shaimiyev, Tatarstan’s wily president, who is always balancing Tatar and Russian, Muslim and Orthodox Christian — and now Catholic — interests. Those interests seem to balance out at places like the historic Mardjani Mosque. At a cafe across the street, run by the mosque, waitresses in tunics and headscarves serve Tatar specialties to secular customers, including young women in midriff-baring shirts.

For the more secular-minded, Kazan is a rollicking university town. Both Tolstoy and Lenin studied there. Students today dance the night away in bars and clubs like Cuba Libre and Discoclub Arena. And don’t miss Kruiz, a permanently docked riverboat restaurant where trendy locals order sushi or sip Spanish wine. But bear in mind it will be hard to focus on the menu. The view of the minarets and onion domes is spectacular.

Kazan is connected to Moscow by daily flights and trains.

The New York Times, October 28, 2008