Khiva - city-museum, like Pompeya and Gerkulanum, but unlike those places it is alive city. As many Eastern cities, Khiva was born "on the water" - in the lower reaches of the Amudarya river and grew up on the irrigated lands of Khorezm oasis.
The written sources confirm the considerable age of Khiva. The historical information on Khorezm is given in "Avesta". The "father of history" Herodot made a mention of Khorezm and the Khorezmian people. Beruni wrote about the ancient agriculture of Khorezm. Archaeological excavations also prove the age of Khiva to be 2500 years old. All these facts have enabled UNESCO to proclaim Khiva a city-reserve, and its inner part Ichan-Kala has been recognized as a historical monument of the world significance.
Khiva is one of the few cities in the world, where the historical building up has actually been preserved; as a matter of fact it is a whole city in the open air. At various times travelers gave the description of the city. The medieval geographer Al-Makdisi wrote: "Khiva is a vast city on the edge of desert; it is on the canal that comes from the river; there is a wonderful congregational mosque in the city". The congregational mosque is mentioned here not accidentally. Our predecessors believed that the best should be given to God and one could judge about the power and prosperity of the city itself by the beauty and magnificence of the main mosque.
More detailed information is given by the traveler D.McGahan in his book "Military actions on the Oxus and the fall of Khiva", published in 1875. "The external view of Khiva from some parts is rather peculiar. High serrated walls with towers; covered gates on both sides flanked with heavy towers; domes of mosques and minarets rise out of the city walls; if to see all this with the sun setting down at the horizon, the picture is beautiful…". But even a hundred years later Khiva had a no less picturesque view. Moreover, new buildings decorated the city because architecturally the city was taking shape right up to the beginning of the 20th century.
If you take a birds eye view of Khiva, you will see the domes of mosques and minarets among which Islam Khodja minaret stands out. Its slim tower trimmed with decorative belts of white blue ceramics rises at the height of 45 metres and dominates the city silhouette. The minaret is clearly seen from any part of Khiva, so it is very difficult to get lost there.
Kalta-Minor minaret could be a competitor to it as it was supposed to be the tallest in Central Asia, but Mukhammed Amin-khan who had started this construction was killed in a battle and the works stopped when the minaret was 26 meters high. Each historical architectural monument has its own legend though. They say that having heard about the future huge minaret emir of Bukhara secretly made a deal with the architect on construction of the same type of giant minaret in Bukhara. When the khan of Khiva learnt about that he ordered to throw the architect off the minaret and therefore the minaret was left unfinished.
But before proceeding our story on Khiva, we should bring to mind the fact that inner city of Ichan-Kala with its dozens of huge buildings, mostly mosques and madrassahs, tightly embracing Tash-Hauli Palace and Kunya-Ark fortress, was rebuilt within less than two centuries.
Monumental architecture of Khiva of the end of the 18th - mid-19th centuries formed this newly built city and the energy with which the city grew up in the course of only two-three generations of masters fascinates us until now. What could be ruinous for the urban settlement in different circumstances, namely casual constructions on little spots of land alongside with rather high congestion of population, became a source of unusual diversity of architectural forms. Ichan-Kala in particular, this most densely populated part of Khiva, became as the fate willed an architectural museum whose buildings represent the best masterpieces of ancient architects.
Traditionally, the spiritual centre was a congregational or Friday mosque. Juma mosque in the Ichan-Kala was also rebuilt at the end of the 18th century; however it preserved the features of classical buildings of the East. This peculiar one-storied building without portals arches and domes has a big hall with a flat roof resting on 213 wooden carved columns. It is just these columns, varied in shape and form that are of special value in this mosque. The scientists believe that all these particulars bring it closer to the old mosques of Arabia.
The biggest madrassah is Mukhammad Amin-khan madrassah. Its double khujras are just fantastic. The facades are trimmed with coloured bricks designs and majolica tiled bands of vegetable ornament. The doors and pandjara are decorated with a wonderful carving.
It is difficult to imagine a medieval city without external walls and towers, without a citadel inside. Khiva is not an exception. Since olden times Ichah-Kala was surrounded with the massive outer walls. And in the middle of the 19th century a new wall with ten gates was built around Khiva. Since that time the big ring of the city started to be called Dishan-Kala or the "external fortress".
