The Timeless Gem of Almaty
There are multi-coloured cupolas and gilt crosses, as well as mosaics and a superb bell tower
Our holidays and trips are made special by our lasting memories of the people we meet, the places we visit, and very often, the buildings we enter. The famous Panfilov Park in Almaty boasts just such an edifice, one of the most arresting attractions in Kazakhstan, an example not only of a superb construction but an embodiment of history itself, a striking example of Russian colonial architecture at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
Located beside the National Museum of Folk Musical Instruments, and near the Zelyony Bazaar, the Zenkov Cathedral is an Orthodox temple with major significance, identifying Almaty with the erstwhile Russian Empire within a country that represents the convergence of eastern and western cultures. Its conspicuous colours are reminiscent of those introduced during times of Mongolian invasion, while its design is classically Russian, from its pilasters to its murals, making it an icon of a very diverse society, with an equally varied history.
Yet in spite of the permanence it has come to signify, perhaps the main reason people consider the cathedral a must-see is for it having been constructed largely of wood, a material at the time thought to be more resistant to seismic activity. Zenkov’s survival of the serious 1911 earthquake more than vindicated this reasoning, and superficial damage notwithstanding, its grand hall continued to host congregations of up to 2,000. All this, without it featuring a single nail.
Inside, a century of change later, the cathedral is light, colourful and calming. There are multi-coloured cupolas and gilt crosses, as well as mosaics and a superb bell tower undergoing restoration. Its design and erection are credited to many individuals and in essence it is difficult to imagine the number of people involved in the project, in part due to the multitude of raw materials and their various sources. But what is clear is that 150 years ago, a rising city population, coupled with the emergent influence of Almaty in the wider region, necessitated a cathedral such as Zenkov. The go-ahead was given for a temporary building in the mid-Nineteenth Century which itself failed to accommodate a growing congregation, meaning that further provision was still needed.
With the arrival of Bishop Gregoriy in 1893 plans for the cathedral as we know it today were finalized, but it was not in fact him but his successor, Bishop Arkadiy, arriving five years later, who oversaw the 1907 completion of the mission. This was to uphold the prestige of the Russian name and the status of the Orthodox religion in a primarily eastern region, and to satisfy the wishes of the city’s inhabitants it was originally named in honour of the Ascension of Lord Jesus Christ.
The 1917 Russian Revolution left very little unchanged and the Zenkov Cathedral underwent great transformation on its own. The church bells were removed and the amazing three-tiered iconostasis was destroyed, but not only this, there were moves to locate a Kazakhstan museum in the church itself, something which required considerable reconstruction. The original designer, and the man after whom the cathedral takes its name, AP Zenkov, endeavoured to retain not only the building’s charm but also its anti-seismic qualities by proposing a separate structure for the museum. History tells us that his ideas were not accepted, and his gift to the people of Almaty lost a lot of its inherent beauty.
Restoration is considered to be a state priority and the government of Kazakhstan has implemented a programme of renewal with a view to recovering the original splendor of the cathedral, a process well underway but understandably far from completion.
An example of both splendor and resilience, this magnificent building has stood the test of upheaval both political and seismic, yet to this day it is a must-see tourist attraction in the beautiful Park of 28 Heroes in the amazing city of Almaty. Those who visit leave with lasting impressions not just of the structure itself, but of what it symbolises, an icon of both contemporary and bygone Kazakhstan. And it is believed that the cathedral, when fully restored, will come to represent the cultural revival, not only as regards Orthodox devotees, but also for the many groups who live in Almaty.