View of Khiva from the Ark
‘Think, in this battered Caravanserai
Whose doorways are alternate night and day,
How sultan after sultan with his pomp
Abode his hour or two, and went his way.’
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The old town of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is a city frozen in time. The sun-baked clay of its walls encircles a wealth of ancient buildings which, more than any other destination in Uzbekistan, preserve intact the images of the Silk Road.
Khiva street scene
The city is truly ancient; an historic resting point for caravans since biblical times – there are stories of visits by Shem, son of Noah, and by Mohammed. One legend tells how the latter gave the city its name, when he drank from the well here and exclaimed ‘khiva’, meaning sweet water.
Khiva rose to prominence in the region during the 16th century and for several hundred years was seen as a place of lawlessness where brigands, slave traders, and later spies operated within the seclusion offered by the surrounding desert. One story I loved was that of Robert Jefferson, an eccentric Englishman (why is there always an eccentric Englishman?!) who in the late 19th century rode his bicycle from Catford in South London to Khiva, surviving en route an encounter with Kazakh witches and creating terror among local tribes who viewed his means of transport with horror and suspicion.
For me Khiva proved to be a wonderful place to start our exploration of the Silk Road as it enabled me to get a strong sense of its history and visualise its past. The downside though is that this very intactness, and the thoroughness of the restoration work, meant that it did feel more like a museum or film-set than a living city, lacking the ‘realness’ of Bukhara or Samarkand.
One plus for us was that at that time at least (summer of 2007) it was much less visited than either of these, and in the intense heat of July we found only a small group of French tourists and a few Uzbek family groups exploring the city at the same time as ourselves. It was easy therefore to find myself for a moment or two at least the only person in a sun-baked lane, and to visualise myself back in those days of caravans and sultans.
Getting to Khiva
Khiva is rather a long way from anywhere else on the tourist route in Uzbekistan – a full and dusty day’s drive from Bukhara, for instance. Most tourists do as we did, flying to Urgench from Tashkent and then driving the 35 kilometres to Khiva by bus or taxi.
Our flight on Uzbekistan Airlines left Tashkent’s domestic terminal at 7.00 AM, meaning an early start for the 6.00 AM check-in (no joke when we’d only arrived in the country just over 24 hours earlier and had only 3 hours sleep the previous night!) The one hour flight was in a Tupolev 154 plane, which was very noisy and smelled disconcertingly of petrol. Carry-on luggage was stowed in overhead racks rather than lockers (i.e. without any doors), but somewhat to my amazement stayed in place throughout the flight, including take-off and landing. A small breakfast was served (roll with cheese and apricot jam, a soft drink and pack of salted nuts). There were views of the desert from both sides of the plane but no spectacular scenery that would make one side better than another as far as I could see. The landing was smooth and we were quite impressed with our flight despite the plane’s appearance – until, that is, we got off and saw the fire-truck frantically spraying water into the under-carriage to prevent the overheated tyres from catching fire!
At the airport it was a relatively short drive by bus to Khiva, where we arrived still quite early in the morning – time to check into our hotel, dump our bags, and set out on a walking tour of the city. But first, a few words about our hotel as it was certainly the most interesting of those we stayed in on this trip. And I use the word ‘interesting’ advisedly!
Hotel Khiva Madrassah
Entrance portal, Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah
I start my comments on our hotel with a disclaimer: we stayed here as I have said in 2007 and I have two friends who have stayed here more recently, one of whom had a great experience and the other who, while not enthusing about the hotel, found only minor shortcomings.
Somewhat controversially, the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah (built by Mohammed Amin Khan in the 1850s), just inside the west gate of the old city, has been converted during its restoration into a hotel, and this is where we stayed.
The controversy concerns whether this use of an ancient Madrassah as a hotel is appropriate. UNESCO say no, and that it should be restored to its original purity, but to be honest I can’t see that happening. Everywhere you go in Uzbekistan the madrassahs are in use for different purposes – museums, bazaars etc. Only a very few are still used as religious seminaries, their original role. For me, this use seems no less appropriate than others, and maybe closer to the spirit of the original than some others. After all, these hajiras, or cells, were designed to be slept in, and the restoration hasn’t resulted in major re-design or destruction of character.
