Trans Eurasia travel

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The burial places of Sufi holy men were not simply tombs but also pilgrimage places. As pilgrims gave donations as well as prayers, it was possible to build elaborate mausoleums, sometimes centuries after the holy man's death, and so to not only immortalise his memory but also ensure a constant stream of pilgrims (and their money) in the future. Despite the best efforts of the Soviet state to wipe out such practices completely, pilgrims do still occasionally come to the mausoleums to pray, and so you should act in a respectful manner and remove your shoes before entering the burial chambers.

The oldest surviving building in Khiva is the Mausoleum of Sayyid Ala'uddin. The earliest part of the mausoleum, the domed burial vault, was built in 1303 and contains a stunning blue and green majolica tile-covered casket. It is thought that the tiles were made in Konya-Urgench prior to the city's relocation. Ala'uddin was a holy man from the Naqshbandi order of Sufis (Islamic mystics).

Originally similar in size and style, the Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum (also known as Palvan Pir) marks the final resting place of Pahlavan Mahmud, a local wrestler, poet and furrier who unexpectedly became a revered saint. The complex was expanded substantially in the 17th and 18th centuries to include a summer mosque, cemetery, reading rooms, kitchen and a decorative portico, and there are 19th-century additions too. A number of significant Khivan figures are buried here including Abdul Gazi Khan (1663), Muhammad Rahim Khan I (1825) and the mother and son of the assassinated Isfandiyar.

You enter the complex through an 18th-century portal that opens out onto a pleasant courtyard framed by a khanagha and hujras, the summer mosque and well. Each surface is exquisitely decorated in every imaginable shade of blue, blue-green and turquoise, and a vast blue dome, restored in 1993 after it was brought down by unexpectedly heavy snowfall, looms above it all. Pahlavan Mahmud is buried behind a screen inlaid with ivory, local folk motifs decorating his eternal chamber.

Four other mausoleums, those of the emirs Abdul Gazi Khan, Alia Kuli Khan, Anusha Khan and Mohammad Rahimkhan II are also to be found in the same complex and are worth visiting.