Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Architecture of Khiva, II
By Eileen K. Gunn

Tash Khauli (18301838)

On the eastern side of the old town, a renaissance of building took place under the rule of Allah Kuli Khan. The Stone Palace, Tash Khauli, was his residence. In building the palace, the khan set a rigorous two-year completion schedule — when his architect said it couldn't be done, he was executed. The next architect took eight years to complete it, but presumably didn't make the mistake of telling the khan how long it would take.

The palace is built around three courtyards. The harem, completed in 1832, was the first to be finished, and is a tour de force of blue and white majolica tile by the eminent tileworker Abdullah Jin. The khan lived here with his wives and family, and their retainers. With its painted ceilings and carved wooden pillars, this is certainly one of the most beautiful interiors in Khiva. His wives were not allowed to leave the harem, and perhaps the beauty of their surroundings was a small recompense.

The second courtyard was accessible by a secret corridor from the harem, used (we are told) only by the khan. This eastern courtyard, the Ishrat Khauli, was used to receive and host important visitors, such as Uzbek or Turkoman tribal leaders. The khan's throne room is on the second story. A few decades later, in the time of Mohammed Rakim Khan II, the rather jolly British adventurer Frederick Burnaby received his interview with the ruler in the Ishrat Khauli. The third courtyard, the Arz Khauli, or Court of Law, was the last built, and was used by the khan for legal judgments. Its design provides separate doors, which were heavily guarded: one for the acquitted and another — a one-way door — for those to be executed.

Alla Kuki Khan Madrassah (1855)

Constructed as part of the khan's 25-year building spree, this large madrasssah houses 175 students and boasts the city's tallest portal, tiled in Khiva's trademark blue. In order to accommodate this large a building, the khan demolished part of the city walls and cut an accessway through a 17th-century madrassah that happened to be in the way, leaving it in the shape of a set of camel saddlebags, a khurjum, which is what the citizenry of Khiva has called it ever since.

Mohammed Amin Madrassah (18521855)

Now housing the Hotel Khiva, this large 19th-century madrassah, next to the Kunya Ark and the Kalta Minor, had room for 250 students. The hotel now accommodates 137 guests, so you can expect a larger room than the students were permitted. The building features a large, well-restored tiled portal, and an impressive courtyard in the classic style. If you are going to stay overnight in Khiva, this is the place to stay. UNESCO would like to see it restored to its original appearance, so the window of opportunity to spend the night may be limited.

Kalta Minar (1855)

Called the Short Minaret, this was intended to be the tallest building in the Muslim world, some 230 feet high. It had achieved a height of only 85 feet, however, when the ruler who commissioned it died and construction was abandoned. Its unusual width (45 feet wide at the base) and the depth of its foundations indicate that it could indeed have supported a very high tower. It is beautifully tiled in concentric stripes of blue, white, red, and green.

Islam Kodja Mosque and Minaret (19081910)

The last of the great architectural projects completed by the Central Asian khans, it was commissioned by Islam Kodja, Grand Vizier to Isfaniyar Khan. The vizier, a politically progressive leader, was assassinated in 1913, with the tacit consent of the khan. In keeping with the violence and intrigue associated with the region and its buildings, the ensemble's architect was buried alive by the khan. The minaret sports tapering bands of color-glazed tiles in blue-green and brown. At 146 feet, almost as tall as the Kalon in Bukhara, it is an imposing sight, and with the Kalta Minora, one of the most widely recognized symbols of Khiva.

Khiva's old town is small enough that you could explore it quickly (if superficially) in a day trip from nearby Urgench. But if you've come this far along the path of Genghis Kahn, Timur, and the glamorous Fred Burnaby, why not take a couple of days? Though there is little left from earlier incarnations, the 18th and 19th century buildings visible there are the the most recent (if not the last) flowering of more than a thousand years of Central Asian Islamic architecture and decorative work.


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