After we landed at the Urgench Airport we hopped straight into a taxi and headed immediately to Khiva which is about 30 km down the road. Urgench is a featurless Soviet city and is not a place that you want to hang around in, unless you use it as a stopover to go and visit the ancient fortresses in Karapalkastan north of the Amur-Darya. As of 2018, it is possible to avoid Urgench altogether by taking a train from Bukharra to Khiva.
Although archaeological evidence suggests that Khiva served as a trading post on the silk route as early as the 6th century CE and it was first mentioned in Arab chronicles in the 10th century, it only achieved regional dominance by the 16th century, when Uzbek overan the oasis and founded the Khanate of Khorezm in 1511.
Note that in order to visit the Ichan Kala you need to buy a ticket at the West Gate (£15), which is valid for 2 days and covers most of the mosques and medressas, a minaret or two, and various small museums. Visiting some of the more famous sites such as the Khuna Ark requires you to buy extra tickets, each for a small fee (~$2)
The Kuhna Ark
The Kuhna Ark was the residence and the fortress of the rulers of Khiva, and although the first parts date back to the 5th or 6 century CE, most of it was added by the the Khans of Khiva in the 19th century. Only few buildings from the complex, which contained the housing for the Kan, his family and dignitaries are remaining. These are a the Summer Mosque (1838), the Throne Room (1804-1806), the Ak Sheikh Bobo Bastion (1806), the mint, and the Zindan city jail (1910). all of which can be visited today. Of these the Summer Mosque and the Throne Room are the most stunning as they are covered from top to bottom in ‘blue-white’ tiles forming the most amazing, plant-motif, patterns. These tiles were hand-painted by local artisans,
which also produced the tiles for the Tash Hauli and the Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. The courtyard of the Throne Room contains a circular platform on which a yurt would be constructed in winter, when temperatures can drop to -10 degrees, for the the Khan to give public audiences. In summer, on the other hand, he would hold court on the beautifully tiled iwan. After the Throne Room head up the bastion tower, the oldest part of the citated, from the top of which you get beautiful views of Khiva.
Kalta Minor Minaret
Right next to the Khuna Ark, stands the Kalta Minor Minaret which was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, the then ruler of Khiva. It was intended to be the highest minaret in the Islamic world at over 70m high. However,, due to the untimely death of the Khan (he was decapitated by a Turkmen horseman) the construction of the minaret was abandoned in 1855 when the minaret rose a mere 26m from the ground. Nevertheless, the unfinished structure is absolutely stunning, resplenadant in Khiva’s typicall blue-green tiles, which cover it from top to bottom in various geometric patterns. The Kalta Minor Minaret is attached to the Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah, the largest Madrassah in Khiva, which today houses the Hotel Orient Star Khiva. Although, access to the minaret is barred, you can venture into the Madrassah/Hotel courtyard to have a look at the two floors of student cells, or tourist rooms.
Walking across the square from the Kuhna Ark takes you to the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassah which contains a small museum dedicated to the history of Khiva. If you are pressed for time you can safely ignore this bit as it is not overly exciting. Walking down Polvon Qori, on the eastside of the Madrassah, past Khiva’s token camel will take you to the Juma Mosque and Minaret.
The Juma Mosque
Khiva’s Juma or Friday Mosque is located almost at the heart of the Ichan Kala and in its present incarnation dates back to the 18th century CE, although it is build on top of a much older mosque.
Walking around the Juma mosque is like walking through a small forest as the roof is supported by 213 black elm columns and the two small light wells in the roof provide the only source of light. The absence of any other windows or openings results in a shady and cool atmosphere and offers a welcome respite from the unrelenting desert sun. Of the 213 pillars most date back to the 17th and 18th century CE although the 4 oldest were carved in the 10th century CE and were taken from the ancient Khorezmian capital of Kath. A hundred years later these pillars were joined by another 17 pillars taken from the same location. Although all the pillars look the same at a first glance, they are actually all individually carved.
Apparently, you can climb the 47m Juma Minaret but when we visited it seemed to be closed so we headed to the Islom-Hoja Minaret, Khiva’s newest Islamic monument instead. At 57 meters it is Uzbekistan’s tallest minaret and it offers pretty much unrivalled views of Khiva.
