Beautiful Khiva

Wednesday 22 to Thursday 23 October

In Khiva the biblical legends continued. This is about Noah’s son Shem who, with a group of friends were making explorations by boat. They were so taken by the beautiful red land they saw, that is part of the Karakum Desert, that they left the boat and went overland. They needed water so one of the men dug a hole and found water. Shem declared the water sweet and drinkable. Wood was placed around the well so other travellers could easily locate it. Local people moved in and sold fresh produce to the travellers who found the well. Since it was hot they set up yurts (the round tents of this region) where they could stay cool and travellers could rest.

And so Khiva was born, at the crossroads of the Silk Road, where trails go north to Kiev & Novgorod, west to Istanbul and Venice, South to Islamabad and Delhi and East to Beijing and Shanghai via Xi’an.

This oasis town has vicious weather. 40C to 50C in the shade in summer and -25C in winter. Our visit in late October reminded me of a perfect winter’s day in Melbourne with no wind, cool in the shade and delightfully warm in the sun.

Although an ancient city, most of Khiva’s sights relate to the last three centuries.

Certainly Alexander the Great (or Alexander of Macedonia as he is known in the areas where he plundered, pillaged and raped) had more influence in this western city than in Tashkent and Samarkand. Ghengis Khan also plundered this area but less so than the eastern cities.

In the 17C Khiva was the capital of one of the three khanates that spread across Central Asia. The capital had actually moved from Khiva to Konye Urgench in Turkmenistan and then back to Khiva on the availability of water in 16C.

Khiva was well known for its slave market and the East Gate was the main trading place. Slaves were brought in by Turkman tribes and were raided from tribes in the nearby Karakum desert and Kazakh steppes. Small rooms where slaves were chained are now electronic and computer stores.

In later years Khiva was wrecked by the Nadir Shah of Persia and a century later by the Russians. It survived as a khanate under Russian rule until the Boksheviks absorbed it along with Bukhara into the USSR in the 1920s.

Despite much plundering it is likely that the lucrative slave trade brought enough wealth and influe to Khiva that many wonderful monuments survived. There is the Ark (khan’s fortress and residence) with its beautiful summer mosque and the watchtower which gives you a lovely view over the tiny inner city. There are three stunning minarets and numerous madrassas, and ancient wooden mosque and the amazing harem quarters.

The Kalta Minor minaret is unfinished. Built by Mohammed Amin Khan who wanted to see Bukhara from it. Unfortunately the Khan dropped dead in 1855 and legend has it that his successor never finished it, fearing it would overlook his harem.

The sights make a wonderful backdrop to the numerous brides and grooms, who with their wedding guests spend hours wandering from stunning building to stunning building for those all important wedding snaps. At one stage two brides crossed paths. They graciously bowed to each other and walked on.

Just outside the city walls is a statue to Mohammed al Khoresm.  Legend has it that we was born in Khiva and died in 850AD in Baghdad. He is credited with developing the concept of the algorithm in mathematics (which is a reason for his being called the grandfather of computer science by some people).  His book “Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala” is considered the cornerstone of algebra.

There are still many people living within the ancient city walls. Sadly their houses are in poor shape and the roads surrounding them are muddy tracks, in stark contrast to the beautifully paved streets around the tourist sites. This is what we now understand as normal in the cities we visited. Perhaps the tourist dollars will provide a better existence for the people who live there.