The rather basic bathroom
As for our stay here, I found plusses and minuses to this hotel. One obvious plus is the location, just inside the old city walls. There is a stunning entrance gate (see photo above) which, coupled with the adjoining Kalta Minor, makes this a dramatic and a romantic pace to stay. The thick walls of the cells mean they stay relatively cool in the baking heat of summer, without the need for air-conditioning. The downsides back in 2007, however, included rather primitive plumbing, chipped and grubby-looking tiles in the bathroom, and an erratic water supply: we could get almost nothing from our hot tap, though others in our group did better. This latter however was a downside I can live with in temperatures of almost 50 degrees! More of a concern for me was that the beds felt damp, possibly a natural side-effect of those same thick walls, or possibly simply due to poor airing after laundering.
Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah - architectural details
Anyway, check-in completed it was time for that tour. This was sensibly divided into two segments, with a break during the hottest part of the day for lunch and a siesta – or at least that was the plan!
We started our walk right by the hotel, as the Kalta Minor is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah. The name means ‘short minaret’ but it was not intended to be a short minaret at all, quite the opposite. It is said that it was commissioned by the khan in 1852 to be the tallest in the Islamic world, but that when he found out that the architect had secretly agreed to build an even taller one for the emir of Bukhara, the khan had him killed by being thrown off the minaret and it was never finished.
The Kalta Minor
Whatever the truth of this legend, the reality is that this is 26 metres of stunning architecture. Its walls are totally covered with amazing tilework in a shade of rich jade typical of the Khivan style but seen much less in other parts of the country, and with bands of other shades that serve merely to make the jade look even more vibrant. As the sun moved around during the day I noticed that the colours shifted, and at night it was wonderfully illuminated.
Khiva’s city walls
The Western Gate
From the Kalta Minor we headed back to the entrance to the city through which we had come on our arrival an hour or so beforehand, the West Gate or Father Gate, Ota Darvoza. The old city of Khiva, Ichan Kala, is surrounded by ochre-coloured walls of sun-baked clay which form an effective barrier between the present-day world outside and the magical recreation of the past within. These walls change in appearance with the light at different times of day, and look at their best in the early morning or evening, when the clay glows warmly. At times they reminded me of the classic seaside sandcastle!
The walls are 2.2 kilometres in length (so you can see that this old city is not very large), strengthened along that length by forty bastions. They are truly ancient, dating in places from the 5th century. There are four gates, one in the centre of each side; the western gate, Ota Darvoza (meaning Father Gate); the northern, Bakcha Darvoza; the eastern, Palvan Darvoza; and the southern Tash Darvoza (Stone Gate). The first of these, the Ota Darvoza, is where most tourists enter the city, and is the most heavily restored, having been more or less completely rebuilt forty years ago (after having previous been pulled down to allow motor traffic to enter the city, something not now permitted except in a small area to the south of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah).
I found it interesting to go outside this gate – it jolted me back into the modern world from the film set that is Ichan Kala, and reminded me what real life looks like! Outside the walls was also a good place from which to get a sense of their solidity and structure, although I was to get an even better view shortly from the Kukhna Ark (the photo alongside).
Outside the walls
Near the gate is a huge statue of Al-Khorezmi. If you’ve always hated algebra, here’s the man to blame! Mukhammad ibn Musa Al-Khorezmi lived about 780-850 AD and was the chief mathematician in an academy of sciences in Baghdad, though he came originally from Khorezm province. He is credited with introducing a decimal-based numbering system in the Arab world, and his name, corrupted by western attempts at pronunciation, gave rise to our word ‘algorithm’. He also wrote what is thought to be possibly the first book introducing the notion of algebra, which he called ‘al-jabr’, an Arabic word which I have found variously translated as ‘filling in’, ‘restoration’ or ‘calculation’. He also excelled in astronomy, producing tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time, and geography, reworking Ptolemy's 2nd century Geography and correcting several major miscalculations such as the length of the Mediterranean Sea.
Statue of Al-Khorezmi
Back inside the gates and a short walk along the main street, Polvon Qori, we came to the impressive Kukhna (also spelled variously as Kunya or Kuhna) Ark or fortress. This was the original residence of the khan, first built on this site in the 12th century by one Ok Shaykh Bobo. It was rebuilt and expanded by Arang Khan in the 17th century, and at the end of the 18th century, Kunya Ark became a ‘city within a city’, separated from Ichan Kala by a high wall. It was restored in the early 19th century.
Entrance gate, Kukhna Ark
Entering through the old gate with its intricately carved wooden door and twin towers decorated with turquoise tilework, we found ourselves in the main courtyard, with the khan’s summer mosque, and the old mint, now a museum.
The summer mosque
Exhibit in the mint, showing how coins were minted
Beyond the first courtyard is another with the beautiful blue iwan of the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room.
