May 30, 2015
Legend has it that Khiva’s roots go all the way back to Noah’s son Shem, who found a well here. He called it Kheivek and thus this place got its name. Although Khiva was an established trading post since the 8th century, it grew into a place of importance only when the Uzbek Shaybanids moved in and made this their capital in 1592.
Today Khiva is an extremely well-preserved town with mostly monuments, palaces turned into museums and medressas into hotels and galleries. High walls complete with rampants and watch towers enclose a space some 200 m by 600 m. Narrow lanes wind their way between buildings. Palaces with seemingly never-ending rooms, minarets that soar over buildings, musuems, hotels and gift shops are all jammed into this space. What were originally medressas outnumber any other buildings by far.
Most of the medressas are similar in plan. An imposing arched doorway is set in a tall rectangular facade. The facade is covered in glazed ceramic tiles in bright hues of deep blues, turquoise, yellow, and white forming intricate patterns. On either side stand tall minarets, the beige-brown brickwork offset by the turquoise and blue key-shaped tiles that form patterns all along its length.
Above the arched doorway is a hemispherical dome with the sculpted niches covered in yet more patterns and colors, that is so typical of this part of the world. The shapes, colors, designs and motifs are mesmerzing. Windows set high above have grills – not the bare, functional ironwork of today, but of stone or wood lattice-worked in honeycomb designs. The doorways are spanned by huge wooden doors, every inch of them carved as well. Some are old but many are new but made in the traditional way.
Once inside almost every building is has the same basic plan. There is a large rectangular inner courtyard with rooms set around it. Stairways at each of the four corners lead up to the upper storeys. Some of the palaces are huge and stand within their own fortress-like walls. There are several courtyards and a maze of rooms, passages and living quarters leading one from another.At one palace , the Tosh Hovli, there is even a courtyard with a raised circular area. This is where the Khan had his royal yurt. Even though they were no longer nomads, the nomad ways were not to be rid of as easily.
There are rooms that set along the sides of the courtyard and sometimes areas are sectioned off. Some three or four meters along the sides, they have high ceilings supported by a single central pillar in the center at front, the bottom wider than the top. Made of beautifully carved wood, this in turn is supported by a massive carved base.
Open towards the courtyard, each of the other three walls are covered in glazed tiles, in mind-numbing patterns. The same colors ofblues, turquoise, white and yellow predominate sometimes setting off a vibrant red. The ceiling is often separated into separate sections, each with their own designs. Brilliant reds, oranges and yellows color the geometric patterns, often juxtaposed to a completely different pattern and colour. What should clash but simply looks stunning.
The small doorways lead to rooms, often small and bare now. Most now house exhibits – carved stone tablets or woven robes or rugs, examples of wood carving or leather goods. Given the rich history, the exhibits could be better displayed than the lacklustre style.
The walls made of beige mud bricks enclose this city entirely and access to the outside world is via four gates at the cardinal points of the compass. They are thick walls, often several meters, the passageway between the inner and outer wall at the East and West gates, about a hundred meters long.
Cobblestones line the floor and along the walls are niches guarded by arched doors across barred enclosures. Once upon a time they housed slaves when this city was the center of a thriving slave market. Most slaves were brought by Turkmen tribesmen from either the Karakum desert or from the Kazakh steppes. But now they are souvenir stalls, selling largely identical things.
The buzz of activity that no doubt used to fill this city is long gone. Although there are still some families that live within these walls, it is a musuem city. The palaces, medressas and minarets have a new life in the form of hotels, museums, cafes, restaurants and souvenir stalls. It is only outside the gates that the city buzzes with the hum of everyday life.