Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


At the start of the 20th century there were 65 madrassas in Khiva, 54 of them within the city walls. The city was a hotbed for religious education and religious debate, and its wealthier residents bid to outdo each other by building larger, richer and more elaborate madrassas. A selection of the most interesting examples is mentioned here, though there are plenty more you'll find whilst wandering through the streets.

The oldest madrassa in Khiva is the Hojashberdibiya Madrassa, parts of which date from 1688. A major rebuild for Allah Kuli Khan in 1834 divided the site in two and the new layout was said to resemble a saddlebag: it was consequently nicknamed hurjun, the saddlebag, and this name is still occasionally used today.

The imposing Shergazi Khan Madrassa was built by 5,000 Persian slaves captured by Shergazi Khan on a raid at Meshed in 1718. The slaves were promised their freedom once the madrassa was complete, but fearing (probably quite rightly) that he would renege on the deal, they took out their anger on the project manager and murdered him inside the unfinished madrassa in 1720. An inscription over the madrassas door remembers what purportedly were his final words: 'I accept death at the hands of slaves'. The madrassa's most famous student was the Turkmen poet Makhtum Kuli.

Qutlugh Murad Inaq, an uncle of Allah Kuli Khan, had the madrassa bearing his name constructed between 1804 and 1812 and hoped to be buried beneath its floors. When he died- (he was murdered by a rival) outside the city walls, it was thought to be inauspicious to bring the body through one of the gateways, and his family sat scratching their heads. Thinking outside the box, someone suggested the drastic step of demolishing a section of the eastern wall so that the madrassa straddled both the Ichon Qala and the Dishon Qala. The deed was done, and Qutlugh was buried beneath his madrassa's entrance way.

Further demolition was required to accommodate the Allah Kuli Khan Madrassa in 1834. Space was at a premium inside the citadel, so the external wall had to be removed to enable the city to expand. Some 99 student cells were constructed (this was an auspicious number), and the building also housed the municipal library, acquisitions for which were funded by profits from the Allah Kuli Khan Tim. The facade is richly decorated with dark blue, light blue and white majolica tiles.

The largest madrassa in Khiva is the two-storey Mohammad Amin Khan Madrassa (1851-55), which now houses the Orient Star Hotel. Some 250 students once studied here and it was considered a luxurious place to live: student cells had two rooms rather than the usual one, and they looked outward at the world rather than in to the courtyard. The High Muslim Court once had its registry office here, and held sessions in the central courtyard.

Mohammad Amin Khan was one of Khiva's most illustrious rulers, a strong leader who built effective alliances with neighbouring tribes but was also not above beating them bloodily into submission. He commissioned a number of buildings in Khiva including both this madrassa and the Kalta Minar, but his life and the construction of the minaret were simultaneously cut short in a rather grisly fashion when he was beheaded by a Turkmen horseman. If you wish to climb the Kalta Minar, access is from the northeast corner of this madrassa.

The most fabulous tile work is to be found on the Muhammad Rahimkhan II Madrassa, built in 1871 and restored in 1992, the 150th anniversary of its benefactor's birth. The blue and white majolica is set off by terracotta, and the resultant facade is sumptuous, particularly when viewed in the early evening. Inside you'll find a museum that explores the history of the Khivan Khanate, replete with flags, photographs, armour and robes. In summertime, performances of dance and circus acts occasionally take place in the courtyard in the evenings.

Muhammad Rahimkhan was himself an intriguing character: he was a fine poet and printed his work on his own printing press under the pseudonym Feruz; he admired Russian culture, smoked cigars and dressed his harem in corsets and crinolines; and when pressure from Russia mounted and he had to cede control to the tsar, he willingly gave up power and joined the army as a major general. He was a man whose rule straddled two markedly different eras and, as the photographs on display in the madrassa's right-hand mosque show, Muhammad Rahimkhan did a remarkably good job of reconciling them.

The striking turquoise Islam Khoja Madrassa (US$2) is a surprisingly late construction: it was completed only in 1908. Its founder, Islam Khoja, was grand vizier to the khan and an active educationalist. He introduced several educational reforms, endowed schools and hospitals, and his piece de resistance is this building. Sadly the completion of the project is tied up in tragedy: Islam Khoja was assassinated in 1913 and the madrassa's architect was buried alive by Emir Isfandiyar Khan as a potential witness to the murder.

The 42 rooms of the madrassa now house the Museum of Applied Arts (US$1.50). Though the selection of artefacts is not of such high quality as in similar museums in Tashkent and Bukhara, there are still a couple of interesting examples of royal costume, metalwork, leather goods, tiles and carved marble. You won't need long to walk round.

Madrassas are to Khiva as university colleges are to Oxford or Cambridge. As with the colleges, they were higher education institutions endowed by wealthy benefactors where teachers and students lived and worked together.

Endowing a madrassa was an expensive business. In addition to the construction costs for the buildings, benefactors were expected to donate enough land or property to support the students and teachers and to pay for the building's upkeep. The upside for the donor was that as the madrassa bore his name he would have a lasting legacy in the eyes of Khiva's population and, it was hoped, be looked upon favourably when he finally had to account for his good deeds before God.

The curriculum in the madrassas included both secular and religious subjects. Arabic grammar, sharia, and Arabic and Persian literature were taught to the youngest students, who could enter the madrassa at the age of 15; older students also studied logic and law. Classes took place four days a week throughout the year, and students were expected to pass an exam before taking their degree and being given an appropriate job by the khan.

The buildings themselves were divided into public and private areas. Public rooms included the mosque, an audience hall and teaching rooms, and to the rear of the madrassa were typically the students' hujras or ceils where they slept. In addition to the students and their teachers, the madrassa's community also included an imam, a muezzin to call the residents to prayer, a mutavalli (similar to a bursar), cleaners, barbers and water carriers.