Ivan the Great Bell-Tower

If you never saw Moscow you never saw the Beauty – this proverb’s origin is associated with an amazing building – the bell-tower church Ivan the Great. The bell-tower’s history had been wrapped in obscurity for a long time. For many centuries it was believed that “Ivan the Great” was built during the reign of Boris Godunov in 1600. It was only in the mid-20th century when scientists discovered that this bell-tower was constructed by the architect Bon-Fryazin at the beginning of the 16th century, when its height was 60 meters. In 1600 the tower was overbuilt and had become 21 meter taller. Today its height equals 82 meters and one can overlook Moscow’s suburbs 30km away from the tower.

In fact, the bell-tower’s history goes as far back as the year 1329 when the Grand Duke Ivan Kalita ordered to lay down a church dedicated to his patron John Climacus. Later, at the invitation of the Grand Duke Basil III, Italian architects arrived in Russia in 1505. The bell-tower “Ivan the Great” was erected in place of the old Ivan Kalita’s church by an architect Bon-Fryazin. The building was the main watchtower of the Kremlin. The multi-foiled church at the base of the bell-tower is the real masterpiece. Interestingly, but the architect’s fate is an absolute mystery, even his real name is unknown. The word ‘Fryaz’ was generally used by Russians to call Italians. Another Italian architect attached a bell cote to the tower in 1532 which was designed for a massive bell weighing over 2000 stones. The bell-tower’s architecture is very simple and the effect of magnitude is achieved due to correct proportions the experienced masons used during construction.

Twice the bell-tower was damaged by fire with both times destroying the immense bell until the third bell was commissioned by Empress Anna. This time the great bell would weigh over 200 tons, double its previous weight, making it the largest and heaviest bell of its kind. Unfortunately another fire broke out and resulted in an 11.5 ton piece to fall off, thus the bell was never used. For over a century the bell lay in the pit it fell in as engineering at the time was unable to lift it. Even Napolean was forced to abandon his efforts to claim it as a trophy. It was finally lifted in 1836 and placed on a stone pedestal. The broken slab alone weighs over three times as much as the tenor bell at Liverpool Cathedral. For a while the interior of the bell even served as a small chapel.

The structure of “Ivan the Great” suffered much in 1812 during Napoleon’s invasion. Following the expulsion of the enemy from Moscow both buildings were restored with minimum differences from their original look. In Soviet times the bell-tower housed a joinery shop and afterwards a museum’s storage area. After that an exhibition hall was arranged on the first floor of the Belfry tower where works of art from the Kremlin itself and other Russian and foreign museums were displayed. There is also an unusual museum of Moscow Kremlin’s history in the bell-tower.

The main Kremlin’s bell-tower returned to its original function in 1992 when the belfry bells rang again in the Kremlin. At the present time there are 21 bells in the belfry, Filaret’s extension and the bell-tower itself. Their chime regularly accompanies religious services celebrated in the cathedrals of the Moscow Kremlin. Tour to Moscow