Additional proof that monuments don’t need to be ancient in order to preserve historic ambiance, the Islam Khoja complex is just 100 years old, founded in 1908 by Asfandiyar Khan‘s enlightened Vizier, none other than Islam Khoja. Timing was bad for everyone unlucky enough to be in a position of power during this period of time in Central Asian history. Asfandiyar Khan’s father, Muhammad Rahim Khan II, died in 1910, thrusting the Vizier into a precarious position during a difficult transition of power. His contributions to Khivan society were numerous. Not only was work underway on a brand new Madrassa and the tallest minaret in Central Asia, but he had also overseen many improvements to the ancient city which included a modern hospital, post office, and a telegraph service which connected Khiva to the rest of the world for the first time in its 3,000 plus year history.
Despite starting work on a Madrassa complex in 1908, religious conservatives were unhappy with the Vizier’s progressive mindset. The complex was completed by 1910, but he wouldn’t be around to enjoy it for more than a year. The conservative faction convinced the Khan in a secret meeting that the Vizier was a threat to his power. Rather than just ordering him arrested, a gang of unknown assailants brutally stabbed the Vizier to death on his way home one night in 1911. There was no investigation, and no inquiry, as it was the Khan himself who had ordered the killing. The people of Khiva surely appreciated the spectacular new addition to the city, but by April 1917 the Young Khivans, backed by the Tashkent Soviet, organized an unsuccessful coup attempt in which the Khan was killed. Turkmen tribal leader Junaid Khan briefly took power, until chased off by the Tsar’s forces who installed Said Abdullah Khan as the 13th and final ruler of the Kungrate dynasty in 1918. His reign would be short lived, as by 1920 he was forced to abdicate with the establishment of the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic.
The most impressive architectural feature of the Islam Khoja Complex is its 57 meter (187 ft) tall minaret. Like the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara, the Islam Khoja minaret defines the skyline. Visible from everywhere both outside and inside the walls of the Itchan Kala, this colorful minaret is instantly recognizable with its concentric bands of blue and red tiles. As the tallest tower in the city, the minaret served multiple purposes. Primarily it would have been used to issue calls to prayer, but due to its impressive height, it was also used a watchtower where no doubt citizens of the newly established Korezm People’s Soviet Republic would be on constant lookout for the stubborn warlord Junaid Khan who continued to annoy Soviet authorities until the 1930s. Today tourists can climb the minaret and admire the view, but our preference is to skip this tower, and instead take in the whole city from the watchtower of the Kuhna Ark, across from the Kalta Minor Minaret.
The other part of the complex is the Islam Khoja Madrassa, completed at the same time as the Islam Khoja Minaret, forming a singular architectural ensemble. The madrassa didn’t serve its intended purpose for long. Upon establishment of the Soviet Union, madrassas were turned into warehouses or museums. The Islam Khoja Madrassa was no exception. Today the structure is home to the Museum of Applied Arts featuring handicrafts and artwork of the Khorezm region. The museum is only accessible with the Khiva city ticket which can only be purchased at the West Gate. The minaret costs extra, but again, we find the views from elsewhere much better, and much less crowded.
In a way, the Islam Khoja Complex marked the end of an era for Khiva. As the last architectural complex to be built in the age of the Khans, despite being only 100 years old, it still preserves the unique historical character of the Itchan Kala. Because the core of this ancient city is so compact, and hasn’t been destroyed by revolutionary forces or natural disasters, the Soviet Era left the city largely untouched. Administrative buildings and block apartments were all built outside the innermost walls, making Khiva the best preserved medieval city in Central Asia.