Khiva is the only fully preserved (though heavily restored) ancient city on the Great Silk Road. Khiva was founded about 2500 years ago and is now and open air museum, which is sometimes even called the “eighth wonder of the world” offering an enormous amount of architectural monuments recognized in the UNESCO World heritage site list (Itchan Kala). It is one of the once grand cities of the Khoresm oasis in the southern delta of the Amu Darya, south of the Aral Sea just 10 km north from the border of Turkmenistan and where the Kyzyl-Kum desert begins.
This walled ancient city is one of the most popular destinations in Uzbekistan by both domestic and foreign tourists. Khiva was a vital Silk Road stop-off where the sale of camels, carpets, coffee, and concubines shaped business here. As the significant trade route between China and Europe flourished, Uzbekistan became a significant spot: between 2BC and the 1300s.
Khiva has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times and now the city is preserved. The town was seized by Arab invaders, conquered by Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan, then eventually overthrown by Amir Timur – whose empire extended from Iraq to India.
How to Get to Khiva
Traveling by rail is the ideal way to travel between the largest cities of Uzbekistan and the same applies also to Khiva. The train station is quite new, opened at the end of 2018 and also serves the high speed Afrosiab trains. A peculiar observation from the train station is that you can have access to a VIP lounge like in an airport if you are willing to use few dollars or euros for coffee and snacks. It provides you with better toilet facilities and nice sofas to wait for the train.
There is a newly quite nicely built shopping haven between the train station and Itchan Kala to catch the tourists while making their way towards the walled city.
There are two daily flights from Tashkent to Urgench taking 1 h 20 min. There are also straight international flights from Russian cities like Moscow and Saint-Petersburg.
The Urgench Khorezm Airport airport is located about 40 km northeast from Khiva and there are regular very inexpensive trolleybuses traveling between Khiva and Urgench taking about 1 h and of course the cheap Uzbek taxis taking about 30 mins.
Regular daily (Soviet) trains operate from Tashkent to Khiva taking about 16 h. Along the way, they stop at numerous stations like Samarkand, Navoi and Bukhara. There are also the modern Afrosiab train connections that are a lot faster and stop in fewer statiosn. There are also night trains leaving in the evening and having you in Khiva by the morning.
Khiva train station is located less than a 1 km east from Ichan Kala. You can get there easily by walk. Book your tickets beforehand here.
Bus / Taxi
The closest intercity bus station to Khiva is located in Urgench. You can get to Urgench by taxi or trolleybus. That said, Khiva is quite far from other major Uzbek destinations: Tashkent 990 km, Samarkand 690 km, Bukhara 450 km, Fergana valley 1300 km, Shahrisabz 1020 km and Nukus 180 km. Therefore bus is not your first choice of travel to/from Khiva.
If you are traveling also in Turkmenistan, Khiva is not far from Konye Urgench and the numerous sightes there.
Ichan Kala is the inner walled city of Khiva and has had the status of a museum already since 1967 when the Soviet Union recognized the value of the architectural heritage inside the city walls especially from the point of view of tourism. Some say that the formerly rebel city of thieves and slave traders was tamed by Soviet rule into a showcase city without a soul. Most of the people living inside the walled area were driven also out and now only 2 000 locals live inside the walls from the total of 40 000 Khivans. You can’t purchase property here, the land has to be passed down through families. And if you wish to decorate your garden you need permission from Unesco. Nevertheless, Khiva and Ichan Kala remain as the most homogenous collection of old architecture in the Islamic world.
The inner walled city occupies an area of about 30 hectares and has a rectangular form. Khiva was located inside the limits of the Ichan-Kala fortress in the 16th -17th centuries, surrounded by a powerful clay wall with a height reaching 8-10 m and in parts 6-8 m thick and a length of more than 2200 m. Built from adobe mud bricks, the oldest remaining sections of the walls date to the 5th century AD, though much of what you see is of far later (17th century) construction (the strongest sections were added by Arang Khan, son of Anusha Khan, in 1686-1688). The Ichan-Kala’s strengthened walls, with semicircular towers on its perimeter, provided reliable protection for the Khiva City.
There used to be a lancet gallery with holes and towers on the upper part of the wall and the Darwaza (the gates) were located at the center of each of the four parts of the Ichan-Kala walls. Four large gateways allowed access through the walls. The guards posted here would have been heavily armed and closely monitored everyone and everything entering and leaving the city. The gates look as historic as the walls but the ones you see today were rebuilt in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Ichan Kala has a stunning amount of sights to be seen. There is a risk of getting exhausted of the monuments and architecture that the tourist will face inside. Below we present most of the sights but for sure we have missed something. There is enough to be explored for 1-2 days at least and more outside the walls.
Ichan Kala City wall Gates
Tash Darvaza (Southern Gate)
Tash Darvaza (Stone Gate) (1830-1840), the arrival point for caravans from the Caspian area, where twin stairwells lead to a first-floor viewing platform. It was restored during the reign of Allah Kuli Khan receiving a guardhouse and a customs office.
