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The Freeing of the Slaves

Khiva - The Freeing of the Slaves
'Central Asia - A Traveller's Companion' by Kathleen Hopkirk

At Khiva the river Oxus is hard frozen during four months, although the latitude corresponds with that of Rome, and snow lies for several months . . . Yet in summer, the heat at Khiva is almost insufferable. Linen clothes can scarcely be borne, and it is impossible to sleep beneath the roof. People exposed to the sun die in consequence.

Major James Abbott, Narrative of a Journey from Heraut to Khiva, 1843

Lines of green and gold, and gold and green, beyond which the walls and minarets of Khiva appeared in sight. Can that be really Khiva? The scene filled one with a thrill of satisfaction. All past difficulties and discomforts were forgotten, and future ones unthought of - the goal was reached.

Ella Christie, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, 1925

FOR ELLA CHRISTIE, her arrival in Khiva in 1912 was the realization of a dream, but prior to the Russian annexation in 1873 to arrive there was often the beginning of a living nightmare. For Khiva had long been a city of evil repute, and one of the two great slave markets of Central Asia, Bokhara being the other. Turcoman raiders from the Kara Kum desert could be sure of a fat profit from their human cargo, snatched from the shores of the Caspian, 500 miles away, or from a lonely caravan trail. Russian men were always in demand as workers, although Persian women were highly prized for the harem. 'The Tekke tribes, the most savage of all the Turcomans,' remarked the Hungarian traveller Vambery, 'would not hesitate to sell into slavery the Prophet himself, did he fall into their hands.'

Present-day Khiva, since 1968 a silent museum-town, almost deserted apart from the tourists who are taken there on excursions, has little in common with its bustling earlier self. Its narrow streets used to be so crowded with men and camels that visitors - from Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century to Ella Christie in the early twentieth - all complained that it was well-nigh impossible to move at all. Now its mosques and medressehs, or colleges, have been rebuilt to a lifeless perfection, and even its ancient walls have been replastered with new mud, giving it the air of an abandoned stage-set. But in Khiva, unlike Samarkand, there are at least few modern intrusions, and if imagination can supply the noisy, colourful crowds of merchants, the groaning camels and the heaps of fruit, the spices, tea and bales of cloth, then one can experience something of the timelessness of a Central Asian caravan town.

Khiva, in the oasis of Khorezm, first came into prominence after Genghis Khan had reduced the capital, Gurganj, 150 miles to the north, to a heap of smoking ashes in 1219. But it had existed as a staging-post on the Silk Road - Kheivak Well - since at least the sixth century. East-bound caravans would halt there before travelling on to Bokhara and Samarkand. Others would be heading south to Merv and then westwards through Persia to the eastern Mediterranean. Some would travel north to the Aral Sea and then across the desert to the Caspian city of Astrakhan. Khorezm, or Chorasmia as it was known to the Greeks, was a fertile country on the lower reaches of the Oxus, bounded by the deserts of Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum and by the Sea of Aral, and it had passed through the hands of many conquerors - including the ubiquitous Alexander the Great. In AD 711, it fell to the Arabs who were astonished by the luxuriance of its vegetation in summer and the severity of its winters. As a result they were able to send choice melons and grapes to the Caliph in Baghdad, packed in ice which was stored underground in blocks in summer.

Khorezm was part of the huge Seljuk empire in the eleventh century and was still part of a large Turkic confederation at the beginning of the thirteenth, including Persia, most of Afghanistan and all of Central Asia to the west of the Syr-darya, or Jaxartes river. In 1219 it is said that the ruler of Khorezm mortally offended Genghis Khan by shaving the heads of his envoys, but perhaps the Mongols simply wanted an excuse to invade. At all events, the revenge was terrible, and nothing was left in Gurganj but a heap of skulls. While some of the Mongols swept on to conquer the rest of Central Asia, the Middle East and eastern Europe, others were left to administer the new territories, and by the fourteenth century Khorezm was ruled by the Blue Horde. Racially they were no longer pure Mongols, for they had interbred with the Turkish tribes who still inhabited the region, and the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, who went there in the 1330s, described them all as 'Turks'. He was entertained by the Governor of Gurganj - evidently now rebuilt - to a feast which included several tables devoted entirely to fruit: 'Pomegranates prepared for the table, some of them served in vessels of gold and silver with golden spoons, others in vessels of glass with wooden spoons, and wonderful melons'. In winter, however, many plants - and especially vines - had to be buried in the earth in order to survive.

At the end of the fourteenth century Khiva and Khorezm were captured by Tamerlane, and after his empire broke up they became the property of the Uzbek Khans, a warlike grouping of former nomads. Their main occupation, according to the Elizabethan merchant Anthony Jenkinson, who passed through their territories in 1558, was fighting among themselves. Gurganj, he reported, had been constantly fought over and had changed hands four times in the previous seven years. Everyone was very poor as a result, and Master Jenkinson found few customers for his bales of cloth. When not fighting, the inhabitants liked hawking, or simply sitting around plotting. Jenkinson formed a very low opinion of them. Khiva became the principal city of the Khanate at the end of the sixteenth century, when the Oxus suddenly changed its course, possibly as a result of a minor earthquake, leaving Gurganj stranded in the desert. (Central Asian rivers are nothing if not capricious: the Oxus, or Amu-darya, seems originally to have flowed into the Caspian rather than the Aral Sea.) The ruins of Gurganj, today known as Kunya Urgench, can still be seen, although they are now the other side of the border, in Turkmenistan.

