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Kuhna Ark

"Jeanette took us next to the Kunya Ark, or old fortress. We entered through another huge, carved wooden gate, past a magnificent iwan. These roofed, three-walled structures acted as primitive air-conditioners, capturing cooler northern breezes and circulating them. Most were simple but this one was part of the Khan's palace, held up by immense fluted pillars decorated with intricate carving. The three walls were completely tiled, with stalks, leaves, blossoming lotuses and peonies winding around each other, covering each wall in mesmerising complexity. This was a place I would return to later, to discover potential carpet designs."

Christopher Aslan Alexander "A Carpet Ride to Khiva" 2010

To your left after you enter the West Gate stands the Kuhna Ark – the Khiva rulers’ own fortress and residence, first built in the 12th century by one Ok Shihbobo, then expanded by the khans in the 17th century. The Ark became "a city in a city" at the end of the XVIII century, separated from Ichan-Kala by a high wall. The fortress consisted of the Khan's office, a reception hall, the harem, a winter and summer mosque, a mint, and subsidiary premises such as stables, warehouses and workshops. The squat protuberance by the entrance, on the east side of the building, is the Zindon (Khans’ Jail), with a display of chains, manacles and weapons, and pictures of people being chucked off minarets, stuffed into sacks full of wild cats etc.

In fact, the khans of Khiva had several residences during the century before Soviet rule, including the Tash Hauli of Allakuli Khan and Nurullabai Palace of Isfandiar, but the Kukhna Ark, or Old Fortress, remains the original and has for centuries provided fortified refuge during times of uncertainty. The foundations of the Ark date from the fifth century, but most of the complex was added to piecemeal in the 19th century by successive khans.

The premises of the Kunya-Ark fortress were grouped round the court yards, and the court yards were connected with a system of corridors. The entrance to the fortress was decorated with a gate resembling the Palvan-Darvaza. The towers were earlier topped by lanterns with turrets connecting them to the fortifications. In the first small court yard, adjoining the gate, ambassadors waited to be received by the Khan. Seven guns with gun carriages were located in the second court yard, and in the third the Khan's council gathered. The largest court yard was entered through a corridor - kurinish-khona, where a yurt was established in the centre on a round platform, where the Khan sat and received his guests.

Ak Sheikh Bobo mosque in Kunya ark Pass through the main entrance gate and turn right for the gorgeous tilework of the summer mosque (1838), open-air and beautiful with superb blue-and-white plant-motif tiling and a red, orange and gold roof. The tiles were made by local masters Ibadullah and Abdullah Jin, who also decorated large parts of the Tash Hauli and Pakhlavan Mahmoud Mausoleum. In the corner of this small courtyard lies the old mint which funded the expansionary exploits of Rakhim Khan I from 1806-1825. Today the mint holds a collection of coins, medals and silk banknotes, dense with dawning socialist suns, from the early Khorezm Republic and a mock-up of a blacksmith's workshop where Khivan coins were minted. Side rooms focus on Khorezmian archaeology, featuring photos of a mud mask found at Koi Krylgan Kala and the notebook and water bottle used by Russian Archaeologist Sergei Tolstov during his pioneering desert expeditions.

Return from the mint to the main courtyard, original home to the offices of court advisers, and head west for the Kurinish Khana or Throne Room (1804-06), where the khan would grant public audience, either in the open summer iwan or in a warm winter yurt set upon its circular brick platform. Open-air throne room is where khans dispensed judgement (if not justice). The circular area on the ground was for the royal yurt, which the no-longer-nomadic khans still liked to use.

It was here that the Russian Captain Muraviev was finally granted a royal audience after seven weeks of deliberation when his fate hung in the balance. The small court has beautiful ceiling decoration and geometric tilework, with fine ganch and a decorated mihrab in the room behind. It was here that the wooden throne of the khan, built in 1816 and gilded in silver, traditionally stood until it was carted off to the Armour Chamber of St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum by the victorious Russians. The Uzbeks continue as yet unsuccessful negotiations to retrieve their stolen heritage. Other treasures are stored, and sometimes displayed, in the Arab Mohammed Khan Madrassah, now the site of the Khivan 'Fund', some 55,000 objects taken or bought from the local people in the 1920s.

