Bright and early, I flew from Tashkent to Urgench and then drove to Khiva which is about an hour or so away. Khiva was the former capital of Khwarezmia and the Khanate of Khiva and was the first place in Uzbekistan to be made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990. Khiva’s development didn’t begin until the 16th century when it was made capital and competed with another Khan, Bukhara, also along the Silk Road. It is said that the name Khiva came from one of the sons of the Prophet Noah, Shem, 2,500 years ago when he discovered the “Kheyvak” well which roughly translates to “sweet water”. Khiva is filled with many mosques, madrasas, and minarets, crammed into an area of less than 3 km². In the 1970s, the Soviets thoroughly restored the historical areas of the town making it look a bit artificial. You have to use some imagination to see what ancient Khiva looked like. In any case, Khiva is for sure one of the my favorite ancient Silk Road cities in Central Asia.
The outer town of Khiva is called Dichan Kala and is protected by a wall with 11 gates. The inner town or Ichan Kala is surrounded by brick walls originally laid in the 10th century. Most of the historical monuments are within Ichan Kala which was where all the high officials, clergy, and rich merchants used to live, while the ordinary people, craftsmen, and peasants used to live outside the wall in Dichan Kala. Today, all the modern buildings are in Dichan Kala which is also where the majority of the population now live. I stayed at the Orient Star Hotel Khiva inside the Muhammed Aminkhan Madrasa originally built in 1851 and reconstructed in 2000. Since the rooms used to be students’ cells/dormitory rooms in the madrasa (a religious university), they are rather small and do not have windows. But this is one of the best hotels inside the walls of the old town and is right next to the Kalta Minor minaret. I would highly recommend visitors to stay inside the old town because you can wander around after the tour groups leave and watch the sunset and the city lighting up from the fortress watchtower.
Right outside the Muhammed Aminkhan Madrasa (and our hotel) is the Kalta Minor. Kalta Minor which means “short minaret” is probably the most iconic symbol of Khiva covered in beautiful glazed tiles of blue, white, green, and a brownish yellow. The minaret was built by Mohammed Amin Khan in 1851 who wanted to build a minaret of 70 meters so that he could see all the way to rival khanate Bukhara 400 km away. Construction stopped when the khan was killed in 1855 and the minaret was left unfinished at a height of only 26 meters. Local legend has it that the architect was lured away to help the khan of Bukhara build an even grander minaret because the two khanates had always been fierce rivals.
Ichan Kala, the inner town of Khiva, has over 50 historic monuments and 250 old houses. It was once surrounded by 10-meter high walls that were 6 meters thick at their base with 4 gates one on each corner. Nowadays only a 2.2 meter long section remains preserved. The West Gate (Ata Darwase) is the main gate used by all visitors past and present. Just to the left of the West Gate is the Kuhna Ark which was the former fortress-residence of the Khivan rulers from the early 12th century up to the 17th century. The complex also includes the official reception hall, harem, mint, arsenal, stables, mosque, and prison. The 19th century Summer Mosque is decorated with ornate blue and white glazed tiles as well as patterns of stars, flowers, and vegetables. There are also quotations of the Quran in Kuft script and some displays on Kohrezmian archaeology. Next is the Reception Hall decorated with green and white tiles with floral motifs with a courtyard outside where there is a round elevated podium for the Khan’s royal yurt. To the left is a two-layered aiwan or portico with beautifully carved columns and painted ceilings. Behind the aiwan is the Throne Room where the khans dispensed judgement. There are 3 doors where the left door meant freedom, the middle door meant imprisonment, and the right door meant death. Behind the Reception Hall is a flight of steps leading up to the watchtower with great views of the Ark as well as Khiva city. There is an old mint that is now a museum displaying old bank notes and coins and money printed on silk.
Across the square from Kuhna Ark is the Muhammed Rakhim Khan Madrasa and Square which was where public executions took place. A madrasa is the arabic word for any type of educational institution whether secular or religious. The madrasa is named after the khan who surrendered to Russia in 1873 and is now a history museum dedicated to him and his son, Isfandiyar.
In the middle of Ichan Kala is Juma Mosque with 218 ornately carved columns supporting the roof. Other than these highly decorated columns covered with motifs of leaves, flowers, and tendrils, there is no decoration in the rest of the mosque. These wooden columns are believed to have been removed from other buildings and are the oldest in Central Asia with some dating back to the 10th century.
I climbed up both the Kuhna Ark watchtower and the tall Islam Khoja Minaret on the other side of town earlier in the day to check out the views. I think the best place to photograph Khiva during the sunset/blue hour is up on the watchtower of Kuhna Ark. Your ticket is good for re-entry to all the sights so do head up to the watchtower in the late afternoon for this mesmerizing view! Be prepared to have sore glutes and legs the next day because the steps are quite high and I basically went up and down 3 times in one afternoon.
This beautiful blue hour view of Khiva made me fall in love with it. I will continue with other sights in Khiva and its environs in my next post. Stay tuned!
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