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xEurasia Odyssey

Central Uzbekistan Cities: Khiva of Khorasam

UZBEKISTAN | Tuesday, 27 August 2013 | Views [1553]

Khiva southern wall with tombs of holy men who will bless the city

Khiva southern wall with tombs of holy men who will bless the city

Central Uzbekistan City Impressions: Khiva - Minarets, Madrasahs, Mosques and Khan’s Residence


Khiva was the first city we visited after arriving in Uzbekistan from Turkmenistan.  The outer part of the city, the modern part, is full of ramshackle houses, donkeys, and electrical wires running everywhere connecting people to their t.v.s and most other modern electrical appliances. The Ichan, Old City, is surrounded by a 10m. high, 5-6m thick wall that runs 2 km. around the city. People who were killed protecting the city, and there are a number of them, are buried on the walls so that they can protect the city from their tombs that stick out like bumps on the otherwise smooth tan surface.  The south side is almost entirely covered with them.  There are four gates, which are located directionally; each of which had its own drawbridge to cover the moat that surrounded the walls. Today a canal still circles portions of the Ichan.  The Central Gate is on the Western side, as the people would be coming from Konya Urgench; in the 19th C it started to be called ‘Father Gate,’ probably for the Khan as Father would enter from this one.  The Eastern Gate was known as the “Strong Gate” as it was the center of the slave trade until the late 19th C.  Slaves were packed into the niches in the gate and sold before they could enter the city.  The slave trade market was open 24 hours a day.  Anyone who had the money could buy a person.  The slaves came from all over, but basically they were people from neighboring tribes and regions who were captured in battle. Khiva was known for the slave market but as it was part of the Greater Khorasam Empire it was known for other products as well, including its exported wool and precious metals, ceramics and iron. They also exported a particular kind of sheep called Astrakhan, which are said to have the best wool in Central Asia. The Russians bought Astrakhan wool from the market by the Caspian Sea to make into caps, and other clothes. The current local sheep is not an Astrakhan, but is not like any sheep I’ve ever seen. It has no tail, but in its place a big bulb, like on an orangutan, but covered with wool.  It’s a strange to see this appendage waddle on the sheeps’ behinds.

Ancient Khorasam was heavily influenced by both Hellenic Greek and Indian cultures, which interacted with the locals through commercial as well as military ventures. At least some Uzbeks believe that Khiva’s population consists of descendants of Alexander’s soldiers. There appear to have been a couple of major periods in the city’s history, but only the one from after the Khiva Khanate in the 17th C is apparent to the visitor today and most is from the 19th.

Within the walls, the city is fairly compact and as it is a UNESCO world heritage city, the buildings have been, or currently are being, almost entirely reconstructed.  The major buildings are the mosques, minarets, madrasahs, markets and caravansarais.  Khiva’s market is outside the Ichan walls, but the other 3 Ms and caravansarais – now dubbed hotels and inns - are very much part of the flavor of the city. The first madrasah we visited was the one Mohammed Amin Khan ordered built in the mid 19th C.  The madrasah was supposed to be a very large and impressive building with 125 cells (hudjras) for up to 260 boys. The 3 Khans or the Khanite period, that of Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand competed with one another for power and for glory. As a city is known by its buildings, each of the three, plus Samarkand, which belonged alternately to Kokand or to Bukhara, tried to out shine the other.  In order to impress everyone this madrasah has five bright turquoise domes and four towers. As each madrasah has a minaret, the Khan ordered  his to complement the design on the madrasah. This minaret was never finished and is known as the short minaret (14.5m) and has become a symbol of the city. There are at least two versions about why this happened. One, that in order to protect the beauty and perfection of the minaret and not let it be copied by either of the other two Khans, the architect was to be killed upon completion.  The architect found out about the plan and high-tailed it out of the city, never to be heard from again. 2) the Khan from Bukhara tried to bribe the architect to come over to his side and build a minaret similar but better.  The architect knew that his life was in danger, if he went to Bukhara, the Khan in Khiva would kill him, if he didn’t the Khan in Bukhara would have him killed or captured. Either way he was doomed, so he split. An image of this really beautiful turquoise and green trimmed minaret is in the photo gallery. In Uzbekistan a minaret had traditionally three functions: 1) the calling to prayer, 2) as a lookout tower and 3) for defense.  In the desert they also added a fourth function, that of a lighthouse to guide the people over the oceans of sand.