At the back right corner of the throne room, a door in the wall leads to a flight of steps up to the watchtower, the original part of the Kuhna Ark, set right against the Ichon-Qala’s massive west wall.

From the throne room head north into the derelict former stables and armoury and thence either straight on to the finely decorated iwan of the khan's harem chambers (1806), or west into the fortified heart of the Ark, the Ak Sheikh Bobo Bastion. This core citadel, set against the city walls, is the oldest building in Khiva and foundations from the site are contemporary with the ancient Khorezmian fortresses, such as Toprak Kala, scattered in the surrounding deserts. While those citadels died of thirst, the Khivan heart grew into the Khanate, to be used as a hermitage by Mukluar Vali, the White Sheikh, and then as a watchtower and gunpowder arsenal. The top platform provides a classic Khivan profile, but dim lower halls require torchlight.

The square near the entrance in Kunya-Ark was used for military parades and training for battles. There was also a special place for executions. Just outside the main gates lies the most recent Zindan city jail (1910) equipped with manacles, flails and a series of pictures recreating fiendish tortures and executions. A telling insight into the Khivan judicial system was provided by an unflinching vizier in response to Burnaby's concerns over potential culprits who denied guilt: We beat him with rods, put salt in his mouth, and expose him to the burning rays of the sun, until at last he confesses.' The square in front of the Zindan drew frequent crowds for public- executions of the kind witnessed by Vambery.

Walk across the main square, past Khiva's deepest well, to the shimmering blue pishlak of the Mohammed Rakhim Khan Madrassah (1871), noted for its unusual front courtyard and heavy corner towers. The facade tilework was restored in September 1992 on the 150th birthday of Rakhim Khan (also known by the pen name of Feruz) and more cosmetic touches were added by the crew of Sally Potter's film Orlando. The Khivan Craft Centre opened here in 1998.

The madrassah currently houses a museum loosely dedicated to the history of the Khivan Khanate, though in summer it is also sometimes home to the enjoyable Darboz circus act. Exhibits begin in the left-hand chamber with an old flag of the Khanate of Khiva (whose five stars represent the five pillars of Islam) and an exhibition of local clothes and armour. The central rooms continue with a nervous mix of poetry and axes, an ornately inscribed robe belonging to the city head judge, or Kazi Kalyon, and a collection of flag poles inscribed with the Arabic word Allah, used by different regiments of the khan's army to distinguish them in battle. The right-hand mosque holds some fascinating turn of the century photographs of Feruz, Islam Khoja and Isfandiyar Khan, decorated in Russian military awards and flanked by turbaned viziers and smooth-looking Russian generals.

Feruz is an intriguing Central Asian character; the khan who, not unlike Bukhara's Abdul Ahad, straddled two ages and had the unenviable task of reconciling Russian domination with the fierce, nomadic independence of his subjects. On his three trips to St Petersburg he picked up a private printing press which produced nothing but his own poetry, he learned how to smoke and proudly bought a telephone, even though there was no connecting line for hundreds of kilometres. Back in Khiva he forced his harem into the most fashionable corsetry of the day and pressured his finance minister into learning how to play his grand piano. In 1873 he finally signed away his independence to become the tsar's 'obedient servant' and entered the Cossack Army as major-general. He died of a heart attack on 16 August 1910, aged 65, and was buried in the Magrumjan Complex outside the Ichan Kala.

Just south of the Kuhna Ark stands the fat, turquoise-tiled Kalta Minor Minaret. This unfinished minaret was begun in 1851 by Mohammed Amin Khan, who according to legend wanted to build a minaret so high he could see all the way to Bukhara.

