Billed as an “open air museum”, Khiva is more than 2,500 years old, with a population of just 40,000 people. Along with Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is an important and often overlooked historical site on what was once the Great Silk Road. Famous for it’s long and brutal history as a slave trading post sandwiched in between the vast Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts, Khiva is now a quiet, sleepy oasis that awaits busloads of tourists instead of caravans of captives.
It’s difficult imagine what exactly ancient Khiva was like, considering the historical areas were restored to a scrubbed and squeaky-clean look by the Soviets in the 1970s. However, the clustered array of mosques, madrassahs and tiled minarets within a area of less than 3km give you a sense of how crowded and bustling this town must have been throughout it’s history.
Khiva is divided into two distinct sections; one being the older, museum-like Ichon-Qala or Itchan Kala(literally: within the wall) where striking examples of Islamic architecture were built over the span of 600 years; and the modern Dichon-Qala (literally: outside the wall) where both the majority of the population live and where all of the modern buildings exist, but glimpses of Khiva’s greatness as a center of Islamic power still linger. Today, the entire city is home to about 40,000 people. It’s a quick 35km from the regional capital of Urgench and a mere 5km from the border of Turkmenistan.
According to legend, Khiva was founded about 2 500 years ago when a son of Noah, Shem, discovered a well in the middle of the desert exclaimed “Khi-wa!” (which locals will take delight in roughly translating this exclamation as “sweet water”). For the next 1 000 years or so, the area was inhabited by settlements that used the nearby Amu-Darya river to irrigate agriculture. According to the archaeologists Khiva was founded in the 5th or 6th century.
As Islam spread to the area, the first major structures were built near Shem’s well, and it became known as a small trading post on the Silk Road. First written sources date from the 10th century. The Arab traveller Al Istachri mentions Khiva in his enumeration of the most important settlements inChorezm. The Arab geographer Ibn Battuta visited Khiva in the 14th century. He praised the emir who was untiringly taking care of law and order and reported that the city was so full of people that it was almost impossible to find one’s way in the crowd.
It wasn’t until the 16th century when Khiva was made capital of an Islamic Khanate (starting a bitter rivalry with another Khan 460 km down the Silk Road in Bukhara), that the majority of Khiva’s immense architectural projects began and the town established itself as a center of power in the region. Locals will say (sometimes in hushed tones) that if Khiva didn’t have a rivalry with nearby Bukhara, it would not be the significant site that it is today. In the 19th century only a strong central power was created and taxes and money were introduced.
For a long period of time Khiva was one of the most important markets of slaves in Central Asia. Slavery. however, was formally abolished during the October Revolution of 1917 only. Khiva with its 94 mosques and 63 mederssahs is considered as an important center of Islam. Because of this significance, Khiva was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
Taxis don’t run in the Ichon Qala, so you will have to walk or rent a bicycle. Since the city is so compact, it’s very easy to take a leisurely stroll.
Outside the walls, Khiva is still a very walkable city. You can access the main bazaar, either through the Caravanserai through the Ichon-Qala east gate or you can walk around the Ichon-Qala walls on the north side until you see the produce sellers sitting near the western wall. A few of the better authentic Uzbek restaurants lie within a half-kilometer of the Ichon-Qala walls as well as some great beer stands. If you want to explore the residential northern and western ends of town, flag down an informal “taxi” and negotiate a fare, which should run between 1 500 and 3 000 sum per hour.
Kutli Murad Inak Medressa
Tim, (open market near Palwan Darvase).
Ichon-Qala (Itchan Kala)
The old town Ichon-Qala (Itchan Kala) covers an area of about 26 hectares. It is rectangular in plan.The tourist office inside the West Gate will most likely ask you to buy a ticket that covers entry for all of the museums and buildings inside the city (excluding the Islom-Khoja minaret and the Juma Mosque) for about 10000 sum.
Itchan Kala was the site of the khan’s palace. High officials and clergy and rich merchants used to live here. This is why we find the most important buildings in the Itchan Kala. The ordinary people, small merchants, craftsmen and peasants lived in Dishan Kala. There were wells in Itchan Kala, whereas people had to draw drinking water from the irrigation channels in Dishan Kala. In the northwestern part of Itchan Kala is the well, where according to the legend the city was founded by Sem.
The surrounding walls are 6 to 8 m high and 6 m thick at their base. A great part of the city walls has been destroyed, but a part 2,2 km long has been preserved. As in other cities in Central Asia the city walls were built of sun-dried bricks. The city walls were destroyed several times, but they were always rebuilt. According to the archaeologists the oldest parts of the city wall date from the 5th to 6th cent.AD edit
The main sights lie within the massive Ichon-Qala, which contains almost all of the ancient buildings of Khiva. There are four gates on each side of the wall; * North Gate (Bachtscha Darwase) is closest to the trolleybus and taxi stand; it is also called Urgench Gate * East Gate (Palwan Darwase) is the entry and exit to the caravanserai (a large building to house caravans); It is the best preserved gate in Khiva, its passage passage is 60 m long with deep niches on both sides. In the 17th and 18th cent. it was the prison of the khanate, the niches serving as cells. The prisoners had to solicit alms of the passers-by in order not to die of starvation. Slaves who escaped and were captured again were nailed with their ears to the gate.
Kuhna Ark (in the western part of the old city, directly across Orient Star Khiva Hotel).
Khivan rulers commanded from this fortress-residence from as early as the 12th century up to the 17th century when the khans expanded the structure to include a mosque, a harem, and a jail. After you see the see the gorgeous open-air, blue-tiled mosque, check out the throne room where the khans dispensed swift and brutal punishments against any transgressors. The three doors across from the throne decided your fate: the left door meant freedom, the center door meant imprisonment, and the right door meant death. Above the throne room is a lookout tower where you can capture a great view of the entire Ark structure. Be sure to pay a visit to the jail, located just outside the entrance to the Ark, where you’ll see gruesome paintings that depict the various ways the khans meted out punishment. Most of the buildings date from the 17th century.
