Itchan Kala, Khiva, Uzbekistan – photo essay and tourist information
Itchan Kala, Khiva Old Town
Itchan Kala is the walled inner city of the silk road city of Khiva in Uzbekistan, which was once the last stop before Iran for caravans following the trade routes from China. The space is a magical place of more than 50 monuments and over 250 traditional dwellings and is arguably the finest collection of Muslim architecture anywhere in Central Asia. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1990.
Khiva: a little history
Built around the Khiva oasis, the town first came to prominence in the 4th century as the capital of Khorezm, an Iranian kingdom famous for its innovative methods of creating arable land from the coarse desert landscape. The city was conquered by the Arabs in 712 and then again by the Mongols in 1221, before finally being incorporated into the empire of Timur (Tamerlane). The Uzbeks first entered the scene in 1512 and Khiva became the capital of the Khiva Khanate. It would remain the main centre of an independent state until becoming a Russian protectorate in 1873.
… and a little information
The city of Khiva is rectangular and divided into two parts: the outer town (Dichan Kala) and the inner town (Itchan Kala) the latter of which is enclosed by city walls. Most of what can be seen today is the result of 18th & 19th century construction, with a few notable exceptions, and the majority of the city’s most important buildings are contained within the inner town along the main east-west road. This being said however, the effect of Khiva is not so much in its individual gems but in the effect of the whole urban composition with every building seeming to complement the next.
What to see
City Walls: Constructed of sun-dried bricks, the city walls range from 6 to 8 metres tall and are a significant 6 metres thick at the base. The walls have been destroyed numerous times but there still remains around 2.2km of the original constructions which date back to the 5th & 6th centuries.
City Gates: Entrance to Itchan Kala is obtained by the four gates that surround the old town. Bachtscha Darwase (North Gate) is the most convenient for transport and is close to the bus stops and taxi stands. Dascht Darwase (South Gate) is the least used and Ata Darwase (West Gate) is probably the most used by tourists and to be skipped if you have no intention of buying a ticket :) The most interesting entranceway is Palwan Darwase (East Gate) and marks the entrance to the caravanserai. It is the best preserved of the four and is remarkable for the 60m depth with niches on both sides. In the Khanate period, the gate was used as a prison and prisoners had to beg for food to avoid starvation. Gruesomely, recaptured slaves were nailed by their ears to the gate and it was the place of public executions in the blood-thirsty state.
Djuma Mosque: Despite being rebuilt between 1788-1789, the simple yet elegant mosque still retains the 212 ornately carved wooden columns from the 12th – 15th centuries. It has been claimed that the wooden columns, which truly are stunning, are the oldest in Central Asia and are notable for the floral motifs and strange shapes.
Islam Khoja Minaret: Standing at an impressive 45m, the minaret was built in 1908 and is the tallest structure in Itchan Kala. The width of the minaret decreases as it rises up, and together with the decorative belts of blue and white ceramics alternating with ochre bricks leave an indelible impression on the eye. The minaret has become a symbol of the city and is immediately recognisable for its golden crown shining high above the rooftops. The minaret can be climbed up and it offers great views over the city.
Medresseh Muhammed Amin Khan: The colourful facade of the largest medresseh in Itchan Kala is wonderful decorated with mosaics. The building itself is characterised by numerous hujiras (students’ cells) and was built in the middle of the 19th century.
Kalta Minor Minaret: The unfinished Kalta Minor minaret is supposedly off-limits to visitors but this is Uzbekistan after all and money talks. The original intention was to build a minaret to rival the Kalon minaret in Bukhara but construction ground to a halt after Amir Khan’s death in 1855 leaving a elegantly patterned, but unfortunately squat, looking tower.
Pahlavan Mahmud Mausoleum: The mausoleum of Pahlavan Mahmud is a popular site of pilgrimage in Uzbekistan and is dedicated to the famed strongman, doctor and poet. It is also the resting place of many Khans of Khiva and is lauded as one of the most important pieces of architecture in Central Asia due to its glazed tiling and artful facade. Other interesting features are the richly decorated sarcophagus of Khan Mohammed Rahim and two black marble sarcophagi one bearing the remains of the historian Khan Abu Al Gazi. Also, be sure to check out the fine ivory decoration of the wooden doors and the elegant wooden columns.
Syed Allauddin Mausoleum: One of the oldest buildings in Khiva, it was constructed in the 14th century in honour of the teacher of Emir Kuljall. The door contains some fine wood carvings and the tomb within is richly decorated with white floral motifs upon dark or light blue glazed tiles.
Kunha Ark: The fortress-residence was the seat of Khans since the 12th century, although the present day structure dates back on the main to the 17th century, and is comprised of a mosque, harem, defensive fortifications and a jail. The blue-tiled mosque is impressive and be sure to check out the throne room from which the Khans dispensed swift justice. The three doors are significant as the left meant freedom, the centre signalled imprisonment and the right led to certain death. The throne room is also a great place to get an overview of the whole ark structure.
Ak Mosque: Founded in 1657 the mosque today is mostly the result of 19th century rebuilt and is formed by a monumental hall topped with dome and surrounded by wooden iwans (raised platforms) on three sides. In addition there is a small minaret with elgantly carved doors.
Shirgazi Khan Medrasah: Built in 1718/19, the Shirgazi Khan Medrasah is the oldest at the site and legend dictates that the sturcture was built by slaves who eventually turned on their cruel master.
Arab Muhammad Madrasah: The madrasah, which is one of the oldest in town, was built by order of the Khorezm ruler to commemorate the moving of the country’s capital from Urgench to Khiva. Arab Muhammad-khan, after whom the madrasah was named, was one of the greatest Khorezm rules and reigned between 1603 and 1621.
Map of Itchan Kala
How to get there
Assuming that you are staying in the city of Urgench, the cheapest way to reach Khiva is by minibus from Urgench bus station, next to the Bazaar. Tickets are cheap (2000SUM) and the ride takes around 1h. Buses leave every 30 minutes during day time.
Shared taxis are quicker (30mins) but more expensive (4000SUM per seat) and can be taken back to Urgench from just outside the North Gate.
If you are travelling from Bukhara or Nukus things are a little more expensive. Shared taxis from Bukhara can cost 70,000 SUM per seat (280,000 SUM for the whole taxi) and 20,000 per place from Nukus. All in all, it is better to get to Urgench first and work out transport from there.
Admission costs, opening times and useful information
As an open-air museum you can walk around the streets of Itchan Kala for free providing that you don’t enter through the West Gate. Here you will be badgered by an old woman who insists that you buy a ticket.
The ticket she sells is legitimate and gives you access to the major buildings except Islam Khoja minaret and the Dzuma Mosque which have to be bought separately.
2 Day Pass – 30,000 SUM + 7,000 SUM for photographs
Islam-Khoja minaret – 10,000 SUM
Dzuma Mosque – 10,000 SUM
If you want to pay individually for the buildings, this is also possible with the price ranging between 4,000-10,000 SUM.
Alternatively, you can try to tag onto the back of tour group and pretend you are with them (like we did).
Opening hours for buildings: 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.
written by: Jon