From Dubai’s International Terminal 3, it appeared as if the plane to Moscow had been parked somewhere at the remotest corner of the airport. Moscow, also called as Moskva, is a city shrouded in deep historical and cultural charms that attracts more than 20 million local and foreign tourists every year. Moscow’s view from above the plane gives a bird’s-eye view of many fascinating places to visit. The capital is vast and spacious indeed. Lush green areas and an almost negligible number of sky scrapers exist in great contrast to the modern urban standards. Moscow is a city that grows more horizontally than expanding vertically.
It was a rare sunny day of August when we landed at one of Moscow’s three airports, Domodedovo, almost forty kilometers from the city center. The airport was the target of a suicide bombing in January 2011, killing more than thirty people. Since then, the security situation has improved to some extent, yet it reflects the underlying political problems in the North Caucasus region, some two thousand miles in the south. Moscow’s first impression on coming out of the airport was that of cleanliness, airiness, and tranquility. Life appears to be flowing leisurely as if in full control. Memories of much cherished Russia 2018 FIFA Football World Cup flashed back from looking at the souvenir shops and mascots, which will probably take years to fade out.
Onto the Aero Express
Aero Express provides fast speed luxury trains that connects Moscow's major airports to the heart of the city, i.e., Red Square and the surroundings. A total of twenty-one trains carried around 17 million passengers in 2017. In the train, amongst the fellow passengers were an interesting granddaughter and grandmother duo. Let’s suppose the granddaughter is Jane. As a daughter of a French father and a Russian mother, Jane was a living example of cultural harmony in the region. A charming young lady gifted with a sparkling smile, Jane could speak French, Russian, and English. The grandmother’s skills were limited to Russian only. Upon learning about my first few hours in Moscow, Jane was of great help in guiding me to reach the Red Square.
Interestingly, Red Square has nothing to do with the red color. The name comes from an old Russian word krasnyi, meaning beautiful. Red Square is the historical and cultural heart of Moscow buzzing with tourist activities. Over the centuries, much of Russia’s historical substance had concentrated in an area of a few square kilometers surrounding the Red Square. This includes the iconic brightly-domed Saint Basil's Cathedral, Lenin's Mausoleum, historical GUM Departmental store, the Kremlin, the State History Museum, Kazan Cathedral and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Adjacent to the 865 meters long western wall of Kremlin, stretches one of the first urban public parks in Moscow, called Alexander’s Garden. After the end of Napoleonic Wars, Tsar Alexander I ordered to reconstruct the parts of the city destroyed by the French troops. A new garden was designed from 1819 to 1823. Just like Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, the garden is comprised of three interconnected gardens. Upper garden's entrance hosts the famous Tomb of Unknown Soldier, middle garden's prominent feature is the Kutafiya Tower of the Kremlin and lastly, the lower garden leads to the road, merging one of two entrances to the Kremlin. The monuments in the garden include Alexander I, erected on the 200th anniversary (2014) of victory over Napoleon, Romanov Obelisk, Horses Fountain and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Unlike the Western Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, which is sacred for religious reasons, a section of the Western Wall of Kremlin is sacred for purely nationalist reasons. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow is dedicated to the Soviet soldiers who were killed during World War II. The remains of the unknown soldiers killed in the Battle of Moscow in 1941 were initially buried in a mass grave at a 40 km distance from the Leningrad highway. This was the location of the immediate contact of the German armies to Moscow during the WWII. A dark red monument made of a porphyritic rock, is decorated with a bronze sculpture of a laurel branch and a soldier's helmet laid upon a banner. In front of the monument, there is a five-pointed star, from which emanates the Eternal Flame in its center. The flame illuminates a bronze inscription "Your name is unknown; your deed is immortal". A Guard Ceremony takes place every hour by the soldiers of the Kremlin Regiment, changing their positions regularly.
Churches–So Many of Them
For the foreign visitors, an interesting aspect of Moscow is the large number of churches. Like in Istanbul, where you can see minarets of mosques on both sides of Bosphorus, similarly in Moscow, glittering golden crosses dominate the skyline. Majority of the population belongs to the Russian Orthodox Church. In 2019, reportedly there were more than 1200 churches from different Christian denominations in Moscow alone. A few of them include Cathedral of Saint Basil, Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Church of the Prophet Elijah, and Cathedral of the Dormition of the Theotokia in the Kremlin.
Saint Basil's Cathedral
When Moscow and Russia need a symbol to be identified, an image of Saint Basil's Cathedral with its iconic, colorful onion shaped domes is the choice. The building, which is now a museum, was built during 1555 A.D., to 1561 A.D., on the orders of Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The main church stands at the middle of the building, with eight smaller chapels arranged around it. Each of the surrounding of the chapels has its own tower, which is covered by a brightly painted onion-shaped dome.
