The Kuhna Ark is a city within a city, located on the western edge of the Itchan Kala, separated from the rest of the Khiva by a high wall. First constructed as a military defensive fortress in the 12th century, and then expanded in the 17th century as a citadel palace and residence of Arang-Khan. The fortress not only served as a residence of the Khan, but also as an administrative center for the Khanate of Khiva.
The majority of the original structure was destroyed during the Afsharid invasion of the mid 18th century, but was rebuilt between 1804 and 1806 during the Kungrate dynasty. Most of the modern complex as it appears today dates from this time period, including the elaborately decorated wood paneled ceilings, tiled majorca walls, large open courtyard, library, and throne room with traditional carved wooden pillars (minus the throne which is now housed in a Moscow museum).
The highlight of the tour is the watchtower which dates from the original plan for the fortress in the 12th century, and survived the 18th century Iranian invasions. Situated at the most prominent position of the western wall of the Itchan Kala, the watchtower provides a vantage point where visitors can appreciate spectacular views across the whole city. The original purpose however was not to look inward, but outwards to the western desert for signs of approaching armies.
The Kuhna Ark continued to be the primary residence of the Khans of Khiva until the early 20th century. Muhammad Rahim Khan II was the last ruler of the independent Khanate to take up residence in the palace before the establishment of the Russian protectorate in 1873. Following the death of Rahim Khan in 1910, his son Asfandiyar Khan took power, but was overthrown and killed in a coup by revolutionary Young Khivans in April 1917, inspired by the Tashkent Soviet. Turkmen tribal leader Junaid Khan took power, but only briefly thanks to Russian Imperial reactionary forces. Said Abdullah Khan was installed as the 13th ruler of the Kungrat dynasty in 1918, but he abdicated by 1920 spelling the end of the Khanate of Khiva with the establishment of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic. Periodic anti-Soviet resistance from Junaid Khan continued well into the 1930s.
No longer used as a palace, and slowly stripped of its treasures since becoming a “protectorate” of the Russian Empire, restoration finally began by a team of Soviet archeologists and historians in the 1960s. Unfortunately for the restoration team, the secret to the vivid midnight blue colors of the majorca tiles had been lost with time. They did the best they could all things considered, but modern visitors to the Kuhna Ark can easily distinguish replacement tiles from the originals.
Today tourists can (and should) pay the extra fee to climb the ancient watchtower for a spectacular view over the Itchan Kala, while the rest of the fortress remains open as a museum. A re-creation of the Zindon (fortress prison) can also be seen where unfortunate citizens awaited their fate at the hands of executioners, or the mercy of the Khan. The main highlight other than the watchtower is the open-air throne room, with its tiled portico propped up by traditional carved wooden support columns, and spectacular wood paneled ceiling. Here visitors can imagine what it must have been like to be granted an audience with the Khan, or wonder what Muhammad Rahim Khan II must have been thinking while when he finally capitulated to Russian rule in 1873.