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History of Khiva

In October 1997, Khiva celebrated its 2,500th birthday. Archaeological digs in the Ichon Qala during the 1980s and early 90s uncovered a wealth of material as much as 7m below the modern ground level, and the earliest finds from these excavations suggest that the town was first inhabited between the 6th and 5th centuries bc.

Khiva has existed for as long as trade caravans have pulled up alongside the sweet waters of its Khievak Well, on a transcontinental pit-stop from Gurganj to Merv. Legend has it that Khiva was founded when Shem, son of Noah, discovered a well here; his people called it Kheivak, from which the name Khiva is said to be derived. The original well is in the courtyard of an 18th-century house in the northwest of the old town (look for a small white door in a mud wall).

Khiva rose in importance and was fortified sometime after the 4th century bc as the Khorezmians attempted to fend off Achaemenid incursions from Iran. A double wall provided physical protection for the city and its inhabitants, and archers were stationed in turrets more than 20m high. The encroaching desert continually eroded these first walls, however, and by the early centuries ad a second wall and citadel had to be constructed. The new walls were between 7-9m thick. This incarnation of the city survived until ad709 when it was razed to rubble by the Arab governor Qutaiba ibn Muslim in his conquest of central Asia.

Khiva became part of the Samanid Empire and the city grew rapidly through the 9th and 10th centuries, becoming a regional economic and cultural hub. Still it was only a minor fort and trading post on a side branch of the Silk Road, but while Khorezm prospered on and off from the 10th to the 14th centuries, its capital was at Old Urgench (present-day Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan), and Khiva remained a bit player. It is thought that in the 9th century the city's population may have been as high as 800,000. The city was sacked again by Genghis Khan in 1220-21 but thanks to its reputation for craftsmanship (in particular pottery and tile making), it was able to recover relatively swiftly. The walls of the current Ichon Qala were erected in the 14th century, and Khiva's population again became wealthy, exporting their ceramics and trading all manner of goods along the Silk Road.

It wasn’t until well after Konye-Urgench had been finished off by Timur that Khiva’s time came. In 1505 Khiva was conquered by Mahmoud Sultan on the orders of his brother, Shaybani Khan. When the latter was killed near Merv (now in Turkmenistan) five years later, however, the entire Khorezm state briefly broke away from Shaybanid rule. Military expansionism on both sides during the early 16th century saw numerous battles between the rulers of Khiva and their rivals in Bukhara, even more so after Khiva replaced the dying Gurganj (Kunya Urgench) as the capital of Khorezm towards the century's end (1592).

Under the rule of Abul Gazi Bahadurhan (1643-64), Khiva became a major cultural centre. The entire population of Gurjanj was forcefully moved to the city, and construction boomed. The rulers funded not only religious buildings but also bathhouses, civic buildings and irrigation canals.

The town ran a busy slave market that was to shape the destiny of the khanate, as the Khiva state was known, for more than three centuries. Most slaves were brought by Turkmen tribesmen from the Karakum desert or Kazakh tribes of the steppes, who raided those unlucky enough to live or travel nearby.

The early years of the khanate were racked by instability, infighting and invasion by the rival Shaybanid clan of Bukhara and the region was unable to develop into anything more than a loose confederation of semi-independent clans whose unity depended largely upon the strength and charisma of its khan. The accession of Abul Gazi Khan in 1642 and his son Anusha Khan in 1663 finally ushered in the formative age of Khivan consolidation. The entire population of Gurganj was repatriated to Khiva and military expansion took war to the gates of Bukhara and Meshed. The khan even found time to write a history of Khiva and his Mongol ancestors; forced to, he claimed, for none of his subjects were sufficiently educated to do it for him.

In 1717, Tsar Peter of Russia had sent a 4,000 strong force to Khiva to investigate rumours of Khorezmian gold and a maritime route to India. After an initial warm welcome, they were slaughtered. Prince Bekovich, who led the expedition, was flayed alive in punishment. At the time the Russians could do little to avenge this slight, but they did not forget the insult; in the 19th century they would return with vengeance, and this time they would stay.

The 18th century saw a return to tribal anarchy and accelerated political disintegration. Kungrad Uzbeks fought Mangit Uzbeks, northern Aral tribes seceded, Yomut Turkmen revolted and the Persian Nadir Shah advanced on central Asia in 1740. Khiva and Bukhara initially joined forces in resistance, but Bukhara's rulers then switched sides. Khiva was yet again conquered. As if this wasn't bad enough, plagues and famines followed. Nadir Shah conquered and held the town from 1740-47.

The restoration of Khiva began in the late 18th century. Under the rule of Muhammad Amina-inak (r1752-90), the various tribal factions in the area were united, and each community given a voice in the running of the city. A reformed tax system was introduced, as was a customs service, diplomatic relations with Russia and other neighbouring powers were strengthened, and trade thrived. The wealth of this era is reflected in its architecture: a significant number of the buildings you see within the Ichon Qala today date from the late 18th and early 19th centuries when Muhammad Amina-inak and his descendants ruled.