The church which is a part of the Moscow Kremlin and Red Square, has been recognized as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage Site since 1990. It is not actually located within the Kremlin and is often confused with the Kremlin itself. The tour inside the Cathedral requires patience. Due to a long queue of tourists, narrow passages and constricted rooms, it becomes difficult to move freely.
Moscow Metro: The Deep Secret
A wonderful and inspiring aspect of Moscow is its metro system, constructed deep under the ground. The experience of using an escalator to take a metro was exhilarating. It felt as if the escalator would keep going underground and never come to a stop. Moscow’s metro service was launched in 1935, with an 11 km line and 13 stations. As of 2019, it has more than two hundred stations and route length of about 400 km. It is the busiest metro system in Europe. The system is mostly underground, with the deepest section 84 meters (276 feet), one of the world's deepest underground stations. This metro system is also the largest civil defense system in Russia, which was specifically engineered to seek shelter against a nuclear attack. Today, metro stations of Moscow are nothing less than beautiful art galleries that are considered tourist attractions. Some of the magnificent metro stations include Kiyevskaya metro station, a white marbled beauty bursting with frescoes and mosaic; Dostoyevskaya metro station, a beautiful tribute to a famed author; Ploschad Revolyutsii metro station with over seventy magnificent bronze statues of soldiers, and workers; Mayakovskaya metro station, a marvel of futurist soviet design; and Prospekt Mira metro station, inspired by botanical gardens of the nearby Moscow State University.
The Kremlin: A Symbol of Russia’s Power through the Ages
The Moscow Kremlin is a walled complex in the heart of Moscow, with Saint Basil's Cathedral and Red Square to the east, Alexander Garden to the west and overseeing the Moskva River to the south. True to its meaning, the word Kremlin generally means "fortress inside a city". It is the biggest active fortress in the whole of Europe. The Kremlin is densely built up, comprising eighteen buildings in total. There are five squares, five palaces and four cathedrals. The Cathedral Square is the heart of the Kremlin. Ivan the Great Bell Tower on the north-east corner of the Cathedral Square is said to be known as the perfect center of Moscow. The northern corner of the Kremlin is occupied by the Arsenal, originally built for Peter the Great in 1701. The southwestern section of the Kremlin holds the Armory building built in 1851 and is currently a museum. The Grand Kremlin Palace was formerly the Tsar's Moscow residence and now serves as the official residence of President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin is the place where one can see the world’s largest bell and the world’s largest cannon. The 20 feet tall Tsar Bell was made in 1735, which was broken during the metal casting and never rang. The Tsar Cannon weighing almost forty tons was casted in 1586 and has never been used in a war. According to the Guinness Book of Records, it’s the largest cannon by caliber.
The Twenty Towers of Kremlin
The Kremlin wall is bordered by nineteen towers, whereas the twentieth Kutafya Tower is not a part of its wall. Of all the twenty towers, two of them don’t have proper names, and are called “the first unnamed” and “the second unnamed” towers. The tallest one is eighty meters (262 ft.) high, named Troitskaya tower (ten meters longer than our Minaret of Pakistan). The most recognizable is Spasskaya or the Kremlin Clock tower. The clock is connected to the control clock of Sternberg Astronomical Institute via the cable.
In the days of Tsarist Russia, four Kremlin towers were topped with two-headed eagles. In 1935, the Soviet government replaced the eagles with five-pointed stars. A fifth star was added later. The biggest stars are 3.75 meters in length and are made of ruby glass to shine more brightly. They are the symbols of a bygone era and a reminder of the country’s communist past.
Arbat Street and Matryoshka Dolls
If there is one souvenir that needs to be taken back home from Moscow, it has to be the famous Matryoshka dolls. Made out of wood and painted diligently, these dolls are considered the symbol of fertility and come in different sizes. These are actually "a doll inside a doll inside a doll...”. There can be as many as three to twenty-five dolls inside one doll. A set of 1800 inside dolls is also reported. The best place to get a Matryoshka doll is at Izmailovsky Market. They can also be bought from the famous Old Arbat Street (equivalent to Lahore’s Anarkali), but at higher rates. Arbat Street is a pedestrian street about one-kilometer-long, located at the historical center of Moscow. It has existed since at least the 15th century, which makes it one of the oldest surviving streets of the Russian capital.
Moscow, in a nutshell, is a unique mix of art, culture, history, and diversity. It offers great opportunities to explore, learn, and enjoy in one of the few celebrated cities of human history.
The writer is a computer engineer and mountain enthusiast.
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