Urgench is a modern, nondescript Soviet city, with nothing of tempt a visitor to linger. Like most visitors, I passed through quickly. Arriving in Khiva, I was set down by the massive crenelated walls of the old walled city, the Ichan Qala. Walking through the western gate, I got my first view of the narrow thoroughfare that passes through the old city from west to east, in the foreground the fat, squat, truncated Kalta Minor Minaret, further along the tall Juma Minaret. One of the most striking things about Khiva is the variations in colour at different times of the day, as the sun hits the old buildings from different angles. In the mid-afternoon sunshine at the western gate, the turquoise tiles of the Kalta Minor Minaret are, by the glow of the evening light, transformed and contrasted by the rich golden hues of the geometric designs circling its bulk. The minaret, begun in the mid-19th century, was never completed, work abandoned after the death of Mohammed Amin Khan. The prodigious size of the base of the unfinished minaret hints at the ambition of the departed Khan, who, it is said, had wanted to build a tower so high that he could see all the way to Bukhara. It would also have overlooked the Kuhna Ark, the Khan’s residence, including the harem, which may have been among the reasons his successors left it unfinished.
The Kalta Minor Minaret, Khiva, in evening light
Below its minaret, the Juma Mosque, built in the 18th century, consists of a large space covered by a flat roof, held up by more than 200 of the intricately carved wooden columns that figure so prominently in traditional Central Asian architecture. While most of the columns date from the 18th and 19th centuries, a few are thought to be much older, some possibly from the 10th century, having been salvaged from demolished medieval buildings. Amid the dimness, shafts of sunlight beam through holes in the ceiling creating islands of brightness, enlivened by potted plants. It is a cool and beautiful refuge from the baking heat outside.
Inside the Juma Mosque, Khiva
Further along from the Juma Mosque, past the elegant 19th century Allakuli Khan Medressa, is the east gate of the old city. Leading to the gate is a long, gloomy passageway, with niches in the walls. When I visited, some of these niches were occupied by souvenir sellers. But in the 19th century, a very different kind of trade went on here, as this was Khiva’s slave market. The slaves were held in these niches to be inspected by prospective buyers. Khiva’s was the most important slave market in Central Asia, fed by the marauding Turkmen slavers who menaced the surrounding deserts, robbing caravans and carrying off unfortunate men, women and children from remote outposts and encampments, or even fishermen on the shores of the Caspian. A great many of the victims were Persian, but some were Russian. As with Bukhara, the freeing of Russian slaves was a pretext for St. Petersburg’s ambitions in the region. Captain Nikolai Muraviev, a Russian envoy who made the perilous journey to Khiva in 1819, was much moved by the pleas of Russian slaves as he was led through the streets of the city, more especially given that there was nothing he could do for them, beyond reporting on their plight when he returned from his mission.
The former slave market, Khiva
Russia made several attempts to take the city before it was finally overcome. In 1717, Peter the Great sent an expedition to Khiva, his interest having been piqued by an offer from the Khan some years earlier to become Peter’s vassal in exchange for his protection. The mission went badly wrong. The Khan had in the meantime changed his mind. When the 4,000-strong Russian force, led by Prince Alexander Bekovich, a Caucasian Muslim who had converted to Christianity, arrived, after a gruelling journey, the Khan greeted them warmly, and then, having persuaded them to divide up their force, the better to be accommodated, had them slaughtered, just a few spared in order to carry word of the disaster back to Russia. The boastful Khan sent Bekovich’s head to his counterpart in Bukhara, but the Emir sent it back, declaring he wished no part in such a perfidious act.
At this time, Russia’s frontier was hundreds of miles to the north and west of Khiva, across baking hot desert in summer and frozen wastes in winter. Just reaching Khiva was a major endeavour. In 1801, another expedition, of 22,000 Cossacks, set off from Orenburg at the behest of Tsar Paul with the notion of reaching India by way of Khiva and Bukhara, and driving the British out of the subcontinent. It was madcap idea. They had little idea of what lay ahead of them on the route. They made it perhaps half way to Khiva when a horseman caught up with them, informing them that Paul had been assassinated, and that the newly installed Tsar Alexander had called the whole thing off.
A third attempt, in 1839-40, also ended in disaster. This campaign was a response to Britain’s invasion of Afghanistan. A force of over 5,000 men, with a baggage train of 10,000 camels, led by General Vasily Perovsky, set off from Orenburg in November 1839, but faced with exceptionally harsh winter conditions and the loss of half the camels, they were forced to turn back in February. They made it back to Orenburg in May, having lost 1,000 men and most of the camels, without ever having engaged Khivan forces.
