On the eastern side of Cathedral Square in Kremlin, Moscow stands majestically the 266 feet (81 m) tall Ivan the Great Bell tower, an iconic landmark of the city, which is visible from 30 km away. For almost 400 years, it was the tallest building in Russia, since before the onset of the 20th century, it was forbidden to build anything higher in the country.
Once the first stone bell tower of Moscow stood on the site since 1329 and it earned the name ‘Ivan’, as it was affiliated with the Church of St.Ivan of the Ladder-under-the bell. Unlike the wooden churches of the earlier days, this church, erected by the Grand Duke Ivan Kalita, was one of the first stone made churches to be built in Moscow. During the major renovation of the Kremlin, Grand Duke Ivan III hired an Italian architect to replace this church.
Construction of the new church started in 1505 and was completed three years later under his son Vasily III, who also ordered to erect an unprecedented tall tower on the foundations of the old tower, as a memorial to his deceased father. The proposed new bell tower was completed in 1508, which originally had two belfries on different levels and a height of around 196 feet.
Ivan the Great Bell Tower adjoins the Assumption Belfry, which was built between 1523 and 1543 by the Italian immigrant architect Petrok Maly Fryazin. Along with it, a new church, named the Church of the Resurrection, was also constructed next to the tower. However, by the end of the 17th century, it became a bell choir stalls to supplement the hanging bells, rather than a place of worship. Later, in 1600 on the orders of Tsar Boris Godunov, a Russian architect named Fyodor Kon raised the height of the Ivan the Great Bell tower to its present height. The tent-roofed Filaret Tower was added in 1624.
The slender Ivan the Great Bell Tower consists of three octagonal drums, narrowing towards the top and crowned with a golden dome and a seven-metre high cross. The walls of the three tiered tower are up to five metres thick and each tier is complete with cut-out windows for the bells. The upper tier of the tower merges into the round drum decorated with a band of beautiful ornamentation, known as ‘Kokoshniks’. The base of the tower extends down to six metres underground and stands on a white stone foundation resting on numerous wooden piles. There is a small chapel on the third floor of the building, which was founded in the 19th century. The tower is also equipped with a inbuilt spiral staircase with 329 steps, which leads to the highest observation deck. The belfry is also one of the museums of Kremlin, where pieces of original stone décor and sculptures that once decorated the Kremlin’s palaces are displayed.
In 1812, Napoleon's soldiers pulled down many buildings of the Kremlin, and also attempted to blow up the bell tower. Fortunately, they failed, but the belfry and the Filaret Tower were badly damaged. However, they were restored subsequently, in 1819 by the architect D.I. Gilardi.
Today, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower contains 22 bells, out of which 18 small bells hang in the base and in the middle of the bell tower. However, the biggest bell, which is also the world’s biggest, was too big to remain in its place and sits to the rear of the tower with a huge crack in it. Among the four other large bells, the ‘Upsensku Bell’ weighs 65.5 tons and was made in the early 16th century. Two big bells, the 19.6-ton ‘Reut’ and the 16.6 - ton ‘Daily’ are housed in the adjoining Assumption Belfry.
Since its inception, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower has always been Moscow’s main belfry. On Orthodox holidays, the first strike of the bell from this tower signaled the start of bell-ringing throughout Moscow on Orthodox holidays. The last Easter service in the Kremlin took place in 1918 and after that the bells of Ivan the Great did not ring again until 1992, when the tradition was revived after the fall of the Soviet Union.