Sand. Sand, sand, sand. Then this, rising up from the desert. A city: Khiva. Full of houses, public squares, minarets, madrasahs, mosques; all the trappings of a city. But never, in Khiva, do you feel free of the desert. Khiva is a city of sand, a city of the desert. The occasional splash of aquamarine tiles only heightens the sandy palette.
Khiva is surrounded by not one desert but two – the Kyzylkum Desert (meaning Red Sand Desert) on one side, and the Karakum Desert (meaning Black Sand Desert) on the other. It’s sandwiched between the two, a lonely outpost in a hostile landscape, a sanctuary, a desert oasis.
Why would you build a city in such a place?
Because it’s a crucial stop on the silk road.
Khiva was the last place to layover in Central Asia before committing to the long, hard journey across the deserts to Persia. Or the first place to rest having successfully crossed those arid lands.
Khiva’s ten metre thick walls would have been a welcome sight for tired, thirsty travellers. But those city walls were a mixed blessing. For many they signalled trouble.
Khiva wasn’t just a harbour for those plying the silk road route. It was also a hub for the slave trade, housing the largest slave bazaar in Central Asia.
The slave trade made the city rich, but also treacherous. The fierce, merciless Turkoman raiders that captured the slaves and brought them to the market – most of the slaves were of Persian and Russian stock – were given free access to the city. Their presence meant each trip into and out of Khiva was risky business. One could easily end up a slave if not careful. Whole caravans were known to be captured and sold as slaves.
But there was no avoiding Khiva. Its positioning made it an essential stopover on the silk road route, and it grew to become a wealthy, thriving city containing 94 mosques and 63 madrasahs (a madrasah is a centre for education, mostly used for Islamic religious instruction, but also used for secular purposes).
Khiva became the capital of a khanate, and was a rival to other Central Asian silk road cities such as Samarkand and Bukhara.
Kalta Minor, the squat minaret in the photograph above, is a landmark and symbol of the city. Mohammed Amin Khan ordered the minaret’s construction in 1851. He wanted his tower to be so tall you could see Bukhara from the top.
Construction ceased when the khan died. The minaret was never completed.
Kuhna Ark is a former palace of the khans. The complex contains a harem, jail, barracks, stable, and mosque, but it’s the watchtower that is of most interest for tourists, mostly for its views.
The palace also contains several aiwans (an aiwan is a three-sided-room, as seen in the photo above). Aiwans were designed to combat the scorching desert heat; they are a distinctive feature of Khivan architecture.
Statue of Al-Khorezmi
Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (Al-Khorezmi), who lived between 780 and 850 CE, is Khiva’s most famous resident, although few probably recognise his name. Al-Khorezmi developed a clever system to solve linear and quadratic equations that he called al-jabr (meaning restoration), which evolved into the field of mathematics known as algebra today.
His name, Al-Khorezmi, or more accurately, Al-Khwarizmi, was translated into latin as Algoritmi, which is where we get the word algorithm.
One of the nicest (and simplest) things to do in Khiva, especially after a long hot day with far too much time in the sun, is sit on the roof of your guest house, sip on a Russian beer, nibble on some raisins, sunflower seeds, and sweet sesame snacks, and watch the sun go down. Khiva sunsets are one of the highlights of my four months in Uzbekistan.
Depending on the time of your visit, Khiva will either be bustling with tourists – the majority of which are pensioner-age French and German package tourists – or it will be a ghost town. Restaurants will either be completely full, leading to your being turned away, or they will be vacant, not a soul inside.
Summer and winter are typically the quietest times of year.
Comparisons between Khiva and other Uzbek silk road cities, namely Samarkand and Bukhara, are unavoidable.
For me, the historic sites of each city cannot be compared; the Registan in Samarkand is unique, the Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara is unique, and the sights of Khiva are unique. All are amazing, equally so.
But the cities themselves have their differences.
In recent years Samarkand and Bukhara have grown into large, busy urban centres, while Khiva remains small and sleepy.
And while the historic integrity of all three cities have been compromised by recent government beautification programs, Khiva has been tampered with the least. It’s been spared the cheesy public squares, the fountains that light up in flashing neon colours, the tacky statues, the laser light shows.
Khiva retains the most old-world charm, and that’s why it is my favourite Central Asian silk road city.
Read more on Khiva in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.