As Perovsky set about his abortive mission, two British officers reached Khiva from the south, with the aim of freeing the Russian slaves and depriving St. Petersburg of its pretext for moving against the Khanate. Captain James Abbott travelled alone, in Afghan dress, from Herat, in Afghanistan. His arrival was greeted with suspicion. But the Khan was sufficiently worried about Perovsky’s advance to agree to free the Russian slaves in his realm if the Russians halted all military operations aimed at Khiva and agreed to release Khivan hostages held in Orenburg. Abbott set off on the long journey to St. Petersburg, where he hoped to deliver a letter from the Khan to the Tsar. He was soon captured and robbed by brigands, and his men were carried off for sale into slavery. He had a lucky escape, however, when an envoy sent from Herat to look for him managed to impress on his captors the gravity of their mistake in molesting a man carrying a letter from the Khan.
The old town, Khiva
In the meantime, another British officer, Lt. Richmond Shakespear, arrived in Khiva. News of the disaster that had befallen Perovsky’s army had by now reached Khiva, but the Khan was still worried. After long negotiations, he agreed to release all the Russian slaves in his domain into Shakespear’s care, and provided an escort for their journey to Russian territory. For Shakespear it was a triumph. He described how the freed slaves were ‘very grateful, and altogether it was one of the pleasantest duties I have ever executed.’ He was much feted in Russia, and was received by the Tsar in St. Petersburg. But gratitude in official Russian circles was privately matched by irritation that a Briton, who was naturally, and not inaccurately, assumed to be a spy, had pulled off such a feat.
Khiva finally to a three-prong Russian advance in 1873. The desperate Khan sent out an envoy to offer unconditional surrender to General Konstantin Kaufman, the Governor General of Russian Turkestan since the conquest of Tashkent in 1865. Tashkent had been the first major Central Asian city to fall to the Russians. Samarkand and Bukhara had fallen in quick succession, and now it was the turn of Khiva. Kaufman refused the Khan’s offer until he was in the city, having first turned his artillery on Khiva’s walls, at which the Khan fled.
Inside the Tosh-Halvi Palace, Khiva
Khiva is the best preserved of the old towns of Central Asia, if not as enchanting or as beautiful as Bukhara. The massive bulk of the restored walls of the Ichan Qala are still intact. Unlike in Ark in Bukhara, Khiva’s Kuhna Ark is well preserved. But the architectural gem in Khiva is the Tosh-Halvi Palace, finished in 1841. It is a warren of rooms and corridors opening out on to bright courtyards, surrounded on the first storey by shady galleries, intended to catch any breeze in the summer heat. The courtyards are decorated with the usual intricate patterns of tiles. Two of them contain platforms on which yurts would have been placed, for the comfort of the once nomadic Khans and their extended families. Such a building bears witness to the accomplishment of Central Asian civilisation even as the modern world in the form of the advance of Imperial Russia was closing in.
Following the surrender to Russia and acceptance of the status of a protectorate, in some ways Khiva thrived. Indeed, in the last decades before the Bolshevik takeover there was something of a construction splurge. Mohammad Rakhim Khan II, having surrendered to the Russians, built the large medressa that bears his name, across from the Khuna Ark. He reigned until 1910. The Islom-Hoja Medressa and its fine minaret were completed in 1910. Islom Hoja, who had commissioned the medressa, was Grand Vizier during the reign of Mohammad Rakhim Khan. He was a liberal and a moderniser, who opened a European-style school and a hospital, and brought the telegraph to the city. But his reforms brought him into conflict with conservatives, especially among the clergy, and he was assassinated in 1913, with the tacit approval of Mohammad Rakhim Khan’s successor, Isfandiyar Khan. The medressa’s architect was buried alive.
The Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum was rebuilt in the 19th century, to house the tomb of the renowned 14th century poet and philosopher. In 1913, it was taken over by the Khivan royal family as their mausoleum. Inside the tiling is especially lovely. In the main chamber is the tomb of Mohammad Rakhim Khan II. In a small side chamber, pilgrims kneeled in front of the doors looking in upon the tomb of Pahlavon Mahmud, quietly whispering their devotions. In the main chamber the pilgrims offered money to a prayer leader, and, kneeling on a rug, with a plate of bread in the middle, their hands cupped in prayer, listened while he recited.