 Only boys studied in the madrasahs. After the 16th C girls were allowed to be taught but only by the Imam’s wife or the wife of the owner of the school. They learned different subjects than the boys, including Domestic Arts, debating, poetry and carding wool but not mathematics or the sciences. Dilshadibarno was a 19th C poetess and teacher; her relief was the only one of a woman in the line-up of Islamic scholars and leaders in the garden in Istaravshan, Tajikistan.  Her mother-in-law started a school for girls that she took over.  It was the biggest school of the time.  She was married to the Imam after she came to Kokand as a slave from Tuyfepa. While the boys lived at the madrasah, this wasn’t usually the case with the girls.  They were day students. Over 70% of the madrasahs were closed during the Tsarist Russian invasions of the 1860-1870s. The rest were shut down during the 1930s under Stalin.  Today there are five madrasahs in UZ and they are very difficult to get into.  For every 25 applicants they accept one. These post-secondary schools qualify as elite universities in the country and a degree from any of them is considered equivalent to a good university degree as they have to take a secular major in addition to their religious education.  This is very different than in Tajikistan. They also do not include Missionary/Conversion Work as that is against the Uzbek constitution.

 The other 19th C madrasah we visited was that of Muhammad Rakim Khan. He is considered one of the more enlightened rulers of the Khiva khanate and one who helped the economy grow. He built madrasahs for both religious and secular education. He wanted everyone, including women, to be literate. He was also a poet and a novelist, but he didn’t want to have his writing and his political life associated with one another, so he wrote under the pseudonym Feruz.

Muhammad Rakin Khan ruled the Khiva Khanate for 65 years.  He personally supervised the curriculum and participated in the weekly debates.  He was also the first person to bring the telegraph from Russia to UZ.  His madrasah was free to all boys who could pass the exam. It was his royal residence that we saw a bit later.

 The most famous mosque we visited in Khiva has 213 pillars.  Originally there were 220 and the earliest stems from the 10th C, and the most recent from the 21st.The pillars are not all the same, but come from different regions from the various empires in Khiva’s history. One of the pillars still standing was brought by Timur the Great from India in the 15th C.  This mosque is unique in Central Asia as it has a very low ceiling and all the pillars inside.  It is more reminiscent of the Hall of Pillars at Persepolis than a traditional open spaced mosque. Also different are the four doors placed at each of the directions. In the center is a large bowl covered by a shrine, soqqahana, that contains holy water.  The bowl is filled before the service, is then made holy by the imam’s words, and is then available to the people.  It is also a wishing well.

This mosque is built on the site of a 7th C Zoroastrian temple. Prior to the Arab Invasion, the city was known for its Zoroastrian temples and round Zoroastrian fortress. There are lots of artifacts from that time period in the museum. When the Russian archeologist Tolstov excavated the walls and 4th -2nd C BCE royal residence he found 25 pages from the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holy book.  But the Arabs came and Kutaybaibh Muslim destroyed the temple to build the mosque.  He then raised taxes for those who didn’t convert and waived them for those who did. As economic pressure works, most converted.  The mosque was leveled by Ghengis Khan, but rebuilt by Timur and his descendants. What we saw was mostly the 16th C reconstruction with a new ceiling put in by the Soviets, who used the site as a warehouse.

In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan there are three kinds of mosques: Jama or Friday Mosque which is like a Cathedral, Namaskhag, which are in the suburbs and are also places for sacrifice, and Makala, neighborhood/residential every day mosques.

