Phoenix Cities of Central Asia

Untouched Khiva
By Eileen K. Gunn

The old Khiva oasis was the last place that westbound travelers on the Silk Road would find rest and refreshment before crossing the Kara Kum desert to Iran.

The most isolated from the West of the cities of the Silk Road, Khiva is also the most intact. Most of its historical buildings are of 19th century creation, and have not been subject to repeated invasion or even the attrition of time. Because of the superb condition and coherence of its architecture, it gives an excellent idea of what other cities of Central Asia may have been like before the depredation of invading hordes and the wear of many centuries. Its inner city, the Ichan Kala, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It's a city with a reasonably ancient lineage — in fact, its legend of origin is that the Kheivak Well, around which the city grew up, was dug at the direction of Shem, son of the biblical Noah. The old kingdom of Khorezm, of which Khiva was part, was situated on the delta of the Amu Darya, south of the Aral Sea, and the shifting of the river's channels and irrigation networks kept the population moving around.

Since the Ichan Kala was declared a historic district in 1967, Khiva has been scornfully called"a time capsule" and "a museum." UNESCO has made a point of urging that the city "continue to be inhabited by its traditional population," though it has generously refrained from using the term theme park when referring to the present circumstances.

And it's true that the Ichan Kala has been preserved more as a historical set piece than as a living urban center. However, given the present political and religious changes in Central Asia, a post-Soviet return to local customs and a rapid quickening of Islamic religious traditions, it could become once again a part of the life of the more modern city that lies around it.


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