Khiva quickly acquired an unsavoury reputation, partly because of its slave trafficking but also on account of the cruelty and duplicity of its rulers. Strangers ventured there at their peril in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and anyone who had the misfortune to arrive there in winter had the extra burden of the cold to endure. Captain James Abbott, who was detained as the guest of the Khan of Khiva for several uncomfortable weeks in the winter of 1840, suffered miserably from being confined to one room:

The air was searchingly cold. In England, nothing is known approaching to the chill of the Khiva winter. My towel, hungup to dry in the small room warmed with a large fire ofcharcoal, instantly became a mass of ice. If the door was left open, the passage of the wind was detected, as it blew over any liquid, by its sudden conversion to a solid form, and there was no thaw excepting in spots where the sun-beams accumulated.

These sunbeams also produced a rather magical effect on the moisture in the atmosphere:

The sun now shone cheerily through the cutting air, lighting in its passage, myriads of minute particles of mist (small as the motes of the sun-beam, and invisible like them excepting in the brightest light): which the intense chill of the air was continually freezing, and which, falling in an unceasing shower of light, gave sparkle to the atmosphere that savoured of enchantment. This effect I have observed only at Khiva.

Abbott had been sent from Herat, in Afghanistan, to Khiva on a delicate mission. The British government was becoming increasingly worried about Russia's intentions in Central Asia, then a sort of no man's land ruled by a lot of petty chieftains and situated uncomfortably near to Britain's commercial gold-mine, India. Russia's southern border was somewhat vague at this period, and Russian citizens in the outlying regions were constantly at the mercy of the 'man-stealing Turcomans', as one writer described them. This alone gave the Tsar an excuse to send exploratory expeditions to the Central Asian khanates, and even to Afghanistan, traditionally regarded as the gateway to India. However, the first Russian expedition to Khiva, in 1717, had been a disaster. On arrival the Russians had been welcomed and persuaded to split up into smaller groups, on the pretext that there was nowhere big enough to accommodate them all together. The treacherous Khivans had then fallen upon the Russians and slaughtered them.

A century later, in 1819, Captain Muraviev had spent an anxious seven weeks locked in a fort there, but had finally been well received by the Khan, who evidently feared reprisals from his powerful neighbour if Muraviev came to any harm. The young Russian officer was shocked to receive secret messages from Russian slaves in Khiva, revealing that there were 3,000 of them held in bondage, often in conditions of the utmost degradation and hardship. His own position being extremely precarious, he could do nothing to help them, but he returned to St Petersburg burning with indignation on their behalf. His discreet enquiries and observations had convinced him that Khiva could easily be taken by a full-scale expedition, but it was another twenty years before the Tsar felt able to undertake one.

In the autumn of 1839 General Perovsky set out from Orenburg with 5,000 troops and 10,000 camels on the long trek through steppe and desert to the sinister mud-walled town on the Oxus. It was at this point that Captain Abbott was hurriedly dispatched from Herat to forestall the Russian plot. If Abbott could persuade the Khan to release all his Russian slaves, it was reasoned, then Perovsky would have no excuse for annexing Khiva. Many of the slaves, of course, were not Russian. On his way across the wilderness from Merv, Abbott overtook a melancholy procession of men, women and children from Herat, being led to Khiva by their Turcoman captors:

The men are chained together by the throats at night, so that rest is scarcely possible, whilst the contact of the frozen iron with their skin must be a torture. My heart is full of heaviness, when I think of all the heart-rending misery of which this system is the cause. Alas! he who once enters Khiva abandons all hope, as surely as he who enters hell. His prison-house is girdled with trackless deserts, whose sole inhabitants are the sellers of human flesh.

Sending ahead an emissary to the Khan, assuring him that the English wished for friendly relations with Khiva, Abbott approached the city with many misgivings. 'My present position', he reflected, 'was one of interest and deep anxiety. I had been sent to execute what might well appear an impossibility, and my fame, as well as life, was staked upon the venture.' Abbott spoke a little Persian, but had no information on the manners and etiquette of the Khivan court, had few gifts to bestow and was provided with a small and distinctly unimpressive retinue. 'I confess,' he wrote later in his book, 'the case appeared to me as desperate as possible.' On entering the city he was surprised to hear a pleasant melodic sound, resembling 'the distant music of a hundred Aeolian harps'. Much later he discovered the source of this extra-terrestrial music:

Seeing some children on the road with their paper kites, I approached to examine the contrivance by which these toys emit a musical sound whilst floating in the air. The kite is square, formed upon two diagonals of light wood, whose extremities are connected by a tight string, forming the sides of the square. Over the whole paper is pasted. A loose string upon the upright diagonal receives the string by which the kite is to be held, and a tail is fastened to its lower extremity. The transverse diagonal, or cross-stick is then bent back like a strung bow, and fastened by a thread or cat-gut. Of course, every breeze that passes the kite vibrates this tight chord, and the vibrations are communicated to the highly sonorous frame of the kite. And, as numbers of these kites are left floating in the air all night, the effect is that of aerial music; monotonous, but full of melancholy interest.

Abbott was received politely by the Khan who, however, had only the haziest idea of what or where England was. In fact it was only with difficulty that Abbott convinced him that the English were not a minor tribe belonging to the Tsar of Russia, and that he himself was not a Russian spy. The Khan's astonishment knew no bounds when he learned that the King of England was actually a young woman, and there was much sniggering among the courtiers when Abbott tried to explain that her future husband would be a consort, not a king. 'Do you always choose women as your kings?' enquired the Khan incredulously. And what about ministers and officers, did they have to be women too?

Abbott had many audiences with the Khan, who wanted to know about his beliefs in magic, religion and astrology, as well as about England's military strength. In the course of one of these conversations the Khan remarked pleasantly that he had been obliged to execute his last two European visitors. They too had claimed to be English, but he had been convinced that they were Russian spies. Mastering his indignation with difficulty, Abbott suggested that imprisonment would have been sufficient, for 'God alone can restore life'.

