Khiva is Uzbekistan’s most unique Silk Road city as it’s essentially an open-air museum. There are more than 50 historical sites packed inside its walls including some stunning minarets, madrasas, mosques and mausoleums.
Khiva’s entire Ichcon Qala, the inner walled city, was recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1990. Modern life is hidden away so visitors can wander the car-free streets and imagine what it was like to live amongst the buildings centuries earlier. And of course, there are plenty of visitors, but if you take a stroll later in the evening or early in the morning it’s quieter and quite magical.
I’d guess that some of Khiva’s most photographed sites are its brightly coloured minaret towers. They were built to ensure the five times daily call to prayers would carry across the city and be easily heard. The short and fat Kalta Minar is probably the most recognisable.
The Juma Minaret is the oldest in Khiva, dating back to the 10th century and is a bit plainer with just thin turquoise stripes around its sand-coloured length. But if I had to pick one, my favourite was probably the Islam Khoja Minaret which has a lovely tapered shape and a mixture of rather elegant stripes.
The oldest mosque in Khiva is the Juma Mosque which also dates back to the 10th century. More than 200 elm pillars supported the roof back then and about 12 of the originals are still in situ. Each pillar has a unique carved pattern, size and shape. Carved stone blocks support the pillars and between the two is a small metal cuff with camel wool inside. This simple piece of engineering was designed to absorb humidity from the ground, deter termites and provide some protection in an earthquake. Pretty clever!
It was surprisingly quiet compared to some of the busier historical sites and felt like quite a calming place to spend time. The mosque also provides access to the Juma Minaret, which I mentioned earlier. It’s 33m high and 81 steps to the top and apparently worth the climb for the views if you don’t mind heights (which I most definitely do!).
There are dozens of madrasas in Khiva as it became a hugely important centre for religious education. Nowadays they house craft centres or even hotels like the Orient Star which can be found in the Muhammad Amin Khan Madrasa. It was deemed a pretty luxurious place for the students to live and the hotel rooms are made from the cells they slept in. That didn’t sound very appealing to me, particularly as the rooms have no windows! The best original tile work is reputed to be on the facade of the Muhammed Rakhimkhan II Madrasa. It has a large courtyard and inside there’s a museum about its namesake who was a poet with his own printing press. An impressive madrasa for sure, but I also liked just coming across smaller madrasas in the quieter backstreets.
To complete the four Ms, Khiva also has some rather magnificent mausoleums, built with donations from pilgrims who came to see the burial places of Sufi holy men. Local wrestler and poet Pahlavan Mahmud became a revered saint and the mausoleum in his name is a substantial complex topped with a large turquoise dome. Inside are a series of highly decorated chambers with tombs of the wrestler and other significant Khivans.
As well as all the mausoleums, minarets, mosques and madrasas, Khiva’s wealthy rulers and traders also built palaces like Kunya Ark. This complex was built in 1686 as a mini town with offices and mosques within its walls and only one gateway to enter and exit.
Not many of the original structures are still standing, but there are some nice courtyards with interesting tiled porticos. Behind one is the throne room built by Iltuzar Khan in 1804. Although a small room, the khan would have received his important visitors here. Or in a yurt which was erected on a round platform in the middle of the courtyard specifically for the Silk Road’s nomadic guests.
Alongside all of these fabulous buildings, Khiva also has plenty of retail opportunities with souvenir shops and stalls everywhere. Popular choices are wooden Qu’ran stands, Suzanis (embroidered textile panels) and furry hats. Though the large ones in the first photo below were for men only. Women couldn’t even try them on!
There are also some good places to eat in Khiva. We had lunch at Yasavul Boshi, a restaurant in a renovated madrasa. As well as lots of food, there was also entertainment after lunch so we were treated to performances by a local group of musicians. We presumed it was a family band as there was quite an age range.
In the evening we had dinner at Tea House Mirza Boshi. It’s probably pretty popular with tour groups but that can work to your advantage. Our guide Umid was well known there and we had very good service as well as some nice food and wine. Generally speaking, the Uzbek food exceeded our expectations as non-meat eaters in a doubled land-locked country. And we were often pleasantly surprised by the wine on offer!
After dinner, we went for a walk to experience Khiva after dark. In the city centre, there were lights to illuminate buildings and statues and we saw a bride and groom having their photo taken. Then we headed to the perimeter to end our visit with a walk around the walls of what must be the Silk Road’s most atmospheric city.
Click on an image below to scroll through more photos in the gallery. And check the Asia section of my blog to read about Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent and watch out for more posts from this fascinating country, coming soon.