Bakcha Darvaza (Northern Gate)
Bakcha Darvaza (Garden Gate) is the Northern gate of Ichan Kala with double-sided guardrooms. It was the place of taxation for the caravans arriving from Urgench.
Ata-Darvaza (Western Gate)
The Ata-Darvaza Gate was destroyed in 1920 in order to build a road and was restored only in the 1970s. Most visitors enter the city through this western Ata Darvoza (Father Gate) gate. This is the only gate where you need to pay the entrance fee to enter the walled city area.
Palvan Darvaza (Eastern Gate)
Polvon Darvaza (Warriors’ Gate), is the gate where royal announcements were declared back in the days. It dates from 1806 and was once the entrance to the famous slave market. In the 17th-18th centuries this place held the ancient gates in which the Khan’s prison was located. Under Iltuzar Khan (1804-1806) and then under Alla-Kuli Khan the gates were later restored anew.
Madrassas and Mosques of Khiva
Khiva was focused on developing religious education and religious debate and its wealthier residents were competing to beat each other by building larger, richer and more elaborate madrassas. Eventually, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were 65 madrassas in Khiva and 54 of them within the city walls. Furthermore there were nearly 100 mosques in the city, highlighting the it’s significance as a religious center.
The Slave Trade
The wealth of Khiva also has a dark past. In the 19th century, Khiva was well known for its brutal slave trading market. Each man materially owned a personal slave to work his fields. Russian men were always in demand as workers, although Persian women were highly prized for the harem.
Juma Mosque and Minaret
Juma Mosque has an impressive feeling with the the dim insides and the scent of time-worn wood. The roof is supported by 213 unique columns of elm wood, some of which date back to the 10th century. You can feel like standing in a forest of elegantly carved, curvaceous trees. Most columns are from the 18th century when the mosque was repaired after earthquakes.
Kheivak well is the holy of holiest in the history of Khiva. It is told that the city of Khiva began its existance from this well. Information about the city dates back to the 5th century BC and a legend says that the water from this well had an amazing taste. The well was accordingly dug by the order of Shem, the son of the biblical Noah. Today Kheyvak well is located in one of the courtyards of the northwestern part of Ichan Kala, not far from the city wall.
According to the historians, a special clay was used in the construction of the Kheivak well that was mined from 2 km away in the territory called Govuk-Kul. Nowadays, there is a large lake in this place and the quality of the clay still mined there is excellent. There is even a belief that all the clay for the construction of Ichan-Kala was taken from the same place, where the prophet Muhammad mined it during the construction of Medina. Since then, the lake has been considered a holy source.
Kuhna Ark (“Old fortress”) is the Khiva rulers’ fortress and residence, first built in the 12th century by one Ok Shihbobo, then expanded by Muhammad-Erenk Khan (1687-1688) in the 17th century. There were the Khan’s mosque, residence, supreme court, reception (kurinysh-khan), powder mill, arsenal, mint, registry, harem, kitchens, stables, guardhouse and other structures.
Zindan means darkness in Persian and refers to the fact that most Central Asian jails took the form of underground pits. However, that was not possible in Khiva due to the high water table. Zindan city jail (1910) was a special place for executions which lies outside the main gates. It is equipped with chains, flails, and a series of pictures re-creating cruel tortures and executions. The square in front of the Zindan drew frequent crowds for the public- executions of the kind witnessed by Vambery.
Originally the prison consisted of three smallish rooms, an outer guard room (which is now destroyed), a jail for tax offenders, and an inner room for those accused of committing more dangerous crimes. Prisoners were never kept detained for very long: tax offenders were held until relatives had paid off their debts while the more hard-core prisoners were chained for seven days with a water and toilet break just once a day. If their families did not come up with the demanded money by the end of this period the prisoner would simply be taken out and executed.
Pakhlavan Makhmoud Mausoleum
The turquoise dome of the Pakhlavan Mahmud is the largest dome in Khiva. Pahlavan Mahmud was a poet, philosopher and wrestler and even was considered a patron of a healer throughout Khiva, Iran and India.
The Anusha-Khan Bathhouse
In the east, baths have played a significant role in culture, society, and urban civil architecture. The baths of Anush Khan in Khiva are the earliest architectural monument of the city eventually are of particular value as an example of architecture in the Middle Ages. The Anusha-khan bathhouse is located next to the Ak-Mosque and was constructed in 1657. The bathhouse was under continuous repair and rebuilt repeatedly. It is believed that Anusha-Khan was developed as a part of this Ak-Mosque in honor of the Anusha-khan by his father the Abulgazi-khan (1644-1664) the governor and the well-known historian. Like many structures of the ancient world, the baths were built for centuries, impressive with the thoughtfulness of water supply, heating and sanitation systems. Anusha-khan bathhouse is a semi-underground construction with several premises and an underground heating system. The bases are deep in the ground to allow the heat to remain longer. Domes of the bathhouse with its light vertical holes on top are only visible outside. Like other eastern bathhouses, it consists of a lobby and premises for undressing and bathing.