'It is certainly a pity,' said the Khan, with a good-humoured smile, and in the tone in which mere mortals speak of the death of rats, 'but they were Russians and spies.'

On hearing that an expeditionary force had been sent by the Tsar the Khan agreed, in theory, to relinquish his Russian slaves, but before long news reached the Khanate that Perovsky's force had met with disaster. Severe snowfalls had unexpectedly engulfed the expedition, and both men and animals had died of exposure in their hundreds. Halfway to Khiva General Perovsky had been forced to turn back, losing more and more of his force with every day that passed. Apart from the horrors of frostbite, snow-blindness and scurvy, the weary column was now accompanied by a sinister rearguard of wolves, waiting to pounce on any stragglers. One-fifth of the men perished and only about a thousand of the baggage animals survived. Emboldened by this news, the Khan of Khiva sent Abbott packing, saying only that if the Tsar promised not to send any more expeditions against him, then he would agree to release the slaves.

Meanwhile the British in Herat had heard nothing of Abbott's progress - the Khan having intercepted all his mail - and feared the worst. At this same time the ill-fated Colonel Stoddart was being held in a filthy dungeon by the Khan of Khiva's neighbour, the Emir of Bokhara, and Central Asia was clearly a most perilous place for an Englishman. Nevertheless, in June 1840 another resourceful officer was sent to Khiva, this time with more success. Lieutenant Richmond Shakespear saw the city under far more favourable conditions than the hapless Abbott, for it was now early summer. He kept a diary which was later published in Blackwood's Magazine, under the title 'A Personal Narrative of a Journey from Herat to Orenburg', in which he recorded his observations of Khiva:

There is a fort of some size here, but of no strength. All the houses are made of mud, the outer walls being solid and the inner partitions supported by wooden framework; they are of a considerable size, and the rooms are lofty, but unornamented, and without windows. If sufficient light cannot be procured from the doorway, a hole is knocked in the roof. Water is so near the surface that it is necessary to lay a foundation of wood or stone for all the walls. The gardens in the neighbourhood of the town are very numerous, and appear to be kept with much care. The bazaar was crowded, the streets narrow and dirty; the climate is delicious.

Perhaps Shakespear reaped the benefit of Abbott's dignified behaviour, for he was allowed much more freedom than his predecessor, and was also granted an immediate audience with the Khan, 'a good-natured, unaffected person of about forty-five years of age'. The most impressive buildings in the town were the Muslim medressehs - 'showy buildings, ornamented with coloured tiles, which have a gay effect' - but the lack of firm foundations gave all Khiva's edifices a rickety appearance. 'The minarets all slope from the perpendicular, and the walls are in general separated at the corners of the buildings.' This instability, together with the ravages of fire, explains why most of the buildings to be seen in Khiva today date only from the nineteenth century. 'The chief beauty of Khiva', wrote Shakespear in his journal, 'consists in the luxuriant growth of the trees, and in the number and extent of the gardens.'

There is a gap in Shakespear's journal between 30 June and 3 August. 'I have been too busy with office matters to resume this rambling journal,' he explains, and indeed he had, for by this time he had somehow persuaded the Khan to part with all his Russian slaves. There were a number of last-minute hitches when various nobles, including the Khan himself, tried to hang on to a special favourite, but Shakespear was uncompromising: it was all or nothing. Finally, in the middle of August, he set out with 416 grateful Russians and marched them across the desert to Fort Alexandrovsk on the Caspian, where he handed them over to the astonished Commandant. 'All the sufferings fell to my lot, all the laurels to his,' commented Abbott later, with a hint of asperity. He, incidentally, had had an extremely unpleasant time after leaving Khiva, having been attacked, wounded and robbed of everything by brigands in the desert. Shakespear, predictably, went home to a hero's welcome and a knighthood.

For a while the Russians left Khiva alone. Their immediate pretext for an annexation had been removed with the freeing of the slaves, and in any case it was too remote, too difficult to reach in safety from either Orenburg or Fort Alexandrovsk. But its hour would come once the Tsar had a bridgehead in Turkestan, for the massacre of the 1717 expedition and Perovsky's catastrophe in 1840 had not been forgotten. In the meantime a certain amount of trade developed between Russia and the khanates of Central Asia, and the more daring of the Khivan merchants travelled to the northern Caspian port of Astrakhan and thence up the Volga to the famous annual fair at Nizhny-Novgorod. Indeed, as silk and cotton cloth were among the merchandise travelling north, it could be said that the Volga was a modern arm of the Silk Road.

In 1858 a Russian mission went to Khiva and Bokhara, led by a young officer named Nikolai Ignatiev. A passionate advocate of a forward policy for Russia in Central Asia, he did not always see eye to eye with his Foreign Ministry, but his journey was supported enthusiastically by the War Ministry. Although ostensibly his visit was a simple return of courtesies - both rulers had been guests at Alexander II's coronation in 1855 - Tsarist documents of the day make it clear that one of the real aims was 'the destruction of the harmful interference of the English who are trying to penetrate Central Asia and lure it into their sphere of influence'. In support of this Great Game manoeuvre no expense was to be spared in the giving of gifts. An organ was considered a suitable offering for the Khan of Khiva, and was carried 750 miles by camel from Orenburg to the desert kingdom.

