If you had to pick a quintessential silk-road storybook destination, one that preserves that ancient caravan route ambiance, massive walls rising out the desert, palaces and minarets poking up above the dunes into the sky over the horizon, Khiva’s Itchan Kala is what you have been looking for. Khiva fulfills all the Central Asia expectations and stereotypes, from the moment you walk through the western gateway and into the ancient city streets, it is as if you have been transported back in time. Protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site since before Uzbek independence, and with a history which reaches back at least 1,500 years, the old-town of Khiva behind the inner city walls uniquely preserves what Uzbekistan must have been like long before Russian Imperial-era influence, and still remained untouched by Soviet city planners.
The Itchan Kala is home to several historic landmarks , each of which deserve their own individual post in this series on Uzbekistan. These include not only the Juma Mosque and Kalta Minor, but also the Khuhna Ark, Tash-Khovli Palace, and the much more recent Islam Khoja ensemble. Landmark after landmark, monument after monument, the inner city is a treasure trove of history, authenticity, and silk-road romanticism. Khiva retains more than 50 blog-worthy historic monuments, and more than 250 traditional houses dating from the 19th century and earlier. Around every corner, especially removed from the Disneyfied main drag, visitors can immerse themselves in an authentic desert fortress city where not much has changed in the past hundred years, except for a few power-lines and the occasional automobile.
The most impressive feature of the Itchan Kala is the 2.2km wall that still completely encloses the old-town. This “inner defensive circle,” which is the literal translation of “Itchan Kala” is up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall, and nearly as thick, extending around the entire town center. The far outer wall, which has not been as well preserved, originally enclosed a much larger area with a 6.25km outer perimeter. The well preserved inner wall is access controlled by four gates, which were very well defended, and backed up by defensive towers every 30 meters along its entire circumference. Today most visitors enter the Itchan Kala via the “Ata-Darvaza,” Western gate near the Khuhna-Ark, and colorful but stubby Kalta Minor minaret.
The fortress traces its origins to at least the 5th century when Khiva, which was already an ancient settlement, served as a fortified caravan stop along the silk-road through ancient Khorezm. Archeologists believe that today’s inner city walls are built upon the foundations of a caravanserai on the road which once connected the ancient capital of Khorezm, Gurgan (near today’s Urgench) with the ancient Bactrian-Margian city of Merv, which dates back at least 4,000 years to the Bronze Age. During this time, and dating back at least 2,500 years, Khiva was known as Havak.
In the year 712, Khiva fell victim to the Arab conquest, and has been part of the Muslim world ever since. Part of the Afrighid dynasty until the 10th century, followed by the Mamunids and the Seljuqs in the 11th, and the Shahs of Korezm in the 12th, Khiva finally fell to Genghis Khan in the 13th Century. Timur the great conquered the city in 1388, and then became part of the Shaybanid Empire in 1511.
When the Amu Darya changed it’s course leaving Gurgan without water in the late 16th Century, the Khanate moved it’s capital to Khiva, by which point the city already had a 10-century history. The current walls which are made from adobe date from the 17th century, but have been consistently repaired up to the present day. The last time the city fell under siege was in 1873 when Konstantin von Kaufman attacked the city and forced it to capitulate to the Russian Empire. The Khanate of Khiva would only exist another 46 years as a quasi-independent protectorate until the Bolshevik’s seized power in 1919, overthrowing the Khan, and eventually incorporating into the USSR as part of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic by 1924.
Today visitors can still scale the wall, most easily accessed at the North gate to the city, where we were able to walk along it on a bone chilling March evening in 2016. The condition of the wall and the city are still maintained, but no longer for defensive purposes. Now walls and tourist infrastructure are what need the most protection, rather than the Khan and his subjects. Since Uzbek independence in 1991 the tourist infrastructure has expanded significantly with dozens of boutique hotels, restaurants, and souvenir stalls which have taken over the bazaars.
Since being designated as a State Architectural and Historic Reserve by the Cabinet of Ministers of the Uzbek SSR in 1967, the site remains one of national importance. The World Heritage listing criterion recognizes the Itchan Kala as a remarkable example of the evolution of Islamic architecture, and as an important example of traditional human settlement in Central Asia. The unaltered state of preservation is unique in the region for harmoniously integrating relatively new construction in the 19th and early 20th century using traditional techniques. Unlike other Uzbek cities which underwent Bolshevik “improvements,” the old-city of Khiva serves as a living museum, still grasping firmly to ancient Khwarezmian roots as it welcomes a new generation of travelers along the silk road.