Once I stooped through a door into the back of a palace, and found myself in the courtyard of the khan's harem. It was quaintly beautiful. On three sides, over every facade, glistened a cool spray of tiles where painted roofs hung over galleries, and little doors showed. On the fourth, a rank of wooden columns tapered like inverted Once I stooped through a door into the back of a palace, and found myself in the courtyard of the khan's harem. It was quaintly beautiful. On three sides, over every facade, glistened a cool spray of tiles where painted roofs hung over galleries, and little doors showed. On the fourth, a rank of wooden columns tapered like inverted tulips, and scooped deep, shadowed bays from the walls. Every surface was worked into flowers, tendrils, inscriptions. It was as if for centuries, all over the courtyard, a legion of insects had been burrowing nervously across wood and marble, gnawing out, with minute, fastidious appetites, all the intricacy for which the patience of men was too short.
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron
Khiva's rulers and merchants may have spent vast sums endowing mosques and madrassas, but they also built luxurious, lavishly decorated homes in which they could entertain guests and enjoy themselves. Palaces (and, indeed, smaller houses) were divided into public areas for feasting, hosting guests and doing business, and private, residential areas where the family lived and the harem was kept out of view.
The Kunya Ark, was a fortified palace begun in 1686 by Arangan Khan, son of Anusha Khan. It was a town within a town, with its own defensive walls, mosques and offices, factories and stables, arsenal and mint as well as residential areas. A single gateway in the eastern wall gave access to the complex, which was guarded with copper cannons.
Sadly few of the Ark's original structures remain: when the khans moved into the Tash Khauli, their former home fell into disrepair, and many of the buildings you see date just from the 19th century. An attractive courtyard is surrounded by the winter and summer mosques, complete with blue and white floral tiles laid out to resemble creeping ivy, and the royal mint, built for Muhammad Rakhimkhan II. The mint holds a collection of coins, medals and bank notes, mostly from the 20th century, and a diorama of a blacksmiths shop.
It's also possible to visit the Kurinish Khana (throne room) built by Iltuzar Khan in 1804 to replace the earlier throne room destroyed during the Persian invasion.
This was the public audience hall, and the khans throne, made from wood covered with thin sheets of engraved silver, would have stood beneath the sumptuous ceiling above, the southern wall. Sadly the throne was taken as booty by the Russian army and is now in the Armoury at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The emir received his most important visitors here, including the Russian Captain Muraviev, or alternatively inside a yurt erected specially for nomadic guests on the round platform in the middle of the courtyard. The smaller rooms around the throne room would have housed the treasury and valuable manuscripts, and also have given the khan a quiet place to retreat to when required.
Elsewhere in the palace you can visit the Ak Sheikh Bobo Bastion, the Ark's fortified heart, which is the oldest place in Khiva; the foundations here are contemporaneous with the Toprak Fortress in Khorezm. Later in its history the bastion was used as a hermitage, a watchtower and an arsenal.
The newer Tash Khauli Palace was commissioned by Allah Kuli Khan in 1830. Construction of the 160-plus rooms took eight years and was undertaken by more than 1,000 slaves; the project's first architect was impaled for daring to suggest (correctly, so it later turned out) that the project may not be completed on time.
The oldest part of the palace is the harem, built around a courtyard. On the southern side of the courtyard are four open areas, one for each wife, and the more elaborate area on the eastern side was the summer living area of the khan himself. The other rooms would have been used by other female relatives, including the khan's mother and sisters. The blue and white tiles are fine, if a little staid, and the ceilings are attractively painted. It is thought they were prepared in a workshop and then lifted into place once complete.
A long corridor once linked the harem with the Ishrat Khauli (public court), though visitors are now required to take a more circuitous route. This is where the khan would have received envoys and other guests. As in the Kunya Ark there is space to erect a yurt in the courtyard; the throne room was on the upper floor. In addition to geometric majolica tiles you should also take a look at the calligraphy; the words are taken from the poet Ogahi.
The third courtyard is the Arz Khana (law court). Twice as large as the Ishrat Khauli, this was where the most important affairs of state took place. Allah Kuli Khan would have presided here for four hours each day and been expected to dispense justice. Defendants would exit the courtyard through one of the two gateways: the first was for those acquitted, the second led to the executioner. The tiles in this courtyard are considered amongst the finest in Khiva. Indeed, they were made by Abdullah the Genius, who was given this particular moniker after completing his work on the palace.
During the summer season dinner shows with traditional music and dance take place in the palace courtyard. Details and bookings are available through the information centre.