 The city’s rulers left their marks not only on the buildings but on the cultural heritage of the region.  During the time prior to the Arabs, Zoroastrian scholarship flourished, during the Samanids (10th -11th C) Khiva was a site of learning, where mathematics, geometry, astronomy were studied and where scholars from around Central Asia would gather. It was these scientists who left went further east and west bring their knowledge to Constantinople and hence to Europe when Muhammad Khorasm Shahk ordered burning all scientific books as he thought it countered religious thought.  Gee, where have we heard this before – again and again as people make the same mistakes.

 The royal residence has been restored and is a large complex with three separate courtyards and a treasury.  One of the Khans (there were 10 in the 19th C alone) ordered his architect to build it in 2-3 years (the stories differ) with 363 rooms (that look like cells), and three courtyards – the architect said this wasn’t possible, so he was executed.  The second architect built it in 6 years.  Only five people were allowed in the treasury, the Khan, his Vizier and the three craftsmen, who had to shave their beards in order not to be accused of stealing the gold dust they were working with. 

 In each of the courtyards there is a raised terrace area, an iwan, with Uzbek styled beautifully carved wooden pillars with intricate vine and flower designs that are generally fastened to a marble (or wooden) based with an iron (or wooden) peg, with camel hair as the glue so that they will sway rather than topple with any seismic activity. These are also the majority of the pillars in the Soqqahana. One of the courtyards was for entertaining guests, one was for the harem, and the third was the hall of judgment.  In the latter, public executions took place as a warning.  When the Russians came in 1870 they publically killed those who fought against them. They also took all the precious artifacts from the khanates to St. Petersburg, including the silver throne from the Khiva khanate.

The Khanates had Sharia law and anyone who went against it was sentenced. Criminals included those who married against their parents/father’s wishes. Trials lasted for 3-10 hours; after the trial the judge/Khan went inside to deliberate and then came back outside to pronounce the verdict, which was final, there was no appeal process.

Women were judged on the second floor.  The type and severity of the punishment was decided by the will of the ruler. It was either death or x # of years in prison. Murderers were killed immediately. Executions and torture consisted of hanging, beheading, iron spike or simply cutting off the fingers. If the accused broke Sharia law then they were tortured and exiled.  For women, the punishments were stoning, beheading, and hanging. People were tortured up to the 19th C, after that they were generally shot. There have not been any death sentences since 2002; the law was changed from execution to lifetime imprisonment + thirty years.

 In a separate part of the complex the harem was housed.  The rulers often had 4 wives and they came from different regions.  The reconstructions show the differing design patterns on the outside of the official wives two rooms based on their national/tribal association.  The first room (again, like a cell with no windows or light) was for entertaining.  No one was allowed to enter the second other than the wife and the Khan.  The Khan’s legal wives would have between 3-5 personal slaves: taking on the roles of an advisor, an agent/spy, a fortune teller, a designer/tailor and make-up artist. The royal rooms were heavily decorated when they were in use and would have been quite bright with the white gypsum that was used for inside decorations in the 19th C and carpets on the walls. Instead of cupboards, which would take up inside space, they cut niches in the walls for storing things. Even with all the decorations, these women must have gone crazy.  They were in a prison, perhaps a gilded one, but it was a prison nonetheless! And across the courtyard the concubines, of untold number, and children had even less freedom of movement.  None of them were ever allowed out of the courtyard complex without the Khan’s expressed permission.

There is no one definitive version for the founding of the city or where it got its name, but there is a legend that says: Prophet Nukh came and drank water from a holy well. The city got its name from him as he decided to make a new city by the well. The name means ‘owah,’ the sound that comes after drinking cold water in extremely hot weather.  Well is “kheyvach’ in Uzbek.

Another legend is that the son of Nukh had so much money that he didn’t know what to do with it.  A wise man told him to go on a long journey.  While he was riding on his camel, eating bread, a crumb fell to the ground, as bread is sacred, he asked a holy man what to do.  The holy man told him to build a fortress, where the bread fell, namely Khiva.

Khiva guidebook: Khiva the City and the Legends. Tashkent: Davr Nasrivoti, 2012

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