Ignatiev spent six weeks in Khiva, trying in vain to persuade the suspicious and vacillating Khan - a much younger half-brother of the Khan seen by Abbott and Shakespear - to sign a treaty of friendship. Memories of the treachery his predecessor had met with in 1717 kept the Russian awake at night, and at times the mission seemed doomed to much more than mere failure, as the Khan waxed hot and cold - but mostly cold:

Our situation in Khiva from the very beginning of our visit was extremely uncomfortable. Under pain of execution it was forbidden for the local inhabitants to visit or even to speak to us. Armed Khivans guarded our living quarters and were located on the flat roofs of the clay buildings where we had our meals. They were with us day and night, inspecting us through the windows or openings in the ceilings.

Ignatiev, Mission to Khiva and Bokhara in 1858

On the infrequent occasions when they were allowed out of their quarters, the local people cursed them and made threatening gestures. Another nasty habit was the loud banging of drums outside their doors, sometimes in the middle of the night. Ignatiev saw very little of the city, and wrote despairingly to his father: 'My negotiations go extremely slowly and I really do not know when I shall get out of this terrible country.' Eventually he did, and the Khan's unpleasant behaviour no doubt hardened Russian hearts, for the next decade saw the start of a prolonged campaign of Russian conquest throughout Central Asia.

Khiva's evil reputation, meanwhile, grew if anything more horrible, for the current Khan was weak, sadistic and fanatical. (There was a high turnover of Khans of Khiva, the previous two having died in mysterious circumstances after reigning for only a few months each.) It may seem surprising in the circumstances that any foreigner should choose to go there, but the summer of 1863 saw the arrival of the Hungarian orientalist Arminius Vambery, heavily disguised as a Muslim dervish. He had set out from Persia with a party of pilgrims returning from Mecca, and so effective was his disguise that they regarded him as even more devout than themselves. He had spent a number of years studying in Constantinople, and was posing as a Turk, but he had plenty of heart-stopping moments when his identity was challenged by strangers who were more familiar with European features than his simple companions. His cool nerves, allied to a thorough knowledge of the Koran, enabled him to survive these encounters, and even the Khan of Khiva asked for his blessing. This rascally individual, with his cruel and degenerate appearance and effeminate voice, made Vambery shudder inwardly. His repugnance was not lessened when he came upon eight of the Khan's prisoners having their eyes gouged out, the executioner wiping his knife blade each time on the beard of his victim.

Vambery himself, having been graciously received by the Khan, was treated everywhere with kindness and hospitality, but it was a nerve-racking time and he was not sorry to leave after a month. At least his caravan was now in better shape, for the Khan had ordered all the pilgrims to be given riding asses, and their food-bags had been filled with bread and flour. Two years after Vambery's clandestine visit to Central Asia, the Russians captured Tashkent and settled down in earnest to colonize the region. General Kaufmann, Governor-General of the new Russian province of Turkestan, took Samarkand and Bokhara in 1868, and in 1873 he was ready to tackle remote Khiva.

Just to be on the safe side, the Russians decided to attack the Khanate from five different directions at once. The five columns, comprising a total of 10,000 men, would converge from the Caucasus, from Orenburg, from the Caspian, from Fort Kazala on the Syr-darya, and finally from Tashkent. General Kaufmann was in overall command, and would himself lead the Tashkent force. The Russians were not keen for the rest of the world to see what they were up to, having denied any intention of annexing the Khanate, so journalists were strictly barred from accompanying the expedition. This proved to be more of a challenge than a deterrent, of course, and at least two resourceful reporters set off at once. David Ker of the Daily Telegraph was finally thwarted by the Russians, after months of traipsing around the desert on false trails, and ended up fuming in Tashkent. His American rival had better luck and rode into Khiva with the triumphant invaders.

James MacGahan worked for the New York Herald under its great, if eccentric, editor Gordon Bennett. Although only 29, he had already won his journalistic spurs during the Franco-Prussian War, and he spoke French and German fluently. He also spoke some Russian, having a Russian wife. Perhaps as a result, he always got on well with the Russian officers with whom he now played hide-and-seek in the Kyzyl Kum desert. Naturally, they were obliged to oppose his efforts to catch up with the elusive General Kaufmann, but they were generous with food, drink and fodder, and without their covert assistance he would probably have perished. As it was he had some very close shaves.

MacGahan had set out from St Petersburg in March 1873 and on 29 May he finally caught up with his quarry on the banks of the Oxus. Kaufmann was so astonished that this ragged and dishevelled young man had managed to cross the Kyzyl Kum single-handed that he relented completely and allowed him to accompany the final stages of the Russian campaign. After their weeks in the desert the Khorezm oasis seemed like paradise both to MacGahan and to the Russians, with its tree-lined streams and its apricots, mulberries, apples and cherries. And after a few inconclusive skirmishes in the desert, the Russians were looking forward to a good battle for the city of Khiva. But they were deprived of this pleasure. The Khan, seeing he was surrounded on all sides, offered his unconditional surrender on 9 June, though the Turcomans among his troops were as eager for a scrap as the Russians, and fierce scuffles continued in the north of the town until the two sides were prised apart by their respective leaders.

The way was now clear for General Kaufmann to enter Khiva in a dignified manner, and receive the formal submission of the Khan and his predominantly Uzbek subjects. MacGahan, like a good reporter, followed close behind:

It was now about noon, and in ten minutes we were in sight of the renowned city. We did not see it until we were within less than half a mile, owing to the masses of trees everywhere that completely hid it from our view. At last it broke upon us, amid the clouds of dust which we had raised. Great, heavy mud walls, high and battlemented with heavy round buttresses, and a ditch, partly dry, partly filled with water, over which we could see the tops of trees, a few tall minarets, domes of mosques, and one immense round tower that reflected the rays of the sun like porcelain ... As we passed through the long arched gateway we left the dust behind us, and emerging from this, found the city before us.

