“For Khiva, having surprisingly survived undamaged so far, is a genuine oasis of art, a relic of the past in a different world and a unique gem of city architecture.” Edgar Knobloch
Khiva is a wondrous fantasy-land! This ruined deserted city with monumental architectural legacy in the Khorezm region of Turkestan was one of thriving Silk Route outposts. Because of its overwhelming monumental legacy, the old fortified portion named Itchan Kala, became reserve first in 1967 CE and later went on to become the first UNESCO world heritage site in Uzbekistan by 1990 CE. With its human history going back to 10th Century, Khiva has successfully retained the old world charm and captures the very essence of Silk Route.
Khiva’s architecture is unique with mud and clay being the first building material. With time sun-baked bricks were used for structures while burnt bricks were reserved for creation of gateways and flanking towers. Ornamentation is majorly achieved with (i) majolica of varying sophistication and (ii) Carved wooden posts. UNESCO feels, “The attributes are outstanding examples of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. The place of the architectural heritage of Itchan Kala in the history of Central Asian architecture is determined not only by the abundance of surviving architectural monuments, but also by the unique contribution of Khorezmian master builders to Central Asian architecture and preservation of its classical traditions. The domestic architecture of Khiva, with its enclosed houses with their courtyard, reception room with portico or aivan supported by delicately sculptured wooden posts, and private apartments, is also an important attribute of the property that can be studied in its 18th and 20th century morphological variants.”
Kalta Minor at Dusk
Getting-in | You can choose to fly into Urgench and take a hour long drive through laid-back Uzbeki countryside with intermittent townships – spacious and well-planned – to reach Khiva. Arriving at Khiva gives you an impression of time travel as soon as you reach Qosha Darvoza. The whole heritage city with its overwhelming share of ruins is a treasure to explore.
Xplore | Khiva’s main attractions are tucked inside the ancient Itchan Kala while most of modern Khiva can be seen occupies Dishon Kala. To optimize efforts, start your exploration from the main gate on West after buying an “All-in-One” Entry Pass. This pass is valid for 2 days and gives entry to all major monuments and museums except Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. Moving into the citadel, take a break to come in terms with the surroundings. If you are not carrying any guide/ guidebook, then have a glance into the informative map, near the entrance gate. Once you are decided about your trail, tread ahead.
Kuhna Ark | Walking past the shining Kalta Minaret, make your way for Kuhna Ark to see some of the most fascinating majolica in the whole of Central Asia. Build in the 18th century, this citadel within Itchen Kala, was originally meant for the royalty. Amongst the surviving palatial mansions, two courtyards with intricately painted majolica stand out for their innovative artistic expressions. The larger one is right in line with the gated entrance while the smaller one is to the right immediately after it. Once through with painted ceramic work on the lower levels, do have a look at the elaborately painted ceilings. After this make your way to the watchtower that offers uninterrupted views of Khiva. To witness the full glory of Khiva soaked in soft golden light, revisit the watch tower at Sunset if you are left with time and energy.
Mohammed Rakhim Khan Medressa | Sitting opposite the gated entrance to Kuhna Ark, this is grand structure with imposing façade and detailed majolica. The east-facing edifice looks best from watch tower at sunset.
Kalta Minor | This is one iconic monument that has become somewhat synonymous with Khiva; it’s literally impossible for any visitor to miss this mammoth edifice because of its central positioning and overwhelming size. Origin of Kalta Minor goes back to 1851 CE when Khiva ruler Muhammad Amin Khan decided to erect one minaret of his own. It is said that he wanted to see as far as Bukhara. With base diameter of around 15 metres, the tower was designed to be over 60 metres, however the unfortunate death of Amin Khan in 1855 CE brought the construction activity to an end prematurely. But, judging from the vibrant and shiny ceramic work on the tower’s remaining stump, it can be said with certainty that the Khan never compromised on quality.
Juma Mosque & Minaret | Dating back to the 10th century, this congregation mosque of Itchan Kala is one of the ancient structures. Utilitarian in nature, the mosque has a vast courtyard supported on carved pillars belonging to different eras. Commenting about its “Outstanding Universal Value,” UNESCO remarks, “Djuma Mosque, a mosque with a covered courtyard designed for the rugged climate of Central Asia, is unique in its proportions and the structure of its inner dimensions (55m x 46m), faintly lit by two octagonal lanterns and adorned with 212 columns. The madrasahs, which make up the social areas, have majestic proportions with a simple decoration, and they form another type of Islamic architecture specific to Central Asia.” There is a minaret on the northern side that can still be climbed. A little further to the east, there is Khojamberdibai Medressa that has now been converted into a museum. Explore the neighboring Abdullah Khan Medressa if you want to see more of architectural improvisations.
Islam Khoja Complex | To the south of Juma Mosque, there is another complex named after Islam Khoja. Although modern (built only in 1908 CE), the complex stands apart for its grandiose scale and flawless engineering. Islam Khoja minaret measuring around 57 metres has the distinction of being the highest in the whole of Uzbekistan. Interested tourists can climb this minaret for stupendous views of Khiva. The neighboring Medressa has now been converted into “Museum of Applied Art” showcasing artistic traditions of Khorezm region.
Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum | “One of the most beautiful buildings in Khiva, opines Edgar Knobloch, “is the mausoleum of the local hero, the poet and wrestler Pahalvan Mahmud (1835).” He further adds, “It has an octagonal dome raised over a rectangular ground-plan that represents the latest type of mausoleum to be found, particularly in Persia. Inside, the walls and ceilings are completely covered with blue and white ornamental tiles with Persian stanzas inserted in the ornaments.” Spend some time to soak in the prevailing serenity and observing the majolica details.
Tosh Hovli Palace | Another palatial complex in the eastern part of Itchan Kala, Tosh Hovli preserves some of the best majolica specimens in Khiva. “The majolica is of indifferent quality, the patterns lack definition, the colours are muted, and there are inaccuracies in design, feels Edgar Knobloch, “but the architecture of the ensemble as a whole is distinguished by its purity.” Khiva ruler Allakuli Khan is known to have patronized the construction that lasted over a decade (1832-41 CE).
“Khiva ornamentation, although a part of the Central Asian tradition, has an individual character that distinguishes it from others. For example, it is different from those of Bukhara and Ferghana. Only one group of the traditional girikhs occur – star-shaped figures inscribed within pentagons. By extending the straight lines of these forms, new patterns of girikhs arise that are not to be found anywhere else. The vegetal or floral patterns of Khiva represent the crowning achievement of Central Asian ornament. Even if Khiva ornament falls short of Bukhara ornament from the point of view of technique, it surpasses it in the rich variety of its motifs. That of Bukhara evolves from architecture, while in Khiva ornamentation is an independent feature and its motifs persist equally in majolica, carvings, textiles, metalwork etc. “ Edgar Knobloch
Souvenirs to Buy | Bazaars of Khiva offer a wide variety of souvenirs for all range of travelers, right from the furry headgears to hand-painted pottery. Nasiruddin Puppets, Rugs, Paintings, Carpets, Geometric designs, Jackets with Ikat patterns, skull caps,
Places to Stay | Many comfortable places inside and outside Itchan Kala. Although people choose to stay inside, staying out of the fortified citadel is more sustainanble.