There are places that leave an impression on you after you have visited it. And then there are places which leave an impression on you even before you have visited it. Like Itchan Kala, the inner, fortified town of Khiva, an ancient city on the Silk Route in Central Asia. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Itchan Kala was the first of the sites to be inscribed in the list from Uzbekistan in 1990.
I came across Khiva and Itchan Kala, while researching on places to visit in Uzbekistan. While the photographs of Itchan Kala were uniformly breathtaking, not to mention tempting enough make me want to pack my bags and head there immediately, the descriptions were varied and the reactions mixed — a living fortress, a perfectly preserved medieval fortress, a fort museum, a museum city, former hub of slave trade, lifeless and artificial, a film set, a somewhere else place, over renovated and restored, lifeless, touristy… I found the multitude of opinions and impressions about Itchan Kala even more enticing than the pictures, and couldn’t wait to visit it for myself.
The sun was setting when I arrived on a September day in 2015 in the rather nondescript city of Khiva. It had been a long day of travel from Nukus, exploring the scattered ruins of Khorezem along the way. As my car wove in and out of twisting roads, I kept a lookout for the walled town, already familiar from the numerous pictures I had seen online.
And then, as we drove through a market, the mud walls of a fortress suddenly loomed up. It was the Itchan Kala. I barely had time to recover from that first sight before the car entered the fortress through a gate and stopped outside my hotel. As soon as the registration formalities were completed, I set out to explore the place.
As I walked around the narrow alleys and passed minarets and domed structures, I was almost transported to another era, another time. I say almost because there were other tourists around and Hindi film songs blaring from a souvenir shop (I kid you not !).
It was a leisurely stroll and though I couldn’t see much in the dying light, the interesting silhouettes hinted at exciting discoveries the next day.
The guided walk of the Itchan Kala began near a tiled map of the fortress. Located near the Mohammad Amin Khan Madrassah, the map helped in understanding the layout and spread of the fortress, and also orient oneself to the various monuments located within.
Inessa, my guide and also a local Khivan, was everything that one hopes for in a guide. Though I had read up on Khiva’s history prior to my visit, it was more like events on a timeline. Through human and cultural connections narrated as stories, legends, and local gossip, Inessa brought the historical timeline of Khiva alive.
According to local legend, the city was founded by Shem, son of Noah, who marked out the city’s walls. Archaeological evidence, however, suggests that Khiva has been continuously inhabited only for the last 2500 years old. In its long history, Khiva has seen multiple raids/ invasions/ incursions. Notable among them were the Achaemenids (400 BCE), the Arab forces, who incorporated Khiva into the Samanid Empire (800 CE); Genghis Khan (1220–21), and Nadir Shah of Persia (1727). With the coming of the Arabs, the region’s religion changed from Zoroastrianism to Islam, a process which took a few centuries. This also allowed for many of Zoroastrian elements to remain in Khivan art and architecture, as you will see later on in this post
In between all the invasions, Khiva (and the Khorezem region) flourished. Between the 9th and the 12th centuries, Khiva was an important educational centre for mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, chemistry and medicine. It was also a hub for spiritual and religious studies. It was the time when Al-Khwaresmi and Al-Biruni (who wrote a book on India) lived; their works form part of the world’s cultural and scientific heritage today.
But Khiva’s everlasting notoriety was its association with slave trade in the region. Due to its prime location on the silk route, Khiva was where various routes branched off from. For centuries, Khiva made its fortune from looting or taxing caravans and confiscating goods and humans as well.
Though this was very lucrative for the Khivans, it ultimately drew the attention of the Russians who attempted to invade Khiva thrice. Their first two attempts in 1717 (for Khorezmian gold and to explore a maritime route to India), and in 1840 (to put an end to the slave trade) were in vain. It was third time lucky for the Russians when they finally took over Khiva in 1873. Under their rule, Khiva was promoted to a Soviet Republic in 1922 and incorporated into the Uzbek SSR in 1924. In the decades to come, the Russians played a major part in Itchan Kala’s restoration and preservation.
Mohammed Rakhim Khan was the ruler when the Russians conquered Khiva in 1873 and made him their vassal. Rakhim Khan’s highly respected and trusted Vizier was Islom Hodja (left), a progressive thinker, committed to modernising Khiva. He built the city’s first hospital, its first secular school (which also admitted girls), a post office, and also laid the first railway line (but did not see it being completed). Islam Hodja’s dream of Khiva being connected to the world by telegraph also remained unfilled. He also built the tallest minaret in Khiva — a 57 m tall minaret named after him. I had a direct view of this minaret from my hotel room. 🙂
With its ‘collection’ and concentration of mausoleums, madrassahs, mosques, minarets and palaces — Kunya Ark, Tash Khauli Palace, Mohammad Amin Khan Madrassah, Djuma Mosque, Sheikh Sayd Allauddin’s Mausoleum, Pakhlawan Mahmoud’s Mausoleum — the Itchan Kala is quite a unique site. Most of the structures at the Itchan Kala were built in the 18th and 19th centuries or were overzealously restored and renovated by the Russians. They did this by shifting almost the entire local population out of the fortress. Even today, except for a few local households, which run B&Bs and souvenir stalls, most of the locals live outside the walls of the Itchan Kala.
As Inessa led me through the monuments in Itchan Kala, I noticed a pattern. All the structures were a uniform, mud brick colour that literally blended into one another. To be honest, they weren’t particularly remarkable either. The interiors were a completely different story. I lost count of the number of times I walked through a narrow corridor and entered a courtyard, only to stop in my tracks and stare. And stare once again, after I had started breathing again.
Join me on a short tour of the major sights of Itchan Kala. Clicking on any of the photographs below will open a slide show. You can then use the left or right arrow keys to navigate through the 28 photographs and read the accompanying captions.
The guided walk with Inessa lasted till mid-afternoon, after which I went for a leisurely stroll around Itchan Kala once again. I revisited some of the monuments I had liked, went back to others to photograph them in better light and also went to places that were not part of the guided tour, like an embroidery workshop. I also climbed up to the Itchan Kala wall to watch sunset and get a panoramic view of the town.
Along the way, I got glimpses into the daily life of the locals, stumbled across a wedding photo shoot, interacted with India-loving Khivans, got invited for tea, bought souvenirs… Generally, I had a lot of fun on a very, very nice day. 🙂
Presenting some captures from that relaxed walk in Itchan Kala. Clicking on any of the photographs below will open a slide show. You can then use the left or right arrow keys to navigate through the 9 photographs and their accompanying captions.
I left Khiva for Bukhara the next day. And over the weeks and months that have passed since that visit, I have thought about the various perceptions of travellers to Khiva. I can now agree with each of their descriptions of Khiva and add a couple of my own to it — a living fortress, a fort museum, a museum city, lifeless and artificial, a film set, a somewhere else place, over renovated and restored, lifeless, touristy… For me the one word description that best fits Khiva is surreal.
It is also picture postcard perfect. Add to the fact, that locals don’t live there and it seems to exist only for tourists. But what makes it most surreal for me is that it is such a perfect slice of the past, though rather aggressively preserved.
But I’m not complaining, for whatever the reason and however much surreal Khiva and the Itchan Kala may feel to me, it is undoubtedly a jewel and a unique city. A must see for sure.
My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | Mizdahkan: A city for the dead | 3 forts & a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |