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Situated in the Khorezm oasis in the Kara-Kum desert, the town of Khiva is a sleepy place of muted sand stone colours and formidable architectural heritage. At its heyday, it was the dark heart of Central Asia’s slave trade, rivalled in opulence and cruelty – as in all other things – by the city and Khanate of Bukhara. Today, home to 50,000 inhabitants, a modest provincial town on the border of Turkmenistan, Khiva is significantly reduced, but no less disarming.
Legend holds that Khiva was founded by none other than Shem, a son of Noah, who it is claimed discovered a natural well at the city’s location. According to archaeologists, it is more likely that the city was founded in the 6th century by Persians. Khiva did not truly flourish until the 16th century, however, when it was overrun by Uzbeks and crowned the capital of the Khanate of Khiva. Most of the city’s 50 historic monuments and 250 historic houses date to the Khanate, which lasted until 1920, when it was formally dissolved and its territories incorporated into the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic.Read more
The lion’s share of Khiva’s historic mosques, minarets, mausoleums, and madrasahs are situated within the old walled district of Ichon Kala – literally, ‘within the walls’. In former times, the district housed the city’s elite, including clergy, royalty, and rich merchants; the city beyond the wall, Dichon Kala, was the preserve of peasants and craftsmen. Today, the warren-like streets and alleys of Ichon Kala conceal a staggering array of ancient structures, including the Kuhna ark, the residence of royalty for many generations. The fortress-like structure features a mosque, a jail, fine courtyards, reception, and a throne room complete with star and floral motifs. Nearby, Kalta Minor is a squat blue minaret and the town’s most defining landmark. Dating from the 19th century, legend holds that the Amir Khan wanted to build a minaret to see Bukhara 400 km away, however, the architect never completed his work.