- right-hand photo taken by my friend Sue
Here the khan would hold his royal audience – on the iwan itself during the summer, and in a yurt set up in the centre of the courtyard in the winter. The decoration of this small space is wonderful, with delicate tilework and ganch (carving in alabaster). Behind the iwan is the room that would originally have housed the throne itself – the one in place today is a replica, as the original is now on display in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
The replica throne
The steep steps
In the north western corner of the Kurinish Khana is the entrance to the Ark’s watch tower. For a small additional fee you can climb its 33 steps for a view of the fortress and the city beyond. My photo at the top of this page was taken here, as was the one Chris took of me with a group of Uzbek tourists which I included on my Uzbekistan introduction page.
Be warned though – these are ‘Khivan’ steps, i.e. very tall and steep, and they are very badly lit, so this isn’t a climb for the infirm or nervous. It is worth doing however, though when we went up in the morning the sun was shining from the wrong direction to get the very best views of the city. We planned to return later, but unfortunately the heat got the better of us before we got around to it, and a rest in our hotel room seemed the better option for our remaining free time this afternoon.
Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah
Window, Mohammed Rakhin Khan Madrassah
Opposite the Kukhna Ark we visited the history museum in this large madrassah. Although I found some of the exhibits tired and frankly dull, it was worth a look for the old photos of Khiva and the camera with which they were taken, and some interesting traditional musical instruments. There are also items of pottery, armour and clothing.
Also on this large square is the city’s jail, or Zindan, with a gruesome display of instruments of torture which is supplemented by graphic images showing them in use. The excellent guidebook I read as background to this trip, ‘Uzbekistan: the Golden Road to Samarkand’ (written by Calum MacLeod & Bradley Mayhew, published by Odyssey) describes some of most unpleasant Khivan forms of justice in some detail, quoting from Arminius Vambery’s ‘Travels in Central Asia’ (1864):
‘To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjin according as religion directs. The man is hung and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.’
Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah
Walking back along Polvon Qori we turned south roughly halfway along its length and found ourselves on a smaller and less frequented street which lead us past several madrassahs, a number of which were in use as workshops.
We spotted a number of unusually shaped tiles set in the wall of one madrassah, just by the entrance. Our guide pointed out that this is a Zoroastrian symbol; we saw several such reminders of this ancient religion on our travels and were told that its beliefs have had a strong influence on Uzbek architecture.
We were disappointed not to be able to visit the silk- weaving one, which by the time we arrived had closed for lunch, but we were luckier at the Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah, where a wood-carving school operates. The young boys here were using their school holidays to learn a craft and were mainly engaged in carving the traditional wooden Koran stands that you find in all the tourist souvenir shops here. It would be a good place to buy one of these if you’re looking for one, but we focused instead on getting some photos of the boys as they worked, all of whom were very happy to pose.
Young woodcarvers, Xo’jash Mahram Madrassah
After visiting the wood-carving school we were free for a few hours to seek some lunch and a break in the shade. Along with some others from our group we headed to the Chaikhana Zarafshan, in a small madrassah near the Museum of Applied Arts, choosing it because it had been recommended by our guide as having good food and air-conditioning; in the July heat even the shade in Khiva had become too much to bear by midday and we needed to cool down somewhere. We weren’t disappointed – we found an attractive large room, friendly service, tasty food and very reasonable prices. We drank a cold beer each in addition to the green tea, shared a couple of salads, some non (bread) and a single shashlik.
After lunch it was officially siesta time – our tour would resume in a couple of hours when it would be a little less hot. The sensible thing to do would have been to retire to the relative cool of our hajira back at the Hotel Khiva Madrassah, or to remain in this cool spot with another beer. But our time in Khiva was so limited that Chris and I decided to brave the burning sun to have a bit of a look around on our own.
On Polvan Qori, the main street
It proved to be a hot but rewarding hour. As we wandered through the sun-baked streets and lanes, I enjoyed picking out all the details to add variety and atmosphere to my photos. A carved door, an especially beautiful piece of tile work, a small window letting in a shaft of light – all these helped to paint a vivid picture of this gem of a city. And the tranquillity of the side streets in particular made it seem as if nothing has changed here for centuries.
Sun-baked street in Khiva
Hats for sale
Even more so did my images of the people add to the story I hoped my photos would tell. As was the case everywhere we went in Uzbekistan, most were very happy to have their pictures taken – friendly shopkeepers, smiling children and Uzbek families visiting the sights.