In 1770 the Kungrad Inaks finally wrested power. Succeeding khans such as Mohammed Rakhim (ruled 1806-1825), Alia Kuli (1826-1842) and Mohammed Amin (ruled 1846-1855), again managed to control the cycle of tribal massacre and revenge, to centralize the state, improve irrigation and restore and expand traditional borders. Trade with Russia and the Volga boomed at Bukhara's expense, fuelling rapid urbanization and reconstruction. The khanate spread from the Aral to Merv and the scholars of Khiva became the leading exponents of Chagatai Turkic literature.

Yet Khiva still remained little more than a desert hideout for slave traders and brigands, thieves and even pirates. Treachery and murder suffused daily life and too often trade took a back seat to theft. For centuries Khiva had been famed for its slave market, and though the plundering of caravans and abduction of traders may have been lucrative, it eventually brought the Khivans into direct conflict with tsarist Russia.

By the mid-19th century, Russian and Khivan spheres of influence began to clash on the threshold of Central Asia as Khiva found itself drilling towards fatal confrontation with a rising power. Russia was growing increasingly impatient with the abduction of its subjects into slavery and the plundering of its caravans by Khivan Turkmen. The Tsarists were also keen to restore lost pride after two disastrous expeditions to Khiva.

In 1717 Prince Bekovich had been sent by Tsar Peter to investigate the twin rumours of Khorezmian gold and a water route to India along the former heel of the Oxus. At the city gates his 4,000 troops had been warmly welcomed, congenially divided up to find accommodation and then viciously slaughtered. Bekovich himself was flayed alive and his skin stretched over a drum. The murders went unforgotten but unpunished and the khan drew conceit from his desert fastness. A century later, another Russian officer Nikolai Muraviev, was detained for two months in Khiva while the court debated how to kill him, only to return to St Petersburg six months later, haunted by a message secreted in the barrel of his gun pleading for the release of the city's 5,000 Russian slaves and burning with plans for a swift and painless invasion.

Thus in the winter of 1839-40 one General Perovsky led 5,000 troops and 10,000 camels into the snowy wastes of the Kyzyl Kurn to teach the barbarian khan a lesson. Within one month his snow blind troops were wading through a metre of snow, his camels were dying at a rate of 200 a day and packs of wolves shadowed the growing trail of frozen, starving bodies. The Russians admitted a second defeat and had still not managed to fire a shot. It would be a further 35 years before the Russians would eventually enter Khiva and halt the trade of slaves.

As the Great Game heated up, Khiva grew in importance as a strategic stepping stone to Merv, Herat and British India beyond. Russian spies like Count Nicolai Ignatiev reconnoitred the region, armed with little more than pretexts (in his case the gift of an organ for the khan, which could only be ferried down the strategic water links of the Amu Darya), while British officers like Abbott and Shakespeare hurried to diffuse Russia's causus belli: the slave trade.

On 29 May 1873 Russian troops simultaneously arrived at Khiva's gates from Orenburg, Krasnovodsk, Tashkent and Kazalinsk and even the last-ditch release of 26 Russian prisoners by the panic-stricken khan failed to prevent them entering the city:

We began to see small groups of men in the lateral streets, in dirty ragged tunics and long beards, with hats off, bowing timidly to us as we passed. These were the inhabitants, and they were not yet sure whether they would all be massacred or not. With what strange awe and dread they must have gazed upon us as we passed, dust-covered and grimy after our march of 600 miles over the desert, which they had considered impassable. Grim, stern, silent and invincible, we must have appeared to them like some strange, powerful beings of an unknown world.

MacGahan, Campaigning on the Oxus and the fall of Khiva, 1874

During the tsarist period, a motley crew of eccentric foreigners somehow made it to the town. In 1875 Fred Burnaby, six foot four in his socks, strong enough to carry a small pony under his arm and hold a billiard cue outstretched at the tip, fluent in seven languages but still described by Henry James as "opaque in intellect, indomitable in muscle", finally shook off his Russian minders in the desert and persuaded his guide to detour to Khiva by suggesting that he buy his brother-in-law's horse. In 1898 Robert Jefferson rode his bicycle, in a conscious echo of Burnaby's trip, from Catford in South London to Khiva in south Khorezm, surviving Kazakh witches, churches hovering upside down in the middle of the desert (a mirage) and a rousing sendoff from the cycling club of Orenburg. Both it seems suffered cultural confusions; Burnaby shocked a local barber by ordering his face shaved instead of his head and misunderstood local admiration over the toughness of his horse (he regaled its remarkable stamina, whilst the Turkmen complained that it would be difficult to eat), while Jefferson encountered cither blind terror or uncontrollable laughter whenever he rode his magic bicycle, "an instrument which no true Mohammedhan ought to have anything to do with".

However, the khanate was fast approaching the end of its life. A series of nomad rebellions led by the Yomut Turkmen Junaid Khan rocked the town, culminating in the assassination in 1918 of Isfandiyar Khan. On 27 April 1920 the Khorezm People's Republic was proclaimed and Khan Abdullah abdicated, later to die in a Soviet prison hospital. Restless local basmachi continued to hound the region and in February 1924 15,000 Turkmen besieged the town for three and a half weeks until Soviet reinforcements eventually pacified all revolt. In 1922 the region gained promotion to a Soviet Republic and in 1924 joined the republic of Uzbekistan.

Khiva was proclaimed an open-air museum by the government in 1967 and the Ichon Qala was recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in December 1990.