Khiva – surprisingly authentic
For many, the name of Khiva – one of the most historic cities in Uzbekistan, evokes images of exhausting caravan journeys across the desert and exotic markets where merchants from faraway places once congregated to sell their wares – from spices to slaves. As I found out on a recent visit, the ancient city is still a magnet for travelers seeking medieval charm, unique architecture, and a sense of remoteness, adventure, and mystique.
The historic heart of Khiva is the Ichan Kala – the fortified Inner Town which started as a rest stop and trading post for caravans in an oasis on one of the Silk Routes heading through the desert to Persia (Iran). It prospered from the trade and in the 16th century became the capital of the Khiva Khanate and a busy slave market town (you can still see the spot where the slave market was near one of the city’s four gates) before the Russian Empire conquered it in the late 1800s.
Nowadays, the crenelated brick walls of the Inner Town are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage and surround dozens of historic monuments and old houses (where people still live), dating from the 18th – 19th centuries. To take in the sheer size of the fortifications, you may wish to take a walk along the outside walls (or a section of the walls between two gates), ideally early in the morning or at sunset.
In the Old Town, an abundance of mosques, markets, and madrassas awaits. One of the historic highlights is the Kuhna Ark – the citadel and residence of the Khiva Khans. The palace complex includes several courtyards, madrassas, and mosques, as well as the throne room, harem, mint, stables, and jail.
In the eastern part of the Inner Town, another former Khans’ palace – the Tash Hovli, houses some of Khiva’s most elaborate and well-preserved interiors in rooms surrounding a series of courtyards and featuring high ceilings (for air circulation to withstand the brutal summer heat), wood carved pillars, stone reliefs, and decorative ceramic tiles.
The Juma (Friday) Mosque located on a main street connecting two of the fortress gates is worth a stop because of its unusual architectural design. Without arched entrances, ornate portals, or even domes, its simple roof is supported by over 200 wooden pillars from different parts of the region some of which are adorned with wood carvings and dating back to the 11th – 14th centuries. For great views over the Old Khiva, those with strong legs and lungs can climb the dark winding stairway to the top of the Juma Minaret.
At the end of the day, when the temperatures drop and the busloads of group tourists and souvenir-sellers retreat, the Old Town is at its best as the sun magically sets over the narrow cobblestone streets, brick walls, and the blue domes of the mosques and madrassas.