Young tourists happy to pose
In several spots in the old town we saw these ‘photo opportunities’, where tourists could dress up in traditional costume and pose in elaborate settings. It was far too hot though for us to want to put on layers of heavy clothing or thick furry hats, even if we’d wanted to pay for the privilege of looking a bit silly! There was also a place where you could be photographed with a camel (who was called Misha according to my guidebook) but I’m fond of camels and it didn’t seem to me that he was very happy with his lot so I kept away in order not to encourage this practice.
Khivan photo opportunity (by Chris)
The Juma Mosque
We knew we were going to be visiting Khiva’s old Friday mosque later when our walking tour recommenced, but we had been told by our guide that if we wanted to, we could also visit alone this afternoon, and that if we gave her name at the entrance we could avoid paying an entrance fee as those looking after the mosque would know that our fee has been paid already. This proved to be the case, and I was very grateful for her advice, as it meant that we could soak up the special atmosphere of this unique building when it was almost empty (there was just one other visitor here) before later returning with the group to benefit from the guide’s expert knowledge and interpretation of what we were seeing.
In the Juma Mosque
I found this a magical space, unlike any other building I saw in Uzbekistan (or have seen anywhere, though others in the group who’d travelled in Turkey said they’d visited similar mosques there). It is almost completely unadorned, apart from the small mihrab (niche) and central pool, but derives its special atmosphere from the forest of wooden pillars that support its roof. I use the word ‘forest’ with care, for that is exactly the sensation I had – of being in a small forest or wood, the light diffused and filtered by the trees, and the possibility of magic just around the corner. What must it have been like to have worshipped here in the days when it was the main Friday mosque of the city? And in fact there are trees, two of them, growing up through the building almost organically, as if it is slowly returning to the nature that provided the wood for all those other stately columns.
Leaving the mosque we went to see if the silk carpet weaving workshop had reopened but it hadn’t although we were able to get some photos in the courtyard outside.
In the courtyard outside the carpet workshop
At this point the heat defeated us, and we returned to the hotel for a much-needed rest and cold drink.
Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum
The Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum
When our tour resumed later in the afternoon, our first stop was here, the holiest spot in all of Khiva, the tomb of its patron saint known variously as Palvan Pir the wrestler saint, Pirar Vali the Persian poet, Mahmoud the furrier. This hero of local folklore died in 1325, and a small mausoleum was built on the site of his furrier shop which later grew to become the imposing and beautiful structure we can see here today.
Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum: entrance to the mosque
We entered through a gate on the south side to find ourselves in a smallish courtyard with the main mosque on the far side. We were surrounded by colour – an intense blue that mimics the Khivan sky. We took off our shoes to enter the mosque – unlike many of the decommissioned mosques we visited on our travels in Uzbekistan, this is a holy place. There were several sarcophagi in the first room we came to but the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is in a separate room, beautifully decorated and protected by a screen.
In the Pokhlaven Mahmood Mausoleum
Another room on the west side of the courtyard was intended to hold the tomb of one of the khans, Isfandyer, but he was assassinated outside the city walls so by local law couldn’t be buried within them. His son suffered a similar fate, so only his mother lies here out of the three for whom it was originally constructed. The room was in a poor state of repair, so we couldn’t enter, but peering in gave me a sense of what the restorers of Khiva (and elsewhere in the country) had rescued for us to appreciate today. I wonder if this room too has since been restored?
From outside the complex, especially from the street that skirts its eastern edge, we could see the large number of small tombs scattered around it. People believed that to be buried close to a holy man was to buried closer to heaven, so many holy sites are surrounded in this way (the Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand, which we were to visit a few days later, is another good example).
The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum, surrounded by other tombs
Islam Khodja Minaret & Madrassah
Almost everywhere we went in Khiva we could see the tall slim Islam Khodja minaret, its more subtle bands of colour and elegant shape the perfect foil for the squat and spectacularly coloured Kalta Minor. At nearly 45 metres, and dating from 1910, this is by far the youngest, as well as the tallest, of the city’s three minarets, and affords a wonderful view for those who have the stamina to climb it. I regret to say that, in 45 degrees of heat, I was not among them!
The Islam Khodja Minaret
The madrassah that bears the same name was home then (it has since moved I believe) to the Museum of Applied Arts, which I found to be the most interesting by far of Khiva’s small museums. The route led us from one small hajira to the next to see a diverse collection of costume (some of them with really stunning embroidery work), ceramics, wood carving etc.
