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Memories of Khiva

Sacred Horses: The Memoirs of a Turkmen Cowboy by Jonathan Maslow

Khiva is a walled Islamic city built in the seventh through twelfth centuries, miraculously preserved considering the successive waves of warfare and destruction that swirled again and again across Central Asia. In its final incarnation it was the seat of the last Central Asian khan who traced his ancestry directly back to Genghis -Khan. Along with his harem of 350 wives, he was deposed by the Bolsheviks in 1921. His poster bed is still there for tourists to photograph, though the comrades removed the bedding and bricked up the cell doors of the seraglio long ago.

In its earlier lives, Khiva was rebuilt, moved, and renamed several times—the city was far more interesting as part of Khwarizm, the site of one of the most important and ancient markets along the network of caravan routes later named the Great Silk Road. Its geographic position near the Amu Darya also put it along the rough line dividing settled agricultural peoples from the nomadic steppes, and at one fateful point, it was also the immediate western neighbor of Genghis Khan's empire, which spread all the way from the Syr Darya River to China.

An idea of what the city was like when caravans hearing goods lor China to trade for silk stopped here is provided by the fourteenth century Arab traveler Ibn Battutah, who called it "the largest, most considerable, beautiful, and majestic city of Turks, with fine bazaars, wide streets, numerous buildings, and impressive views. In the city life is in full swing, and seems like the perturbing sea because of the great number of citizens." Crossing this city, Ibn Battutah came to a market, and suddenly found himself so stuck in a swarm of humanity that he "could move neither forward nor backwards." Such a great population presupposes a highly productive farming system, one that depended on large-scale irrigation from the canalization of the Amu Darya River.

Driving to Khiva, my first impression was of a magical sand castle; enormously high, smooth, yellow mud-brick walls form perfectly geometrical angles of shadow and sunlight, behind which rise turquoise-blue towers of mausoleums, mosques, minarets, and the university.

We parked and walked in. The city is a national historical treasure with no vehicles allowed. In the days of the Khwarizm shahs, said our guide, who had little tusks like a wild boar stuck into a Mongolian face with crossed eyes and a triple chin, the muezzins climbed the stairs of the minaret five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. They were religious athletes, and each kept a special wife whose sole responsibility was to rub his legs between trips up the steep steps of the 250-foot tower. "It kept their hearts in such good shape that the muezzins often lived to be one hundred," said the guide.

It was not until Moira, Kurbangul, and I climbed one minaret and looked out over the flat plains that I had some idea of what it must have been like to live on this frail perch of civilization at a time when a cloud of dust in the distance meant either a caravan or an attack by marauding nomads. The geographic fact that these pastoral peoples, in their ignorance and contempt of settled agriculture as tantamount to slavery, and their view of trade caravans as easy and legitimate prey, moved at no great distance from cities like Khiva, probably made conflict inevitable. There is no way of really knowing what envy or hatred the affluence and culture of cities like Khiva aroused in the nomads, condemned to live on the fringes of civilization while caliphs pleasured themselves in their watered gardens. In many respects they were like today's third world people standing hungry and sullen outside the charmed circle of the industrialized nations.

But it is wrong to read too much into the motives of a people who purposely left no written records - in fact, did not write at all, and thought of the invention only as a contemtible way of keeping tax accounts. In any case, the nomads were unlike the third world in at least one respect because they possessed the ultimate weapon of their day, the itinerant horse-mounted bowman. The Mongols, who took the field against Khwarizm in 1219 under Genghis Khan, traveled with a herd of twenty-five or thirty reserve horses following each soldier. These spares followed the bell mare the soldier usually rode, which was intended to eventually be eaten. It was the nomads' understanding of the horse's herd instincts, not superior training or military strategy, that gave them the ability to expand their empires so quickly and widely. A Mongol army could move tremendous distances rapidly because supply wasn't its business; each soldier was responsible for his own kit and provisions. Life on the march was not markedly different from during peacetime.

The Mongols were the last wave of nomads to overwhelm Khwarizm. To this day the people of the area retain their Mongolian looks; every guide and schoolchild knows the story of how Genghis Khan "killed the land" that had been Khwarizm, devising for the first time in history what has since become known as the scorched earth policy. It began peacefully enough with an exchange of embassies between the Mongol Khan, who had just conquered China, and the Khwarizmshah Mohammed. Genghis Khan's gifts included a famous piece of gold said to be the size of a camel's hump, so weighty that it required a cart of its own. The Mongol Khan suggested a peace agreement, and was ready to consider Mohammed as "equal with my dear sons." Probably, the khan meant this as a high compliment, but Mohammed thought that "son" was a demeaning term for dependence. The Khwarizmshah took umbrage and laid plans to lower the Mongol's pretensions.

