Here is what the “Lonely Planet” says of Khiva:
Khiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th century hearts. Nowadays it’s a friendly and welcoming Silk Road old town that’s very well set up for tourism, and a mere 35 kms south-west of the major transport hub of Urgench.
The historic heart of Khiva has been so well preserved that it’s often criticised as lifeless – a “museum city”. Even if you subscribe to this theory, you’ll have to admit that it’s one wonderful museum. To walk through the walls and catch that first glimpse of the fabled Ichan-Qala (inner walled city) in all its monotone, mud-walled glory is like stepping into another era.
You can see it all in a day trip from Urgench, but you’ll absorb it better by staying longer. Khiva is at its best at dawn, sunset and by night, when the moonlit silhouettes of the tilting columns and medressas, viewed from twisting alleyways, work their magic.
Legend has it that Khiva was founded when Shem, son of Noah, discovered a well here; his people called it Kheivak, from which the name Khiva is said to derive. The original well is in the courtyard of an 18th century house in the north-west of the old town (look for a small white door in a mud wall).
Khiva certainly existed by the 8th century as a minor fort and trading post on a side branch of the Silk Road, but while Khorezm prospered on and off from the 10th to the 14th centuries, its capital was at Old Urgench (present-day Konye-Urgench in Turk- menistan) and Khiva remained a bit player.
It wasn’t until well after Konye-Urgench had been finished off by Timur that Khiva’s time came. When the Uzbek Shaybanids moved into the decaying Timurid Empire in the early 16th century, one branch founded a state in Khorezm and made Khiva their capital in 1592.
The town ran a busy slave market that was to shape the destiny of the Khiva khanate for more than three centuries. Most slaves were brought by Turkmen tribesmen from the Karakum Desert or Kazakh tribes of the steppes, who raided those unlucky enough to live or travel nearby.
In the early 18th century, Khiva had offered to submit to Peter the Great of Russia in return for help against marauding tribes. In a belated response, a force of about 4,000, led by Prince Alexandr Bekovich, arrived in Khiva in 1717.
Unfortunately for them, the khan at the time, Shergazi Khan, had lost interest in being a vassal of the tsar. He came out to meet them, suggesting they disperse to outlying villages where they could be more comfortably accommodated. This done, the Khivans annihilated the invaders, leaving just a handful to make their way back with the news. Shergazi Khan sent Bekovich’s head to his Central Asian rival, the Emir of Bukhara, and kept the rest of him on display.
In 1740, Khiva was wrecked by a less gullible invader, Nadir Shah of Persia, and Khorezm became for a time a northern outpost of the Persian Empire. By the end of the 18th century it was rebuilt and began taking a small share in the growing trade between Russia and the Bukhara and Kokand khanates. Its slave market, the biggest in Central Asia, continued unabated, augmented by Russians captured as they pushed their borders southwards and eastwards.
When the Russians finally sent a properly organised expedition against Khiva, it was no contest. In 1873, General Konstantin Kaufman’s 13,000-strong army advanced on Khiva from the north, west and east. After some initial guerrilla resistance, mainly by Yomud Turkmen tribesmen, Khan Mohammed Rakhim II surrendered unconditionally. Kaufman then indulged in a massacre of the Yomud. The khan became a vassal of the tsar and his silver throne was packed off to Russia.
The “Encyclopaedia Britannica” introduces Khiva in the following way:
Khiva, city, south-central Uzbekistan. It lies west of the Amu Darya (the ancient Oxus River) on the Palvan Canal, and is bounded on the south by the Karakum Desert and on the northeast by the Kyzylkum Desert. A notorious slave market was centred there from the 17th to the 19th century. The city is also known for the Islamic architecture within its 590 acre (240 hectare) historic centre, the Ichan-Qala.
According to archaeological evidence, the city existed as early as the 6th century CE, but was first recorded in the 10th century by two Arabian travellers. In the 16th century it became the capital of the khanate of Khiva. By the 17th century the city began to develop as a slave market. During the first half of the 19th century alone, some one million Persians, as well as an unknown number of Russians, were enslaved and transported there before being sold. Many of the slaves were set to work on the construction of buildings in the Ichan-Qala, which is the most striking feature of the historic city.
The Ichan-Qala encloses buildings that date from the 12th century, but most of its palace buildings, mosques, medressas (Muslim theological schools), mausoleums and other structures date from 1780-1850, when the city prospered as a trade depot and fortress along the caravan routes that led across the Karakum Desert. Khiva contains some of the best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture in Central Asia. The Kunya Ark (Old Citadel) complex contains the oldest structure in Khiva, as well as 19th century edifices. The late 18th century Juma Mosque features more than 200 carved wooden pillars, some of which date from the 10th century; the pillars are recognised for the quality of their carving and decoration. Built to honour the 14th century poet and wrestler Pahlavan Mahmoud, who is revered as Khiva’s protector, the Pahlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum (rebuilt 1810-25) is usually considered the most impressive building in the Ichan-Qala. The centre of a royal burial ground, it features a number of domed tombs and exquisitely patterned tiling. The Tash Khauli (1830-38; Stone Palace) is especially notable for its harem court, with its elaborately carved pillars and colourful vaulted ceilings. Its walls are tiled with the blue and white majolica typical of Khiva. The Islam Khwaja Medressa and Minaret (1908-10) represent the last major architectural accomplishments of Central Asia’s Islamic era. Reaching a height of 148 feet (45 metres), the minaret is Khiva’s tallest structure. In 1990, the Ichan-Qala was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1920, an era came to a close when the khan was overthrown with the aid of the Red Army. Khiva became the capital of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic. Following its incorporation into Soviet Uzbekistan in 1924, Khiva lost its political importance. Today cotton production is a mainstay of the economy, but traditional crafts such as embroidery, the weaving of carpets and wood and stone carving survive. Population (latest estimate): 41,300.