Mosaics in the Applied Arts Museum
Colourful shop near the Applied Arts Museum
Juma Mosque: group visit
As expected, our tour took in the Juma Mosque which we had already visited earlier in the afternoon, but I was happy to have the chance to return to this magical space and learn more about it.
In the Juma Mosque
We were told that while the mosque was built in the late 18th century (rebuilding the 10th century one which stood on this site), some of its 213 columns are truly ancient. The four oldest were taken from an earlier building in Kath (the one-time capital of Khorezm) in the 10th century, and another seventeen are only 100 years younger. On the other hand, a few are very new, replacing older ones during the restoration process in the latter half of the 20th century. And in accordance with Islamic beliefs, the carving on each is different – only God should be allowed the perfection of symmetry.
Tash Hauli Palace
Towards the eastern end of the old town lies the Tash Hauli, or Stone, Palace, the final stop on our walk through the past. We entered through the imposing stone gatehouse to visit the impressive reception courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli, its walls covered with beautiful blue and white tile work, and a raised platform at its centre for the yurt that would have sheltered the khan and his royal guests in winter months. This courtyard is apparently now used for occasional musical performances and we saw some of the performers relaxing there and posing for photos.
In the Ishrat Hauli
To see the even more impressive harem courtyard it was necessary to leave the palace and re-enter on the far side as the secret corridor linking it to the main complex (to be used only by the khan) was currently closed off. This harem court, lying somnolent in the hot sun, is redolent of past intrigue and a very different world. Standing at its centre I tried to imagine what life must have been like for these women: sheltered totally from the world, given all the basic necessities of life apart from one – the freedom to leave. And of course, there only to ‘serve’ the khan. In the oppressive heat of a July afternoon it was easy to feel as they must have done, enclosed and stifled.
The harem court
The rooms to our right as we entered the courtyard (on its the northern side) are those that would have been occupied by these women (or more likely girls), while the more luxurious ones on the left were for the khan’s four legal wives. There would also have been a couple of servants here to look after the girls: an old woman and a eunuch. We climbed the short flight of stairs to the balcony of the girls’ quarter to get a closer look at the beautifully decorated ceilings of the rooms and a bird’s eye view of the courtyard.
This was as I said our last visit of the afternoon, and after it we walked back to the hotel to cool off over a soft drink in the courtyard with some others from our group, before getting ready for dinner.
The 'bar' in the Hotel Khiva Madrassah
Mizorboshi B&B restaurant
There aren’t (or at least weren’t back then) a lot of restaurants in Khiva, but it was possible by booking in advance to arrange to have dinner at one of the several homes in the old city which provided bed & breakfast. Most of our group adopted our guide Marat’s suggestion to do this at the Mizorboshi B&B and we had a very pleasant evening here.
We ate in the courtyard of this old house, still a little hot even at 7.00 pm but generally a relaxing place to sit, and were well served by the son and daughter of the family. We started with non and a good variety of salads – as well as the ubiquitous tomato and cucumber, and eggplant, there were slices of fried courgette and a juicy beetroot dish. These were followed by a plate of mixed stuffed vegetables – cabbage, courgette and green pepper, each filled with the standard mutton and onion mix (though the one vegetarian in our group was catered for with a suitable alternative). As one of our number had a birthday that day, the family provided a cake, complete with candles, for our dessert.
Table set for dinner
We had a rather nice encounter after the meal too. The teenage son who’d served us at dinner came running after us when we left. We thought maybe we hadn’t paid enough for our meal, but no – he had overheard us talking about football and was keen to spend some time chatting to us about his favourite European teams and practising his English (which was already very good). The conversation finished with an exchange of email addresses so we could continue the football chat after our return home!
The Kalta Minor at night
We then continued our walk back to the hotel, finding that strolling the streets after dark in an atmosphere so redolent of past wonders was a special pleasure, making our overnight stay here far more rewarding than visiting on a day trip from nearby Urgench, even if it did mean sleeping on slight damp mattresses!
But before that we needed a night-cap, and found one in the 'bar' in the courtyard of the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah / hotel which was totally in keeping with the special night-time atmosphere here. There was no menu; instead the choice of drinks was set out on a low wall (soft drinks, beer, wine or vodka - see photo above taken earlier in the day) and were retrieved from the cool of the room below by a willing ‘bar tender’. We sat then in the cool of this pretty courtyard, surrounded by the old stones and cells of the madrassah, with the stars overhead and little in the way of noise or bustle to disturb our tranquillity.