Thinking the trade route through Khwarizm safeguarded by his friendly diplomacy, Genghis Khan sent a caravan of four hundred Muslim merchants and five hundred camels loaded with gold, silver, silk, and sables. But when it tried to cross the Syr Darya River at Otrar and enter the Khwarizmshah's lands, Mohammed's deputy Inalchik detained the caravan, accused the merchants of spying, and beheaded everyone. Even so, Genghis Khan only demanded that Inalchik be delivered to him. Mohammed refused, so it was he himself who brought the Mongols down on his people's heads.

Genghis Khan split up his forces three ways, placing his sons at the head of two of the armies, and moved with terrible effect against Khwarizm. At that time Khwarizm consisted of a number of walled cities set set in fertile valleys connected across arid plains by caravan roads—what Charles Lamb called "a kind of chain of human life and dwellings extending through the barrens." The cities included Bukhara and Samarkand, "the citadels of Islam," as well as Merv, Khiva, Urgench, and Otrar. Before his campaign against Khwarizm, the Mongol chieftain was not well known in the Near East or Western Europe; afterward, he was called the "scourge of God" for what he did to these garden spots of Asia.

At Otrar on the Syr Darya River, the two sons laid siege for five months, and succeeded in killing all Mohammed's soldiers and capturing Inalchik. He was sent to Genghis Khan, who ordered molten silver poured into his eyes and ears, the traditional death of Mongol retribution. The walls of Otrar were razed and the population driven away.

Genghis Khan himself headed for Bukhara, hoping to find the shah, who had already fled. When the garrison of twenty thousand Turkic troops tried to follow Mohammed out, the Mongols caught them at the Amu Darya and put them to the sword. With the city left undefended, Mongol horsemen surged in, broke into the granaries, stabled their horses in the libraries, ravished women in front of their husbands and fathers, and trampled the Koran underfoot. According to legend, Genghis Khan is supposed to have ridden his horse up the steps of the mosque, dismounted at the reader's lectern, and ordered the mullahs to find provender for his army. The Mongols plundered Bukhara at leisure and set it to the torch; then the population was driven toward Samarkand before their army as a human shield.

On reaching Samarkand, with its orchards and groves, flower gardens and ponds, the Mongols drove the population of Bukhara straight into the arrows of the Turk defenders, let the bodies mount up as high as the walls, and then simply marched over them into the city. The Kankali Turk garrison, thirty thousand strong, immediately surrendered; the Mongols received them amiably, gave them Mongol military dress, and two nights later massacred every one of them.

Perhaps the worst was saved for the city of Urgench, the shah's seat. Having recently conquered China, Genghis Khan brought with him to Khwarizm Chinese engineers with siege machines and naphtha bombs. For the first time he had the technology not to simply vanquish, but to annihilate his enemies. He was a very methodical person who believed that any job, including destruction, was worth doing thoroughly. The Mongols settled in for a long siege in front of Urgench, but lacking stones for their Chinese casting machines, they cut down all the big trees, hewed them into blocks, and soaked the wood in flammable materials. You wouldn't want to be standing underneath when one of these flaming blocks fell out of the sky.

Though the Mongols burned and trampled the standing crops, it still took months to starve the city out. To repay its citizens for the time it had taken, the conquerors went to the considerable trouble of having their Chinese engineers dam the Amu to alter its course so that it flowed directly over the debris of wasted houses and walls.

The Khwarizm campaign left the garden cities of Islam a desert. Nothing was left; a once-fertile kingdom was made barren. The French historian Grousset has pointed out that this wasn't evil or even savagery as much as that the nomads simply had no idea what to do with captured cities, no administrative experience in running them, and no ambition to rule them or live in them. Genghis Khan's idea was to create an uninhabitable buffer between the Mongol grazing lands and the Turkic or Arabian empires to the west. In the countryside, the Mongols targeted dams, waterworks, and irrigation canals. Destruction of the great dam at Merv was one of Genghis Khan's lasting achievements in Central Asia. Soviet historians long maintained that the Mongol Tatars unleashed such destruction during the Khwarizm campaign that they succeeded in "killing" a part of the Earth. In this restricted sense, the Kara Kum Desert is manmade.

Memories of Khiva