The baths of Anush Khan are vital because the technologies used in construction are quite progressive for the middle of the 17th century. Ancient structures are not inferior to modern baths in terms of convenience and efficiency. Until today the baths complex is preserved in good condition and continues to serve as a health center in Khiva.
Tash-Hauli means “Stone courtyard” the new palace formed during the period of Allakuli-khan (1825-1842). Tash-Hauli was built in the eastern part of Ichan Kala and soon became the political, public and trading center of Khiva.
Allakuli Khan Caravanserai
In 1831, in the eastern part of Ichan-Kala was created a large market area by the order of Khiva’s Khan. Here was erected a shopping arcade selling grains, fruits, soaps, and candles. There were also a series of small trading houses and in the adjacent site as well as a place of the slave trade. Due to the development of trade relations with Bukhara, Iran and especially with Russia Alla Kuli Khan started in the place construction of the caravanserai.
The caravanserai, designed during the reign of Allakuli Khan in 1832 – 1833 architecturally close to the majestic madrasah. The foreign merchants can stay here, store and sell their goods in. The building also had a special entrance for pack animals. The caravanserai, however, had to be fit into Ichan-Kala, so they destroyed the part of the town wall at the palace and set the building with its side part in Ichan-Kala and its facade facing the bazaar square outside it. Later they attached a roofed bazaar to the facade entrance of the caravanserai.
Dishan-Kala has persevered to the present much less than Ichan-Kala. This is due to the devastating invasion of the Iranians and simply the passage of time without much effort of residents to restore and renovate the ancient structures. The Soviet times destruction of old homes in the area has also played a role in the current look of the outside walls and the area between the walls. Only some parts of walls (northwest and south from Ichan Kala) with gates and few architectural monuments have survived but the area itself is less restored and offers a glimpse to the true life of moden day Khivans.
Dishon Kala is a lot less decorated with the narrow dirt roads and people living in the streets and hanging their clothes to dry on the walls and between the houses. No doubts that the Uzbek authorities will soon realize that some tourists wander off from the designated area and the looks of the nearby areas will also be lifted. This is already happening in the areas nearby the train station in the currently or previously empty areas.
Our advice is to wear your older shoes and to explore the areas west and southeast from the Ichan kala where some of the most authentic guest houses are also located. Nurullaboy Saroyi inside Dishon Qala is also a must see place just 200 – 300 meters northwest from Ichan Kala NW corner.
Outer City Wall
The outer wall was originally built at the rule of Allakuli Khan in the middle of the nineteenth century to protect the city from the attacks of the military Turkmens. According to the order of the governor, every resident had to work on the construction of the wall twelve days a year without compensation. The number of working residents has been estimated being about two hundred thousand so with the abundant working force, everything was completed within about three years. The length of the fortifications was about 6 kilometers, the height of the walls reaches 8 meters, their thickness is slightly less and in the most fortified places is 6 meters. There are longer sections of the wall intact south and northwest from Ichan kala and three gates have remained as well: Kosh-Darvaza, Gandimyan-Darvaza and Khazarasp-Darvaza, although there were ten gates at the beginning.
The Northern gates “Kosh Darvoza” were established in 1912 and included three narrow cylindrical towers connected by arched passages with crenelated railings. The central facade of the gate is decorated with mosaics and small domes with azure tiles.
Khazarasp-Darvaza was built in the middle of the 19th century in the style of two wide observation towers, between which there is a large arched passage with railings decorated with teeth.
Gandimyan-Darvaza was built in 1842, but then demolished and restored according to old drawings in 1970. The gate has two narrow cylindrical towers with an arched passage, above which is a gallery with finials in the form of teeth. The domes of the towers are decorated with blue tiles.
Summer Palaces of Khiva Emirs
Nurullah-Bai palace lies in the northwestern part of Dishan-Qala. The palace was established by Muhammad Rahim Khan II for his son and heir Asfendiyar-khan from 1906-1912. The Nurullah-Bai palace resembles Sitorai-Mohi-Hosa in Bukhara with a diverse mix of Khivan and European architecture.
The palace includes the reception hall of Asfendiyar-Khan, courtyard, living quarters and madrassah. The reception was built in the European or Oriental style to accommodate foreign guests. The palace consisted of seven rooms and in the construction was utilized the force of German colonists particularly in the decoration of the ceilings, windows, and parquet. Decorative ceramic tiles were manufactured in Saint Petersburg.
Kibla Tozabog lies 2 km south-west from Khiva in the area of 0,5 ha. It is one of the summer residences of Khiva Khans of the Kungrat dynasty. Kibla Tozabog palace was constituted in 1897 by command of the Khiva Khan Muhammad Rahimhan II.
He was the eleventh ruler of Khiva from the Kungrat dynasty. Muhammad Rahimhan started the development of his summer residence Kibla Tozabog in 1897. The complex includes three yards of various sizes. In every yard, located a large two-storey houses decorated from outside with carved wooden columns. Today it accommodates a health center where one can spend weekend and taste the dishes of Khorezmian cuisine.
Sights near Khiva
Page updated 14.2.2021