And inside Ichan-Kala there was Kunya-Ark - "the old citadel". Built at the end of the 18th century, it included an arsenal, a gunpowder factory, the palace, the court, the chancellery, the mint, a mosque and a drill square for military training. Kunya-Ark also housed a harem - two-storied building with the inner courtyard and the pool, with many chambers and living quarters. The most important building here is the Kurinish khan Palace, which was used for official receptions. In addition to throne halls, the palace housed the treasury and manuscripts depository.
The big ensemble of civil and religious buildings was formed in the 19th century next to Palvan-darvoza gates. The leading place among these buildings is given to the main palace of Khiva khans - Tash-Hauli, which was built in the middle of the 19th century. The facade of the palace and the surface of the walls surrounding inner courtyard are trimmed with ornamental majolica where blue and ultramarine colors dominant. The ancient masters knew the secret of making coloured ceramic glaze called "ishkor", the dyes of which keep their original colors for centuries.
The ensemble combines into one various premises - reception halls, harem, and household premises. What really impresses in decoration of the palace is the unique ornamental carving on the columns that support coverings of the high aiwans facing the inner courtyard.
The medieval people while keeping and preserving mausoleums and temples did not pay enough attention to the civil buildings. There have been preserved in Khiva about 20 madrassahs, whereas only few palaces managed to remain intact.
In the spiritual life of Khiva a special attention was given to the holy places - mazars and mausoleums. Thus one of the most respected places is a memorial complex of Pakhlavan Makhmud, a furrier by profession, a hero, a philosopher and a poet. After his death his was canonized as pir - a holy patron of Khiva. Gradually, around the burial place of Pakhlavan Makhmud there grew up a cemetery of the representatives of khan family, while in later period there came into existence the ensemble of the adjoining buildings including winter and summer mosques, commemoration premises and a room for Koran reading.
Not very far from Kunya-Ark citadel there is one of the most ancient buildings of Khiva - mausoleum of Seiid Allauddin, built in the 16th century. According to the historians, initially it was a modest burial vault with a small portal. But later, a spacious domed building for commemoration was attached to it. Inside the mausoleum there have been preserved a monumental tombstone decorated with splendid relief tiles.
A few architectural buildings have been preserved in the Dishan Kala or External fortress. The most remarkable among them is Nurullabai palace. The construction was completed in 1912. Not only masters of Khiva took part in the construction of the palace, but also German and Russian specialists who brought elements of European modern in the architecture of the palace. The decor of the palace is famous for its brickwork of glazed bricks, stone and wood carving, while interiors are remarkable for their ornamental paintings.
Though Khiva is mostly rich for its spiritual and religious buildings, it also has a plenty of civil buildings that is the buildings that any big trade city requires in order to function properly. Thus the ensemble of Palvan Darvoza alongside with Allakulikhan madrassah included multi-domed gallery that housed trade rows, baths and a vast caravan saray. The living quarters of Khiva as specimens of mass popular architecture are also of great interest. The houses were built of clay blocks, often supported with a wooden frame, and this material easy to work with and rather pliant, though not very firm, was used as construction material for centuries. In case of building's collapse, it was possible to rebuild it, as there was always enough clay nearby.
Khiva has always been a city of craftsmen and traders. And even now in the narrow streets of Khiva, behind the carved doors of cozy workshops, the craftsmen will engrave a wonderful design on the copper sides of kumgan or carve the ornaments on the slim wooden columns just in your presence.
In the Middle Ages Khiva was also a city of scientists. There existed big scientific centres - astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. There lived and worked great scientists such as Abu Al Khorezmi, Abu Raikhan Beruni, Abu Ali Ibn Sina. At the court of Abbul Ibn Mammun thee got together the eminent medieval scientists who formed the "Academy of Mamuna". The great scientists of the East were Shermukhammad Munis and Agakhi. Not without reason the city got the name "The Pearl of Khorezm Oasis".
At the times of its prosperity Khorezm was the biggest center of international trade, the key point on the Great Silk Road. The merchants from Volga region, India, Iran came here; from here the trading caravans started their way to Middle East, Eastern Turkestan and China. From Khiva, the roads led to Mongolia and via the Polovetscky steppes to Saksin, a trade place in the mouth of the Volga and further to Russia and Europe. Archaeologists found new routes of the ancient caravan roads and in particular from Khorezm to Mangishlak and from there by sea to Nizhni Povolzhe proving that Khiva merchants controlled considerable part of trade of Central Asian states with Eastern Europe.
When evening comes and the moon - patron of the believers - is lighting the tops of the minarets, domes of mosques and portals of madrassahs, you seem to find yourself in the fabulous city. Khiva indeed is a city from fairy tales.