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

Gradually, as they passed along the narrow, winding streets, they became aware that nervous eyes were watching them:

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.

Then we came upon a crowd of Persian slaves, who received us with shouts, cries, and tears of joy. They were wild with excitement. They had heard that wherever the Russians went slavery disappeared, and they did not doubt that it would be the case here.

Finally they reached the main square in front of the Khan's palace:

One side of this square was taken up by the palace, a huge rambling structure, with mud-battlemented walls about twenty feet high; opposite was a new medresseh not yet finished; the other two sides were filled up by sheds and private houses, while at the south-eastern angle of the palace rose, beautiful and majestic, the famous sacred tower of Khiva. It was about thirty feet in diameter at the bottom, and tapered gradually to the top, a height of about 125 feet, where it appeared to have a diameter of fifteen feet. It had neither pedestal nor capital, nor ornament of any kind, but its surface was covered with burnt tiles, brightly coloured in blue, green, purple and brown on a pure white ground, arranged in a variety of broad stripes and figures, the whole producing a most brilliant and beautiful effect.

But there was no sign of the Khan who, it appeared, had fled ignominiously. Kaufmann and his party entered the audience chamber and were served with refreshments by an elderly official.

Imagine a kind of porch entirely open to the court, thirty feet high, twenty wide, ten deep, and flanked on either side by towers ornamented with blue and green tiles, in the same way as the large tower on the square; a floor raised six feet above the pavement of the court, the roof supported by two carved, slender, wooden pillars, the whole resembling much the stage of a theatre, and you will have a very good idea of the grand hall of state, wherein the Khan of Khiva sits and dispenses justice.

That night MacGahan explored the palace and, climbing a steep and narrow stairway, emerged on the battlements and gazed down on the city:

It was now near midnight, and the silent, sleeping city lay bathed in a flood of glorious moonlight. The palace was transformed. The flat mud roofs had turned to marble; the tall slender minarets rose dim and indistinct, like spectre sentinels watching over the city. Here and there little courts and gardens lay buried in deepest shadow, from which arose the dark masses of mighty elms and the still and ghostly forms of the slender poplars. Far away, the exterior walls of the city, with battlements and towers, which in the misty moonlight looked as high as the sky and as distant as the horizon. It was no longer a real city, but a leaf torn from the enchanted pages of the Arabian Nights.

Walking round the palace battlements, MacGahan found himself looking down on the women's quarters. The Khan, in his haste, had left his entire harem behind. The ladies ranged from 'sweet young girls of fifteen' to 'old toothless hags, apparently a hundred and fifty', and MacGahan was very taken with a girl of about eighteen with large dark eyes and a 'noble appearance'. Descending cautiously in the pitch dark - he dared not strike matches for there were piles of gunpowder in the labyrinthine passages - the young American eventually joined the bolder girls for an illicit midnight feast of tea and sweetmeats. The dark-eyed beauty knelt at his feet and seemed to be imploring his help. They gazed into one another's eyes, but in the absence of a common language he could elicit little beyond her name: Zuleika. 'I never in my life before so much regretted my ignorance of an unknown tongue,' he wrote frankly in his book. Mrs MacGahan must have been relieved to learn that her husband's inamorata led the women out of the palace later that night and placed them under the protection of the Khan's aged uncle.

After an interval the craven Khan was induced to return to his capital and take nominal charge of affairs, but there was little doubt in anyone's mind that Khiva had now effectively become part of the Tsar's empire. Indeed, it was not long before St Petersburg decreed that no foreigners were to travel in 'Russian Central Asia'. This was too much for one young officer of the Household Cavalry. Captain Frederick Burnaby began immediately to plan a trip to Khiva and beyond on his next long leave.

Just before setting out at the end of November 1875, Burnaby met MacGahan for some last-minute advice. 'It is to be done,' reckoned the American, 'though the odds are rather against you.' Everything would be possible as far as Fort Number One -Kazala, at the mouth of the Syr-darya - but then the Englishman would have to make a dash for it. And so it proved. The railway took him as far as Syzran, on the Volga, where a travelling companion offered to share a sleigh with him as far as Samara (modern Kubyshev). 'You had better put on plenty of clothes,' advised the Russian, for there was a stiff wind and twenty degrees of frost. There were also wolves about, but when Burnaby tried to put on his revolver belt over the extra layers, he found it would not fit round his by now Herculean proportions. He was a big man to start with - six foot four in his socks and weighing fifteen stone - and he felt that both he and his stout companion looked less like men than like the Colossus of Rhodes, as they set off through the snow.

Burnaby was a good linguist and had picked up Russian during a long leave in 1870 spent in Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. He and his jovial friend had a capital time together, and no lack of minor adventures, until just short of Samara where Burnaby had to branch off for Orenburg. 'I was sorry to shake hands with him and to say good-bye,' admitted the gregarious Burnaby. t'He was a very cheery companion, and a drive over the steppes alone and without a soul to speak to for several hundred miles was not an inviting prospect.' But he was soon busy buying a sledge, hiring a driver and laying in provisions for the next step of the journey. From now on Burnaby encountered nothing but trouble: official obstruction, incompetent drivers, delays and accidents, and above all, the most vicious and unrelenting weather. It was a constant battle for any human being to stay alive in these conditions, and in the end disaster struck. Burnaby fell asleep in his sleigh and awoke in agony:

A feeling of intense pain had seized my extremities; it seemed as if they had been plunged into some corrosive acid which was gradually eating the flesh from my bones. I looked at my finger-nails; they were blue, the fingers and back part of my hands were of the same colour, whilst my wrists and the lower part of the arm were of a waxen hue. There was no doubt about it, I was frostbitten, and in no slight degree.

