Khiva was once capital of its own independent Khanate, but like other settlements on the fabled Silk Road, its roots stretch much further back, probably to 6th century BCE. The first written records of the city date back to the 10th century, to two Arabian travellers, although legend has it that Khiva was founded by Noah’s son, Shem, who had a well dug here; the well can still be seen in the centre of the old town.
Khiva developed as a centre of learning and religion as well as trade, and renowned astronomer, historian and polymath Al-Biruni (973-1050 CE) is just one of the famous scholars born here.
Ruled by mighty empires that stretched across great swathes of Central Asia, this town in the desert suffered at the hands of several invaders, including Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, but eventually (C16) Khiva became capital of an independent Khanate. The new capital was soon flourishing under royal patronage, and most of the marvellous monuments we can still see today date from 1780–1850, when the city prospered as a trading hub and fortress along the caravan routes that wound across the Karakum desert. Thanks to its strong fortified walls, Khiva managed to twice rebuff Russian forces, but was eventually annexed. The last khan was overthrown in 1920 and the city gradually lost its political importance. But not its historic grandeur. In 1990, UNESCO designated Itchan-Kala as a World Heritage Site and today this ancient gem of the Orient still lives and breathes; traditional crafts such as carpet making, embroidery, and wood carving thrive once more.
The legendary Itchan-Kala is an unspoilt marvel. Protected by 10m high mud walls with smooth, semi-circular watchtowers, decorative parapets and four formidable gates, the historic centre includes over 50 historic monuments and 250 traditional houses. One of the most remarkable is the Kunya Ark citadel, a fortified complex of interlinking courtyards and royal buildings. Begun in 1686, construction continued right into the 20th century, and although many of the original structures have not survived, visitors can still marvel at the elegant aivans finished with exquisite blue and white tilework. Khiva craftsmen are renowned for the flowing grace and beauty of their work, so these majolicas are true works of art.
The Juma Mosque is quite remarkable, a rare example of a single-hall mosque with a moving spiritual atmosphere and magnificent carved wooden pillars. The structure we see today was built at the end of the 18th century on the site of a previous mosque, and the new building mirrors the style of the original. A simple large chamber with neither portals nor cupolas, the prayer hall is lit by unusual roof windows and supported by a forest of 212 outstanding carved wooded pillars. In fact, the intricate designs on these pillars tell the history of the place: Kufi inscriptions dating back to C10-11 give way to flatter designs with smaller motifs typical of C11-12. Later carvings show ornate geometric and plant ornamentation combined with Arabic lettering of C15. But the majority of these impressive pillars was erected in C18 when the mosque was extended.
Traditional Central Asian motifs adorn the walls, too. Stylised trees, bushes and irises wander through the murals of this atmospheric prayer hall, mystically illuminated by the unusual roof windows.
Kalta Minor Minaret
Khiva’s most iconic landmark, this amazing truncated tower rises 30 m from the centre of the old town, gleaming with concentric rings of turquoise, blue and azure glazed tiles. It was commissioned by Muhammed Amin Khan in 1852 and, fond of massive, impressive structures, he wanted his minaret to be the tallest in the land, a visible symbol of his power. Fate had other plans, however, and the Khan was killed in battle just four years later, so the minaret was never completed. Nevertheless, local Khivan artisans worked their magic with the unmistakeable tiling that includes a band of stunningly ornate Arabic lettering contrasted against a dark blue background near the top of the unfinished tower, making Kalta Minor a magnificent tribute to the great history and ultimate demise of this once proud Khanate.
Muhammed Amin Khan Madrasah
Another impressive building commissioned by the Khan was completed – the Madrasah which bears his name. It’s the largest madrasah in Central Asia, and everything about it is on a grand scale. With 5 cupolas and 125 hujra cells, the college could hold up to 260 students at a time. The ground floor cells are 2-storey while the ones on the second floor feature a lovely innovation: little balconies. The attention to detail is incredible, too, from the intricate ganch of the window lattices to the breathtaking tilework of the niches and façades. The wooden doors are a wonder to behold, each one ornately carved by the most skilled artisans of the day.
Pahlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum
This striking structure is unusual in that, unlike many monuments in Central Asia, it was not built for a khan or a great warrior, but for a folk hero. Mahmoud was a poet, philosopher and fabulously strong wrestler from Khiva. A furrier by trade and a devout Sufi, he was buried near his workshop when he died somewhere around 1322. However, his fame spread and he gradually became a quasi-patron saint of the city. In 1701, a mausoleum was built over the grave. The mausoleum soon became a shrine, and other structures sprang up around it, too, decorated in splendid blue and white majolica. By the late 19th century, the complex included a mosque, a madrasah, four hospices for the blind (blindness was a common hazard of living in a region notorious for sandstorms) as well as a hodjra guesthouse for the ever-growing numbers of pilgrims. Khans were also buried here, making this a royal mausoleum for the Khiva Khanate.
Today the Pahlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum with its beautiful turquoise dome adorned with a golden cupola and eye-catching bold diamond mosaic pattern is rightly considered the most impressive building in the Itchan Kala. Exquisite blue portals with charming floral motifs and neat niches contrast the ornate brickwork while inside we cannot help marvelling at the spectacular blue and white tilework, and at the skill and imagination of local craftsmen who were inspired to create these elaborate, never repeating designs.
The mausoleum itself is flanked by brick domes nestling around the main shrine, as though seeking this legendary hero’s protection.