Suitcase and World: Colorful Gateway to the Desert. Khiva.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Colorful Gateway to the Desert. Khiva.

 Islam Khoja Minaret on the left and  the Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, topped by the emerald green dome,
on the right.  (Photo from Uzbekistan Tours)

Legend has it that Khiva was founded by a son of Noah - Shem, when he dug a well in the middle of the desert. People who drank the well water were said to exclaim, “Khey-vakh” which roughly means “sweet water.”  Khiva is an oasis city.  During the Silk Road days, it was a popular trading post as well as rest stop for the camel caravans; indeed, it was the last place for caravans to rest before journeying across the vast Karakum Desert to Iran. Today, Khiva is more known for its tourists than its trade caravans.

According to archeologists, Khiva was founded around the 4th century BC.  In the 4th century AD, the town was at the heart of Khorezm (Greek Choresmia), an Iranian kingdom which was known for its legendary hydraulic techniques that transformed the sandy region into lush grazing lands, gardens, and orchards.

Khiva was first conquered by the Arabs in 712, and then by the Mongols in 1221. In 1379, it fell into the hands of Timur, staying under Mongol control until taken by the Uzbeks in 1512. During the 19th century, it remained independent until becoming a Russian protectorate in 1873.

The ancient city of Khiva was divided into two sections:  Dichan Kala, the outer part of the town which used to be fortified and Itchan Kala, the inner town that is surrounded by 10 meter high walls.

Kunya Ark Citadel (Photo from Orrizonti Lontani)
Unfortunately, as old as the city is, little has survived that is earlier than the 17th century, apart from the Djuma Mosque, although it was largely rebuilt in 1788-89.  Khiva with its 94 mosques and 63 madrasahs is considered an important center of Islam and because of this, the well-preserved ancient city was recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.

Our tour will have us visiting several of the landmarks in Itchan Kala.  

Kunya Ark which means *old castle* is a citadel that served as a residence for the khans of Khiva.   The fortress was established in 1686-88 by Muhammad-Erenk Khan (also known as Arang-Khan).  Over time, the walls were added and by the end of the XVIII century Kunya Ark had become a "city within a city" as it housed the Khan's residence and mosque, official reception hall, courthouse, powder mill, arsenal, mint, registry, harem, kitchens, stables, guardhouse and other structures.

Only a few of the structures built during Arang-Khan's reign have survived til today; the vast majority were built in  1804-1806 by Iltezer Khan (also known as Alla-Ulli-Khan or Allakuli-Khan) when he converted the citadel into a sumptuous palace.

Toshkhovli Palace (Photo from Ninety Percent Delicious)

Toshkhovli Palace which means *stone house* was built in 1832-1841 by Iltezer Khan as a second, grander palace to the one he had constructed in Kunya Ark.  It is said to have more than 150 rooms located off nine courtyards.

Toshkhovli was most certainly a luxurious palace back in the days of Iltzer Khan.  From the photos I've seen, it most certainly looks to still be stunning palace today if the gorgeous ceramic tiles and carved stone and woodwork are any indication.

Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasah along with its distinctive and colorful minaret, Kalta Minor, is located in the western part of Itchan Kala.

Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasah and the Kalta Minaret (Photo from

Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasah, built 1852-1855, was the largest madrasah in Central Asia, housing up to 250 Islamic students.  The madrasah's patron, Mohammed Amin Khan was one of Khiva's most illustrious khans.

At the time it was built, the madrasah was so large that parts of the city wall had to be demolished to make way for it.

The impressive, restored portal leads to mosque and a classic courtyard layout that, in times past, held sessions of the city's supreme Muslim court. Off the courtyard are the living quarters and lecture rooms.  Today, the complex houses the Hotel Orient Star Khiva, tourist agency, exchange office, air ticket office and cafe.  When I first read that the ancient madrash is now a hotel, I grimaced in horror that this heritage landmark was now a commercial establishment.  Surprisingly, I found out that I was not the only person sharing that sentiment.  Apparently, debate rages over the future of the madrassah. UNESCO would like to see the cannibalized seminary restored to its original state, but local officials claim that the hotel echoes its original purpose well enough and that it may well set a precedent for other similar cultural transformations.  Damn those tourists! :-)

Kalta Minaret (Image from Advantour)
Kalta Minor Minaret. I don't think there's a more iconic landmark in Khiva than this structure.  It most certainly stands out in the sea of mud brown colored buildings.  Believe it or not, the entire exterior of the minaret is covered in exquisite blue and green tilework and majolica - it's not painted.