Burnaby, A Ride to Khiva, 1876

The driver took one look and drove hell-for-leather for the next post-station. It was seven miles away, and the sweat poured off Burnaby, in spite of the intense cold, as the pain crept up to the glands under his arms, and he experienced an agony unimagined in all his years of soldiering. At last they arrived, and the swift action of some Cossack soldiers saved him from a double amputation, although the cure was almost as painful. They massaged his hands and arms repeatedly with naphtha - the only spirit available -until they were raw, but at least the sensation had come back. He then had to plunge them into a tub of ice and water. 'The more it hurts the better chance you have of saving your hands,' the Cossacks assured him. They refused to accept anything from Burnaby beyond his heartfelt thanks, insisting: 'Are we not all brothers when in misfortune?' It was several weeks before Burnaby's arms were fully healed, and by then he was in Khiva.

As MacGahan had predicted, Burnaby reached Kazala safely, and even spent the Russian Christmas as the guest of the District Governor. But the Russian authorities now did everything in their power to dissuade him from going on to Khiva. The Oxus was frozen, they pointed out, which enabled the Turcoman bandits to raid on both sides of the river, while the Khivans themselves were very dangerous people and the Khan might well gouge out Burnaby's eyes. All things considered, Burnaby had better go to Petro-Alexandrovsk with a Cossack escort, and the Colonel at the fort there could decide whether it was safe for the Englishman to continue. Burnaby thanked the Governor heartily for his advice, and set about purchasing or hiring the animals and equipment necessary for a journey to Petro-Alexandrovsk, although he had no intention of going there. Dispensing with the Cossack escort at the last minute, on the grounds that they would freeze to death in their thin uniforms, he set out on 12 January 1876, with a Kirghiz guide, three baggage camels in the charge of a Turcoman driver, various riding horses and a quantity of frozen cabbage soup.

Once his little caravan was well clear of Kazala, Burnaby induced the guide to take the road to Khiva by a judicious combination of threats, promises and bribery. He knew that time was limited, for the Russians would soon realize what he was up to when he failed to arrive at Petro-Alexandrovsk, and he was determined not to be thwarted so close to his goal. Sending ahead a suitably effusive message to the Khan, the convoy approached the fabled city, and Burnaby was overjoyed to meet his messenger returning with two Khivan ministers bearing an official welcome. In the distance he could see 'richly-painted minarets and high domes of coloured tiles' towering over a belt of trees. MacGahan had first seen the city in a haze of heat and dust, but now, on a bright January day, everything was crystal clear:

We now entered the city, which is of an oblong form, and surrounded by two walls; the outer one is about fifty feet high; its basement is constructed of baked bricks, the upper part being built of dried clay. This forms the first line of defence, and completely encircles the town, which is about a quarter of a mile within the wall. Four high wooden gates, clamped with iron, barred the approach from the north, south, east and west, whilst the walls themselves were in many places out of repair.

The town itself is surrounded by a second wall, not quite so high as the one just described, and with a dry ditch, which is now half filled with ruined debris. The slope which leads from the wall to the trench had been used as a cemetery, and hundreds of sepulchres and tombs were scattered along some undulating ground just without the city. The space between the first and second walls is used as a market-place, where cattle, horses, sheep, and camels are sold, and where a number of carts were standing, filled with corn and grass.

Here an ominous-looking cross-beam had been erected, towering high above the heads of the people with its bare, gaunt poles. This was the gallows on which all people convicted of theft are executed; murderers being put to death in a different manner, having their throats cut from ear to ear in the same way that sheep are killed.

Burnaby noticed that the streets were clean and the richer houses adorned with polished bricks and coloured tiles. He estimated the population at around 35,000. There were nine religious schools, or medressehs, and these were all decorated with 'frescoes and arabesque work' and surmounted by high, coloured domes. After riding through the tortuous streets of the bazaar, he was conducted to a nobleman's dwelling, where he was later called on by the Khan's Treasurer. The Khan was anxious to know his business, and was most surprised that he had not been stopped by the Russians. Next day he was allowed to call on the Khan, with all due pomp and ceremony. Six men on horseback accompanied him, and four others on foot:

After riding through several narrow streets where, in some instances, the housetops were thronged with people desirous of looking at our procession, we emerged on a small flat piece of ground which was not built over, and which formed a sort of open square. Here a deep hole was pointed out to me as the spot where criminals who have been found guilty of murder have their throats cut.

The Khan's palace is a large building, ornamented with pillars and domes which, covered with bright-coloured tiles, flash in the sun, and attract the attention of the stranger approaching Khiva. A guard of thirty or forty men armed with scimitars stood at the palace gates. We next passed into a small courtyard. The Khan's guards were all attired in long flowing silk robes of various patterns, bright-coloured sashes being girt around their waists, and tall fur hats surmounting their bronzed countenances. Good-looking boys of an effeminate appearance, with long hair streaming down their shoulders, and dressed a little like the women, lounged about, and seemed to have nothing in particular to do.

In fact their official duty was dancing before the Khan who, like all Central Asian princelings, had a weakness for bachas, or dancing-boys.

After an interval, Burnaby was ushered into an ornate marquee standing in a courtyard, and found himself face to face with the latest Khan, a youngish man with a twinkle in his eye, who had been on the throne for ten years. 'I must say I was greatly surprised', admitted the Englishman, 'after all that has been written in Russian newspapers about the cruelties and other iniquities perpetrated by this Khivan potentate, to find the original such a cheery sort of fellow.' The Khivan knowledge of geography, however, had not progressed much since Abbott's visit thirty-six years earlier. Was England the same place as Germany? asked the Khan. When shown a map of the world he asked where India was. Burnaby showed him Khiva, and India below it. 'No,' said the Khan, who happened to be facing south, that couldn't be right. 'I am in Khiva and India is over there.' He pointed ahead of him. Burnaby tried to explain the mysteries of orientation with the help of a pocket compass, much to the consternation of the court officials who clearly thought this was some small, but infernal weapon.