Tash Hauli Palace
Located in the eastern part of the Ichan-Kala, Tash Hauli Palace was commissioned by Allah Kuli Khan in 1830 and consists of about 170 rooms and 3 different courtyards. The first architect did not survive the construction as he was unable to finish the enormous palace in the allotted time of three years given to him by the Khan. However, the second architect fared much better, even though it took him 8 years and over 1000 slaves to build the place.
The palace can be divided into a western and an eastern ensemble. The first section of the palace to be built was the western part, containing the Hareem (1830-1832) the home of the Khan and his four legal wives. The courtyard of the Hareem is decorated with stunning china blue tiles and the five iwans are supported by beautifully carved, wooden pillars standing on carved marble bases. The painted wooden ceilings, suspended on hooks provide an attractive contrast to the cool colours of the courtyard. The hareem is linked to the eastern part of the palace by a multitude of corridors although nowadays tourists to exit the Hareem and walk to the eastern part around the corner.
The eastern ensemble houses two courtyards: the Ishrat Hauli (1832-1834) and the Arz Hauli (1836-1838). The Ishrat Hauly, served as a reception court and contains a raised platform where dignitaries or the khan himself could erect a yurt for royal audiences of feats in winter, while the Arz Hauli fuctioned as a Court of Law where the Khan would dispense justice. The Arz Hauli had two heavily guarded entrances/exits – one for acquital and one for execution.
Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum
The Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum is easy to spot from the Islom-Hoja Minaret as it is the whole building in the whole of Khiva with a blue-ish, turquoise dome. It decorates the tomb of Pakhlavan Mahmoud, a local furrier, poet, philosopher and wrestler. Pakhlavan Mahmoud travelled far and wide to showcase his skills and never, lost a single fight, except once, when he was told that his opponent would be executed if he lost against Pakhlavan Mahmoud. Moreover, it is said that he also had the ability to heal people and thus he gained fame and recognition far beyond the boundaries of the Khiva Khanate.
According to legend, Pakhlavan Mahmoud died in 1322 or 1325 and was burried in his workshop on this spot. Over time, people began to consider him as the patron saint of Khiva and a small mausoleum grew up over the site of the original furrier’s workshop. The original mausoleum was modest and small, but because it became a popular destination for pilgrims and tea-house and a mosque were added. However, it was not until 1810-1835 that the tomb was given its present glory by the Khans of Kiva, as they transformed the shrine into the last great family mausoleum erected in Central Asia and the most renowned building on the city.
Nowadays, the beautifully tilled Persian chamber under the turquoise dome a the northern end of the courtyard holds the tomb of Mohammed Rakhim Khan, while Pakhlavan Mahmoud’s tomb is located to the left of the main chamber and contains some of the best tiling to be seen in Khiva. Tombs of other khans stand unmarked east and west of the main building, outside in the courtyard.
Khiva: Eat and Sleep
We stayed at the Zukhro Boutique Hotel (53 A. Boltayev St.) for 2 nights. The hotel is located close to the Khuna Ark, pretty much in the center of the old fortified city and hence is very convenient for wandering around the Itchan Kala. The rooms were clean, the staff was friendly, the breakfast which consisted of stewed apricots, melon, cheese, bread and coffee was amazing, the wifi was working and it has a nice rooftop terrace which offers amazing views of the surrounding fortress. Apart from stopping at the Cafe Kheivak for lunch we had dinner at the Terrassa Cafe next to the Mohammed Rahkim Khan Madrassah and the Khorezm Art Resturant by the entrance to th Allah Khan Madrassah. While we visited neither of these restaurants hosted large tour groups, although the Terrassa Cafe is definitely popular with tourists as it offers decent food (there teas are not to be scoffed at either) and nice views of the sunset, if you manage to get a table on the rooftop that is.
All of these restaurants have some vegetarian options although you might have to order a variety of vegetable side dishes and rice. The Lagman soup and the Khebab I had in the Khorezm Art Restaurant and the Terrassa Cafe were definitely very nice.