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Khiva Inner City (Ichon Qala) map

Cities in Central Asia were traditionally split into two, isolated one from another as in Khiva: an internal town - Ichan-Kala (the shakhristan), and an external town - Dishan-Kala (the rabad).

The mysterious City of Khiva has managed to keep an exotic image of the eastern city in the ancient Ichan-Kala, where numerous architectural monuments are located.

Since 1967 Khiva's status as a museum city has ensured it remains the most homogenous collection of architecture in the Islamic world, deep-frozen, immune to time and lost in romantic imagination. The formerly renegade city of thieves and slave traders was tamed by Soviet rule into a showcase city without a soul. Today, however, Khivans are cautiously returning to the Ichan Kala, as if awakening from a bad dream, and traditional building work continues apace. Tourists and wedding parties can appear to outnumber local families - some 2,000 of Khiva's 40,000 people live inside Ichan Kala - but in the soft light of dawn and dusk the quiet riot of Central Asian life again murmurs behind baked mud walls.

The heart of the museum, the Ichon Qala seems like a time warp. Devoid of cars in its central areas, and with most of the modern infrastructure hidden from view, if you wake up and get out early, or take a walk late in the evening once the crowds have gone, then you'll capture a glimpse of Khiva in a bygone age, albeit rather cleaner. The density of sites, in particular the madrassas, means you're unlikely to be able to take everything in, and regular refreshment breaks will certainly be in order.

The internal city occupies an area of about 30 hectares and has a rectangular form. Khiva was located in the limits of the Ichan-Kala fortress in the XVI and XVII centuries and is surrounded by a powerful clay wall with a height reaching 8-10 m, and in parts 6-8 m thick and a length of more than 2200 m. Built from adobe mud bricks, the oldest remaining sections of the walls date from the 5th century ad, though much of what you see is of far later (17th century) construction (the strongest sections were added by Arang Khan, son of Anusha Khan, in 1686-1688). The Ichan-Kala's reinforced walls, with semicircular towers on its perimeter, provided a reliable protection of Khiva City. There was a lancet gallery with loopholes and turrets on the upper part of the wall and the darvaza (the gates) were located at the centre of each of the four parts of the Ichan-Kala walls. Four substantial gateways allowed access through the walls; the sentries posted here would have been heavily armed, and closely monitored everyone and everything entering and leaving the city. Though they look as historic as the walls, the gateways you see today were rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The western - Ata-Darvaza are located at the Kunya-Arch (the khan's fortress), the northern - Bakhcha-Darvaza on the road to Urgench, the eastern - Palvan-Darvaza are postioned adjacent to the Khazarasp and the Amu Darya River, the southern - Tash-Darvaza on the sand of the Kara-Kum. The Ata-Darvaza Gate was destroyed in 1020, and was restored in the 1970s.

Most visitors today enter the city within a city through its western Ata Darvoza (Father Gate), rebuilt in 1975 after the original was pulled down to open the medieval city to motor traffic in 1920s. To the north lie the double-sided guardrooms of the Bakcha (Garden) Darvoza, where customs duties would be collected from the caravans arriving from Urgench. To the south is the Tash or Stone Darvoza (1830-40), the arrival point for caravans from the Caspian area, where twin stairwells lead to a first-floor viewing platform. It was rebuilt during the reign of Allah Kuli Khan, contained a guardhouse and customs office. To the east lie the Polvon Darvoza (Warriors' Gate or East Gate), where royal proclamations were announced. It dates from 1806 and was once the entrance to the slave market;

These gates would seal the town from dusk to dawn and offer protection lo a city plagued by nomadic raids and desert storms. It is still possible to walk along the city walls from the northern Bakcha Gate to the edge of the Ark.

The historical centre of Khiva, in particular the Ichan-Kala fortress, is entered in the list of the world heritage sites of UNESCO. There are a significant number of architectural monuments: khan palaces, mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums, minarets. The basic part of Khiva monuments were constructed in the XVIII and XIX centuries. At this time, there was an original architectural style in the Khoresm oasis, characterised by its majolica facings, wood, marble and alabaster plaster carvings. Because of this a number of Khiva's buildings differ in their intricate ornamental styles covering their columns, arches, walls, arched ceilings and doors. The original line of the many facets of the domes and towers are interlaced with blue tiles, with their colours dissolving in the clear blue sky.

Of equal importance is the lay-out of Ichan-Kala which has kept the intricacy of its small streets and narrow dead-end alleys, typical of old eastern cities.

As to the external city of Dishan-Kala, it is a belt of residential settlements, which developed around the Ichan-Kala, which is also enclosed by earlier fortifications.

The two-day ticket gives you access to all the sights and museums in the Ichon-Qala besides the various viewpoints and the Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum. Though you are free to walk around the Ichon-Qala without a ticket, you just won’t be able to access (or, technically, to photograph) any sights.

One highlight for which no ticket is needed is the walk along the northwestern section of the wall. The stairs are at the North Gate. The 2.5km-long mud walls date from the 18th century, rebuilt after being destroyed by the Persians.

Legend about Ichan-Kala

Judging by archaeological data, Khiva already existed in the V and VI centuries as a stop or a caravanserai at Kheyvak (Khiva/Kheyva/Kheyvak), on the ancient route from Merv to Gurgandzh. Proceeding from this, archaeologists believe that the remains of ancient fortified constructions around the caravanserai were partially the basis of the Ichan-Kala walls, dating back to the V century. Legend narrates, that the Kheyvak well, water from which had a surprising taste, was dug out by Sim, the son of the biblical Noah.

Today, the Kheyvak well is located at the north-west wall of Ichan-Kala. Traces of very ancient stone-work and the remains of the dome construction can still be seen; covered nowadays with desert blown sand and earth. Clay for the building of the walls was taken from a site two kilometres from the city, in the Govuk-kul area, where there is now a large lake. Today, as in ancient times, local clay is of an excellent quality and is used by modern potters. Legend has it that when The Prophet Muhammad built Medina, the clay from this area was used, and the lake, which appeared later, is considered to be sacred.