A jewel in the desert

Print edition : March 29, 2019

Colourful ceramic tiles embellish the dun coloured architecture, breathing life into the structures. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

A map of Khiva in the museum. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Tile designs on the wall of the Summer Mosque in Khuna Ark. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The streets are populated by traders enticing you with stunning ceramics and bric-a-brac. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

A medallion depicting a warrior in the Khiva museum. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The walled city of Ichan Kala. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Another view of Ichan Kala. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The minaret of Juma Mosque. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Well-preserved Khiva viewed from atop a minaret. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The fortress of Kunya ark, or old citadel. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The entire town has a feel of being an artificial construct, a sprawling museum under the open skies. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

A cobbled street.

The entrance to Kalta Minar. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The Islam Khodja Madrasah. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The imposing gates of Kunha Ark. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Museum of music, Khiva.

Uzbek women in traditional gowns and headscarves. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

The contemplative statue of Al Khwarizmi at the square in the town centre of Ichan Kala. Photo: SUDHA MAHALINGAM

Khiva in Uzbekistan is a living museum of stunning architecture built on an ancient oasis town watered by innovative irrigation systems rising above sandy barchans.

ON the edge of an unforgiving desert in Central Asia lies a historic silk road city better remembered for the man who introduced algebra and the astrolabe to the world. In fact, the word algebra stems from the Arabic al-jabr, the title of a ninth century manuscript written by the renowned mathematician of the day, Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Musa al Khwarizmi, from Khiva. The term algorithm is believed to be a corrupt form of Al Khorezm, the Uzbekistan province whose capital is Khiva. Devised primarily to ease the computation of land distribution and salaries of officials in the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, al-Khwarizmi’s magnum opus has, ever since, haunted and tantalised schoolchildren all over the world.

Al Khwarizmi was a polymath and a scholar of excellence at the famous Bayt al Hikma, or House of Wisdom, in Baghdad. Al Khwarizmi’s systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations, his correction of Ptolemy’s data for Africa and West Asia, and his astrolabe and sundial are lasting legacies to humankind. The mathematician-geographer even assisted in a project determining the circumference of the earth, overseeing the work of 70 geographers. No wonder Al Khwarizmi’s contemplative statue towers over the square in the historic town centre called Ichan Kala. He dominates the psyche of not only Khivans but also all of Uzbekistan through commemorative stamps and museum displays.

Khiva is also home to the Mamun Academy, established by the Khorezmian ruler Mamun II (1008-17), and is a major centre of learning for the medieval Islamic world. It was here that Abu Raihan al-Biruni, 500 years before Galileo, demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. It also nurtured Ibn Sina, known to the world as Avicenna, a physician of repute who wrote the Canon of Medicine, a valuable treatise on medical sciences at the time.

But most people come to Khiva to see the stunning Ichan Kala, the fortress city with crenelated ramparts enclosing layers of history. Cultural and archaeological relics unearthed from the city point to settlements dating back to the fifth century BCE. Most of the structures that survive today were built during the Khanate of Khiva, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a collection of Islamic monuments of perfect proportions and fetching symmetry. Ichan Kala has been a World Heritage Site since 1990, a dun-and-turquoise jewel in the desert, the entire area of 26 hectares an open-air museum.

It is believed that Khiva was founded when Shem, the son of Noah discovered a well here. People called it Kheivak, which eventually became Khiva. An oasis on the west bank of the Amu Darya, Khiva was a minor fort town on the ancient silk route. The Arab traveller Ibn Batuta visited Khiva in the 14th century and expressed praise for the emir for maintaining law and order. He also found the city crowded. When the nearby Urgench, a far more important silk road outpost, lost its power and glory to Timurid conquest, the Uzbeks moved in and established the district of Khorezm with Khiva as its capital in 1592. Khiva has since remained an important trading post on the silk route. Khivan rulers also worked to improve the ability of caravans to travel safely through their region, thereby improving Khiva’s commercial connections with other regional markets, including Astrakhan, Bukhara and Balkh.

Khiva was also the seat of a notorious slave market between the 17th and 19th centuries. In 1740, Khiva was captured by Nadir Shah of Persia, and Khorezm became the northern outpost of the Persian empire. It became a vital link between Russia and the Bukhara and Kokand Khanates, and its slave market became the biggest and most notorious in all of Central Asia.The first half of the 19th century was a period of consolidation and centralisation for the Khanate of Khiva.

Muhammad Rakhimkhan II (r.1864 to 1910) implemented fiscal and political reforms, introduced a customs system and established a mint to create Khivan gold and silver coins. The Muhammad Rakhimkhan madrasa, constructed on his orders, was completed in 1876. Rakhimkhan implemented a series of administrative, territorial and economic reforms and brought together the nobility to form a new administrative council. He also developed a new land collection policy and united the territories of Khorezm. In the late 19th century, Khiva became a vassal state of Russia.

Living museum

Abutted by the Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts, Khiva is a living museum of stunning architecture built on an ancient oasis town watered by innovative irrigation systems rising above sandy barchans. Of the 70-odd archaeological monuments scattered across Ichan Kala, the oldest dates back to the fourth century BCE and the most recent to the 14th century C.E. Despite the layering of generations of architectural styles, Khiva presents a harmonious whole.

As you enter Ichan Kala through the imposing cobbled walkway, the Kalta minar dominates the skyline, a half-finished jade-and-turquoise minar, forming a grand backdrop to most other monuments that lie scattered within the Kunya Ark (old citadel). Masjids, maqbaras and madrasas cluster around the Kalta minar. The streets must have once rung out with the clatter of horses’ hooves and raucous haggling over carpets, concubines, camels and coffee, but are now populated by traders enticing you with stunning ceramics and bric-a-brac.

Today, Khiva survives as a tourist attraction, and as such, its population of 50,000 is engaged mostly in the tourist trade. While Uzbeks constitute more than 95 per cent of the population today, there was a time when its square rang out with chatter in Russian, Turkik, Persian and Ukrainian. Today, the traders are well versed in English and speak both Persian and Arabic. Haggling is an important aspect of shopping here. As an Indian, I can match the eloquence of Khivan traders when it comes to bargaining down prices for a precious Persian carpet.

Most Khivans live outside the walled city with 11 gates, and as such, the entire town has a feel of being an artificial construct, a sprawling museum under the open skies unlike the pulsating, living city that the nearby Bukhara is. As I stroll through its squeaky clean, cobbled streets, I spy a clutch of Uzbek women in flowing traditional gowns and silken headscarves tumbling out of what seems like a school. They seem to be in an upbeat mood, waltzing and pirouetting their way through the narrow lanes of Khiva, unmindful of clicking cameras and staring strangers.

Spending a couple of days in Khiva gives one an opportunity to catch a glimpse of this lovely town by sunrise and sunset, the light glinting off the blue and green tiles that embellish its minarets.

On my way back, to catch my flight from Tashkent, I come across a clutch of bikers braving it through the sizzling desert, once notorious for fearsome brigands. They have come all the way from Malaysia to take advantage of traffic-free roads.

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