Unfortunately, the khan dropped dead in 1855 and it was never finished. East of the minaret, beside the medressa housing Restoran Khiva, is the small, plain Sayid Alauddin Mausoleum, dating to 1310 when Khiva was under the Golden Horde of the Mongol empire. You might find people praying in front of the 19th-century tiled sarcophagus.

South of the madrassah, past the rebuilt Sheikh Mukhlar Ata Mosque and Matinyaz Divanbegi Madrassah (now the Restaurant Khiva), lies in rest the Tomb of Sayid Allauddin. This Mongol-era 14th century tomb is known as the earliest standing building in Khiva and was built by Kulyal Emir around the beautiful sagana tombstone of the Nakhshbandi Sufic master Sayid Allah ad-Din (died 1303). Its stunning ceramics probably came from Gurganj (Kunya Urgench).

Join the main street that strings the old town monuments together and turn right, past the long-suffering tourist camel Katya. Turn right again at the Kazi Kalyan Madrassah, built by the chief judge Salim Akhun (whose robe stands displayed in the Feruz Museum) and now home to a museum of music, and continue down a closeted, mud-walled street of madrassah workshops, korikhana hostels and a tiny museum devoted to poet Komil Khorezmy to the holiest necropolis in Khiva.

Interesting story from a book "A Carpet Ride to Khiva":

In the Kunya Ark - the Khan's fortress - we traced more doors and tiles with stunning designs. Entire walls were covered in majolica tiles. These had been so numerous that, when commissioned by Allah Kuli Khan in the 1830s, they were fired in different kilns, each tile with a painted Arab numeral, to be assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle. There was a small hole in the middle of each, where it could be nailed. Their name came from the island of Majorca where the colour combination of blue, white and turquoise predominated in ceramics. The ceramics were traded, and the cooling colour combination rapidly became popular among the inhabitants of hot, arid North Africa, and later Persia and Central Asia.

The tiles were coloured with white glaze made from lead, and with turquoise (meaning 'colour of the Turks') made from copper sulphate. The vivid midnight blue, however, was a pigment harder to come by.

In the 1960s a team of Russian specialists had been dispatched to Khiva to begin restoration. At the time there was one aged master ceramist left who knew the secret of midnight blue. Thrilled that his city would be restored to its former glory, he sought council with the Russians, offering to reveal his secret.

'I'm the last person alive who can make midnight blue,' he explained. 'Of course, everyone knows that it's made from the ash of the forty-joint desert bush, but do they know what I mix with it, or the exact temperature to fire it? No! But I will share it with you.'

His offer was spurned in favour of modern Soviet scientific methods of colouring the tiles. The secret of midnight blue was lost, and today the replacement tiles can easily be distinguished from the spectacular originals, appearing as if coloured in by a slightly dry marker pen.

The legend of Ak-sheikh-bobo

Ak-Sheikh-Bobo BastionAccording to legend, the castle towered over the whole Kunya-Ark fortress with its thick wall, semi towers and teeth "kun-gra" in the X and XI centuries. There is only one bastion, made of brick and stone, and from not burnt clay. This strange construction is also known as "Ak-sheikh-bobo" - "White sheikh". However, it has also another, similar sounding, more poetic name "Ashik-bobo" which means "the ena-moured-aged man". Now it is difficult to tell, what the basis for the name was. It appears that, there, high, behind the battlements, the Ak-Sheikh-Bobo Bastioneremite, left from the world, disappears. However, it is obvious, that this small house, or "chardara keshk", as they call such structures in Khoresm, were intended for patrol service and served as a bastion.

It is indeed a fine observation post: the whole of ancient Khiva can be viewed from here: resembling an ancient oriental fairy tale. The sky is pierced with a chain of minarets, mausoleums and mosques; their domes towering over the flat roves of houses, madrasahs and peshtaks, sparkling with blue tiles. They rise over the galleries of the shaded loggias, and the fortifications of the battlements alternate with the city gate's monumental portals. The Khan's palaces, surrounding court yard with elegant ayvans are located betwixt the labyrinths of small streets.