Burnaby's gracious reception by the ruler ensured him the deference and co-operation of the populace, and he was able to go wherever he liked. He visited the prison, which had only two inmates, and one of the medressehs, where rows of boys were memorizing pages of the Koran, and admired the Khan's summer palace and garden. After a couple of days, however, the Russians caught up with him and he was escorted unwillingly to Petro-Alexandrovsk. The Khan was sad to lose his unusual guest so soon, and expressed the warm wish that he and other Englishmen would visit him in the future. Burnaby had his usual jolly time with the Russian garrison, who seemed to bear him no ill-will in spite of his tricking them, then reluctantly turned for home. He was disappointed not to have seen more of Central Asia - he had hoped to get as far as Merv - but at least he had seen forbidden Khiva, and he had plenty of material for a book.

Whether the Khan was as pleased to see his next English visitor is not recorded, but it seems unlikely, for it was an evangelical clergyman who turned up in October 1882, armed with Bibles and a long list of questions. The Revd Henry Lansdell had already distributed 50,000 religious tracts and Bibles in Siberia in 1879, and was firmly under the protection of the Russians, so the Khan had perforce to make the best of it. He graciously accepted a copy of the Bible in Persian and a New Testament in Arabic, but as he only spoke Uzbek - a form of Turkish - it is doubtful whether he ever looked at either. A senior official was assigned to answer the missionary's questions, but Lansdell's underlying disapproval of the local way of life was a barrier to cordial relations. The rapport the easy-going Burnaby had felt for the Khan, despite his faults, was impossible for a man of deep religious convictions. Still, a fat two-volume work resulted from Lansdell's peregrinations round Central Asia, and the missionary societies which sponsored him were well pleased.

Another eccentric surprised the Khivans just before the turn of the century, for Robert Jefferson arrived on a bicycle after pedalling 6,000 miles from Catford in south London. He was partly inspired by Burnaby (who had by then been killed fighting in the Sudan), but 'the real reason why I rode a bicycle to Khiva', he revealed later, 'was because so many people said it was impossible.' It says a lot for his machine - a British-made Rover - that it survived the journey intact despite the most punishing treatment. For west European roads were mostly cobbled at that time, while further east they degenerated rapidly into stretches of mud, ruts and pot-holes, and from Nizhny-Novgorod, in central Russia, 'all idea of a made road ends'. However, the cycling papers had spread word of his trip, and in many places he was met by cheering members of local bicycle clubs.

In his entertaining book, A New Ride to Khiva, published in 1899, Jefferson describes his send-off from the small Volga town of Simbirsk whose most famous son, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, led to its being renamed Ulyanovsk in 1924.

The whole of Simbirsk turned out to see me off. The half-dozen cyclists of the town accompanied me across the Volga, trailed with me through deep sand for ten versts, and left me to my own devices. Samara, I learned, would take me at least four days, but for the sake of God, said everyone, 'do not miss the road; there is nothing right or left of that trail, not a house -nothing!'

Jefferson had already cycled in Siberia, where 'at least one had telegraph poles and verst-posts to guide one', but here there was nothing. The melancholy road to Samara was just a 'bare, gaunt, desolate land-track'. Soon the heat produced mirages and he began to fear for his sanity when one day

I was startled by seeing in the sky a Russian church upside down. It was so distinct that it seemed real. There were the cupolas and the domes, the windows, the tiny graveyard and its cluster of crosses. I could see where the green and pink wash had peeled off the walls. For a minute it trembled in the atmosphere and then, like the passing of a rainbow, it went. A mirage, of course, and when I reached the next village I had a look at its church, but it was not the replica of the one I had seen in the sky.

Next day, after riding out of a little village, he saw something ahead which stopped him in his tracks:

Off to the left and low down on the ground I perceived what at first looked like a big, black wave of water rolling along towards me with great rapidity. Bigger and bigger it grew, mounting higher and higher as it advanced, and as it neared I saw its billows inflected with colours of all descriptions. It spread out north and south as far as the eye could see, and now, when near in, it was sky high.

For a while he watched fascinated, thinking some much-needed rain was on the way, but then he heard a low moaning sound coming from afar, and he was suddenly filled with terror:

A presentiment that something was going to happen possessed me, and seizing my bicycle I mounted with all rapidity and sped back in the direction of the village. Nearer and nearer came the cloud, now so high and sinister, while louder and louder had the moaning become. The top of the cloud bent over and circled under. The next moment it was upon me. With a roar, a boom, the great wave enveloped myself and my bicycle. It was not rain, it was sand.

Fortunately, both Jefferson and his cycle survived this frightening experience, but he was now nearing the furthest extremities of Christian Russia and once he reached Orenburg, where 'the civilization of the West holds out its hand to the barbarism of the East', the authorities insisted he must travel with an escort. The Orenburg cycling club gave him a marvellous reception, and a band played God Save the Queen as he arrived in the town. Orenburg in 1898 was the end of the railway and the end of the post-track. To Jefferson it also seemed like the end of the world. From now on he would have to cycle laboriously through the burning sand of the Kazakh steppe and the Kyzyl Kum desert.