The fortress covers an area of 130 x 90 m and was enclosed by a fortification wall 9 m high. Have a close look at the well preserved Summer Mosque. The glazed blue and white tiles are peculiar for the decoration used in Khiva. The ornaments in the form of stars and the floral and vegetable patterns clearly differ from those used in Buchara. The mihrab in the southern wall with quotations from the Quran is especially beautiful. Its tiles date from the 19th cent. In the corner on the left hand stood the minbar on top of which quotations from the Quran in Kuft script can still be seen. The tiles in the Reception Hall in green and white and with flower motives on a blue background were executed under Alla-Kuli Khan in the 19th cent. The Reception Hall is surrounded by a small courtyard with stone pavement which is separated from the other parts by a high wall. In the courtyard is a round elevation characterizing the place pf thekhan’s winter yurt. On the left of the Reception Room is an Aiwan with two beautiful carved wooden columns. Aiwan and Reception Hall are decorated with painted ceilings. Behind the Aiwan was the Throne Room with the khan’s throne in a niche. edit
Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medrassah and Square (across the square from the Kukhna Ark).
If you were to be executed during the khan’s rule, it was probably going to happen in the center of this once-busy square. The medrassah is mostly dedicated to it’s namesake, the Khan Mohammed Rakhim who managed to keep Khiva independent from infiltration by British and Russian forces until the late 19th century. On the south side of the square is a tiny, but interesting museum dedicated to traditional music.
Kalta Minor (next to the Orient Star Hotel).
This squat minaret is an iconic symbol of Khiva, mainly because of it’s exquisite blue and green tile work and the fact that it remains unfinished. It was originally supposed to rival the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara, however the architect fled before seeing it finished, fearing he would be put to death by the khan. Technically, you aren’t allow to climb to the top of this minaret, but guards have been known to give visitors “unofficial” tours of the interior structure, for a fee.
The old mosque was already mentioned by the Arab traveller Mohammed al-Magisi in the 10th century. It has two octogonal openings in the ceiling. Apart from wooden beams and columns it has no decoration. It contains 212 ornately carved columns that support the roof, dating back to the 12th to 15th century. The wooden columns were removed from other buildings which have been destroyed. The columns are masterpieces of wood carving. The whole surface is covered by leaves, flowers and tendrils. If you watch closely you can see pomegrenates blossoms and acanthus leaves. Even if you buy the all-access 10000 sum pass, you’ll have to pay an extra fee if you want to enter this mosque.
Pahlawan Mahmud Mausoleum (south of Juma Mosque)
The mausoleum is one of the most popular places of pilgrimage in Uzbekistan. Pahlawan Mahmud (“the strong man”) was famous for his extraordinary bravery, physical strength as well as his good nature. He was a furrier, but also a wrestler, doctor, poet and saint. The people gave him the title “Pahlavan”, meaning brave and handsome hero, as he defended the poor and is said to have had mystical powers. Pahlavan Mahmud is also revered in Persia and India. His grave became an important shrine for pilgrims and became the burial place of the Khans of Khiva.
It is considered as one of the most important buildings of Islamic Central Asia due to its interior totally covered with glazed tiles and due to its artfully facade. Built in the 19th century, it has been called ‘the last great mausoleum building in Central Asia’.
Islam Khoja Minaret
The minaret is 45 m high and 10 m wide at its base. It was built in 1908, however using the same methods as the much older minarets at Bukhara, Wabkent and Konye Urgench. You can see the minaret from every place in Khiva and even from far away in the desert. It is probable that the minaret served military purposes as well.
Shirgiz Khan Medressa (in the center of Ichan-Kala, near Pahlawan Mahmud Mausoleum)
This is the oldest Quran school in Khiva. Tradition says that it was constructed by slaves captured by Shigaziz Khan during his expedition to Meshed from which he returned with five thousand slaves. He promised them to be released when the medressa was completed, but he delayed the completion again and again, asking new services from the hungry slaves again and again. In 1726 the slaves killed him in the unfinished medressa.
Medressa Muhammed Amin Khan (opposite Kunja Ark)
This medressa is the largest in Khiva. Its facade is made of coloured brick and mosaics. The main characteristics of the buliding are the hujiras (student cells). Khan Muhammed Alim was one of the most important khans of Khiva. The medressa was built in 1851/52 and the khan died 1855 in a battle against the Turkmen.
Ak Mosque (near the eastern gates of Ichan Kala). The mosque was founded in 1657, but the present building dates back to the 19th century. Tradition tells us it was founded in honour of Khan Anush Mohammed after he had saved his father ABu al Ghazi’s life. It consists of a monumental hall with a dome above it and wooden aiwans on three sides. It is rather small with a base of 6,5 x 6,5 m. The cubiform substructure and the dome are painted white. Beside the mosque is a small minaret with beautiful carved wooden doors.
Bogbonli Mosque (south east of Shirgaziz Khan Mosque). The mosque was built in the 19th century, but wooden columns of the 15th century were used for it’s aiwan.
Seid Allaudin Mausoleum (between Muhammad Amin Khan and Matniyaz Divan Begi medressas)
Seid Allaudin Mausoleum is considered one of the oldest buildings at Khiva, dating from the period of the rule of the Mongols. It was erected by Emir Kuljall to honour his teacher Seid Allaudin. Emir Kuljall died in 1380, Seid Allaudin in 1303. The door of the mausoleum has fine wood carvings. Seid Allaudin’s tomb is richly decorated with glazed tiles with floral motives in white against a dark or light blue background.
This article is based on work from Wikitravel.