Under the orders of Muhammad Amin Khan, construction on the minaret began in 1852.  The original plan called for the minaret to stand around 70 meters (229 feet) - it would have been the largest minaret in the Islamic world.  26 meters (85 feet) of the minaret had been built before construction stopped in the wake of Muhammad Amin Khan's death in battle in 1855.  The unfinished minaret was named  Kalta-Minor which means *short minaret*.

Inside, a circular stairway winds its way up to the top.  Considering how flat the surrounding landscape here is, I would imagine that it's a good place to get a panoramic view of the old city.  I don't know if we're allowed to go up or not.
Djuma Mosque (Photo from Caravanistan)
Djuma Mosque is the oldest surviving structure in Itchan Kala.  Historic records indicate that it dates back to at least the 10th century.  The current building, which serves as the cathedral mosque for Khiva, was rebuilt in 1788-89.

Djuma Mosque is most well known for its hypostyle prayer hall which is devoid of any decoration other than wooden beams and 212 ornately carved columns that support the roof. 

The majority of the columns were carved from tree trunks in the 18th and19th centuries.  112 of the columns are of older vintage, dating back to the 12th to 15th centuries, and are unusual in that they were all removed from other buildings which had been destroyed.  

Twenty one columns date back to 10th to12th centuries and have Arabian inscriptions in Kufi.
Supposedly, one of the columns was a present from the Indians – the Uzbeks obviously didn't understand the carvings as they contained depictions of a Hindu God. I have to find this column :-)

Since the columns are of varying length, there were were leveled using stone or wooden bases.

Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud (Photo by DAO)
Mausoleum of Pakhlavan Mahmoud is the holiest site in Khiva.  Its beautiful emerald green dome, topped with a large brass finial, most certainly makes it easy to identify the mausoleum.

The mausoleum is the resting place and shrine of Khiva’s patron saint, Pakhlavan Mahmud, who was a fur hat maker and a famous poet of Khiva.  The mausoleum is also the dynastic burial complex of the Khiva Khans.

The mausoleum complex consists of a domed monastic hall, garden, and gate pavilion along with a summer mosque, Quran reading rooms, kitchen and other ancillary structures.  The interior spaces are all decorated with tilework, majolica and ornately carved wood and stone.  Like all the other heritage landmarks in Itchan Kala, the mausoleum has been well restored and preserved.

Islam Khoja Minarest(Photo by Patrickringgenberg)
Islam Khoja Mosque and Minaret.  Islam-Khodja was the first vizier of the Khiva khanate of Muhammad Rahim Khan II (1863-1910) and his son Esfendiyar Khan (1910-1920). He financed the construction of a hospital, pharmacy, post and telegraph office and secular schools in Khiva.

The Islam Khodja ensemble, consisting of the smallest madrasah and the highest minaret of Khiva, goes back in form to the ancient minarets of the XI and XII centuries, and is located in the south-eastern part of the Ichan-Kala.
In 1908-1910, Islam-Khodja built the Islam Khodja ensemble, in the southeastern part of Itchan Kala, consisting of the smallest madrasah and the tallest minaret in Khiva.

Inside the madrasah, there is a large hall and 42 rooms surrounding a small courtyard.

Designed according to the architectural standards of thencient minarets of the 11th and 12th centuries, the visibly tapering tower of Islam Khoja minaret was intended for calling the faithful to prayers.

Including its base, the minaret stands 57 meters (187 feet) tall. The platform, at the top, is the highest observation point in Khiva. 

The exterior of the minaret is decorated with bands of bright inlays of azure, dark blue, white and turquoise majolica, each a unique pattern.

The madrasah now houses the Museum of Applied Arts.

Khiva has been restored and preserved over the centuries.  In reading up on the places that we'll be visiting on our tour, I stumbled on a very interesting website called the Digital Silk Road Project.  One of their webpages presented photos on what the landmarks in Khiva looked like back in the late 19th century and what they look like today.  Looking at the photos, you can see that the *bones* of the structures were in good shape but restoration work was needed.  What was done is nothing short of remarkable!

When I first looked at images of Samarkand, I couldn't believe its beauty - I thought a visit there would be the highlight of my trip.  That was until I saw images of Bukhara. Stunning but there's so much to see!  It may be a bit dizzying;  I fear that after a while, all the madrasahs are going to be one big blur.

I didn't think it could get better than Bukhara until I saw images of the colorful structures of Khiva.  Khiva may not be the largest of the ancient cities which is good because we won't feel overwhelmed - we'll only see one or two palaces, madrasahs, and mosques.  But, I think each place we visit will be absolutely spectacular.  For me, Khiva may just top the list of ancient cities in Uzbekistan.  I know I am expecting a lot.