Their first sight of a bicycle had an electrifying effect on the nomads:

My bicycle was looked upon with alarm and dismay and, when I approached an encampment the Kirghiz, mounting their horses, made for me with a rush, rending the air with their screams and shouts, and cracking their long whips in fury.

This was not the only time Jefferson was grateful for his escort. On another occasion he was bitten by a poisonous spider and began to lose consciousness, but was saved by the presence of mind of his guide who cut the poison out swiftly with his knife.

When his little party reached the Oxus, Jefferson was met by an emissary of the Khan of Khiva and conducted to the city. It took a tedious five hours to be towed across the river, which was two miles wide at this point and full of islands. (Khiva itself was now some miles from the wandering river.) When he entered the legendary city the inhabitants at first fell about at the sight of his bicycle, but were soundly whipped by the Khan's officers for their impudence. After his gruelling journey, Jefferson should have felt elated at reaching his goal, but his overwhelming feeling was disappointment, for Khiva was in a sorry state. The walls had been allowed to crumble and debris was lying everywhere. Miserable dogs and beggars, both covered in horrible sores, were to be seen at every corner:

Gratified as I was at having completed my cycle ride to Khiva, I yet felt a strange, unaccountable desire to get out of it as speedily as possible. The gloom, the wretchedness, the utter decay on every hand filled me with anything but inspiring feelings. I had read Burnaby and several other writers who have visited the city in previous years, but my first glimpse convinced me of one thing, that I saw Khiva in a far different state to that in which it presented itself to them. The suggestion of a doctor in Petro-Alexandrovsk that the Russians were simply waiting for Khiva to die out had here ample corroboration and, during the three days I remained in the city, it became patent to me that Khiva is absolutely doomed to obliteration within a few short years.

Jefferson met the Khan's chief minister, a very old man with a long white beard, who remembered Dr Lansdell but could not recall either Burnaby or MacGahan. He it was who had been given the task of answering Lansdell's questionnaire, so perhaps it is not surprising that the missionary was imprinted on his memory.

Over the twenty-five years since the Russian conquest, he and the Khan had watched helplessly as the once-rich city had steadily declined. The Russians had imposed a crippling 'war indemnity', which the Khivans now had great difficulty in paying, for the old caravan trade had fallen away with the coming of the Transcaspian railway. The line from Krasnovodsk, Ashkhabad and Merv went on to Bokhara, Samarkand and Tashkent, but ignored Khiva. As the Khanate was still nominally administered by the Khan, the Russians simply shrugged their shoulders at the poverty and squalor, and concentrated on building a Russian town around the fort at Urgench. This lay on the Oxus, some twenty miles northeast of Khiva, and became its port once the river had shifted eastwards.

Happily, by the time Ella Christie visited Khiva in 1912 the town had been patched up and cleaned up, and the atmosphere was altogether more cheerful. A Russian official - a Colonel Kornilov - had been appointed as the Khan's adviser some years previously, partly to collect the war indemnity which was still being paid off, but also to help the Khivans to put their house in order. He and his wife were kind and energetic people, on good terms with the Khan and the local population, and they insisted that Mrs Christie stay with them. They spoke no English, and the Scottish anthropologist had only the most basic Russian, but with goodwill and a bit of French they got on famously, despite a few cultural differences. Mrs Christie never got used to the idea of a communal bath-house, and there was the problem of what to call each other. 'Mrs Christie' was too formal for the Russians, while 'Ella' was far too familiar. What was her father's name? they enquired. 'John' was converted to the Russian 'Ivan', and the patronymic 'Ivanovna' formed: Ella Ivanovna was her new name. Mrs Kornilov, whose father's name was Anatoly, was to be called Natalya Anatolyevna. In fact Mrs Christie found this too much of a mouthful, and decided to call her new friend Natalya An.

The Kornilovs' house was just outside the city, clean and spacious and usually filled with the delicious smell of baking. To Ella Christie's delight, it was surrounded by a garden full of nightingales. Natalya An had many friends, one of whom was midwife to the royal harem and lived in a tiny house right in the bazaar. Another lived in a small German colony at Ak Mechet, nine miles outside Khiva, and Mrs Christie spent a day there. They were all Mennonites, dressed soberly in black and white, and their settlement was run on the lines of a co-operative. Jefferson had also visited the Germans in 1898, for the colony had been in existence since the 1880s, when they had left their former homes on the Volga and followed in the wake of General Kaufmann's conquest of Central Asia. They were very industrious, and supplied the Khan with all manner of wooden objects, including doors, water troughs and pipes. Ella Christie's book, Through Khiva to Golden Samarkand, was not published until 1925, after the cataclysms of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. 'In the upheaval of the world's catastrophe,' she wrote then, 'one often wonders how it fared with the colony. Was it still a haven of peace or a harbour of war?' Happily, they did somehow survive, and the Swiss traveller Ella Maillart came across some of them in Khiva in 1932.

Having spent a busy week in Khiva, Mrs Christie took her leave of the Kornilovs:

After a week of great kindness I had at length to say farewell to my hospitable friends, and their orchard with its singing birds. Natalya An looked quite sad as we left and, as parting gifts for the journey, she gave me a bag of loaves, a fruit cake, a box of dried pickled cabbage and a bag of camel wool. Kind Natalya An, who could then have dreamt of such a fate awaiting you?

For Natalya Anatolyevna and her husband were brutally murdered by the Bolsheviks when Khiva fell to this last in a long line of conquerors. For a while the territory of the Khanate survived as the small Republic of Khorezm, with Khiva as its capital, but in 1924 even this vestige of its identity vanished. The western lands became part of Turkmenistan, while those to the east, including Khiva itself, were taken into the fringes of Uzbekistan. In 1968 the wicked old town underwent its final transformation and became a conservation area.