By Stephen M. Bland
Image Attribute: Ichon-Qala (Itchan Kala) World Heritage Site, Khiva, Uzbekistan / Source: Wikimedia Commons
We set out for Ichon-Qala - the walled inner city of Khiva, Uzbekistan - at five AM. Standing sentry by its entrance, covered in a fine green patina, a statue of Al-Khorezm looked stern and unforgiving. The ninth century Khivan mathematician, whose name Westerners morphed into the word algorithm, his al-jabr (algebra) still forms the basis of schoolchildren’s nightmares.
Passing through the cavernous mouth of the ‘Father’s Gate,’ an afghanetz wind tore around the monuments and through the maze of deserted, moonlit alleyways. The minarets keeping silent watch, the stillness of the city made us speak in hushed tones.
It was a little after six thirty when the first rays of sunlight began to filter through, illuminating domes and dappling the homogeneous mud walls in golden shades. With a dribbling, toothy grin, Khiva’s lone camel, Katya was waking from her sand dune dreams. On the main drag, the ground was being watered in a futile shot at holding down the dust through another sun-baked day. Stalls adorned with tourist tat appeared, traders dressed in velvet tracksuits laying out their wares. Given the thin trickle of visitors, the cotton bags, furry black afro-like sheepskin hats – telpeks - and papier-mâché puppets would largely remain unsold.
Soon enough, the chaikhanas (teahouses) began to open. Cobalt blue porcelain tea sets patterned with cotton flower motifs clinking; the age-old ritual of steam rising from piyolas – small bowls - filled the morning air. Mare’s tail clouds drifting high above its squat, round base, behind the principle thoroughfare stood the unfinished Kalta Minor Minaret, its glazed turquoise tiles glimmering.
Commissioned in 1851, Khan Abu al-Ghazi Muhammad Amin Bahadur planned to outstrip his rivals by building a tower so tall it would dwarf the Kalon Minaret in Bukhara, allowing him to spy on his foes some four hundred kilometres away across the desert. With Khiva being famed at the time as a land of no mercy where men’s heads were lopped off onto hotplates so onlookers could enjoy watching them sizzle, the architect fled in fear of his life. Some say he found out he was to be executed upon the completion of the project - so he couldn’t be contracted by the Bukharans to erect a taller one – so he jumped from the dumpy minaret, turning into a bird and soaring away.
According to legend, Khiva was founded by Shem, son of Noah. Coming to prominence after the Amu Darya River changed its course away from Konye-Urgench - now across the border in Turkmenistan - Khiva became a state capital under the Uzbek Shaybanids in the late sixteenth century. Prospering as a slave town on the old Silk Road, Khiva’s bazaars sold those souls unfortunate enough to be captured on the Kara-Kum (Black Sand) Desert or the Kazakh Steppe.
Considered worse than infidels by the Sunni Turkmen and the Khivans, most of the slaves were Persian Shi’ites. Any Christians or Jews captured were forced to convert to Shi’ite Islam, making them worthy of slavery. Persian girls were particularly popular for harems; Russian men as hard workers were worth up to four camels. As the town changed hands through the next three centuries, its slave market remained the biggest in Central Asia.
Image Attribute: The courtyard of a "Silk Carpet" workshop at Khiva, Uzbekistan / Source: Stephen M. Bland
With the Khanate crumbling, the city of Khiva finally fell to Tsarist expansionism in 1873, when the munificent and much admired Mohammed Rahim Bahadur was on the throne. A poet-philosopher - pen name Feruz Khan (meaning victorious) - Rahim retained his position, but was stripped of his army and expected to pay an unfeasibly large war indemnity. Invited to St. Petersburg along with his progressive prime minister, the Vizier Islom Hoja, the pair returned inspired. A purely ornamental telephone was soon installed in the citadel, while Hoja set about building Khiva’s first hospital, a secular school for both boys and girls and a post office in the hope that a mail service would one day arrive.
Things changed quickly with the death of the Khan. An unredeemed opium addict, Rahim’s firstborn was passed over in favor of his second son, the marginally less useless Isfandiyar. Obsessed with his harem and dancing boys, the new Khan left the administration of his demesne to the Vizier, which worked well until Tsar Nicolai summoned the Khan and his retinue to St. Petersburg.
Image Attribute: Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of the Russian protectorate of Khorezm (Khiva, now a part of modern Uzbekistan), full-length portrait, seated outdoors, ca. 1910. (Prokudin-Gorskii Collection/LOC)
Unfamiliar with virtuous female company, at the official reception Isfandiyar propositioned the Tsarina, before heading to a brothel and contracting syphilis. Scandalised, the Tsar refused to appear in official portraits commemorating the occasion. Returning to his Khanate, Isfandiyar’s physician prescribed sleeping with forty virgins to be the cure for his disease. Anxious lest his own daughter should become infected, Islom Hoja quarantined the Khan, making an unrelenting enemy.
Resolving to rid himself of the meddling Vizier, Isfandiyar sought allies, finding them in the shape of an arch-conservative Turkmen warrior called Junaid and the mullahs, themselves threatened by Hoja’s modernizing reforms. A scheme was devised; ordered to the palace, it was arranged that the Vizier be robbed and murdered by “bandits” en route. Covering his tracks, the Khan then had his co-conspirators executed, but Junaid escaped to assassinate Isfandiyar shortly thereafter, thus completing the circle.
With the death of the Khan, Junaid arranged to have Isfandiyar’s senile uncle, Said Abdullah placed upon the throne as a puppet. Against a backdrop of escalating tribal uprisings and an early example of regional conflict over diminishing water supplies, sixteen months later the city was overrun by Nationalists and Bolsheviks. Abdullah abdicated, ending his days in a Moscow prison hospital. For the next decade, Junaid repeatedly attempted to take back Khiva, but his forays were repulsed.
Exiled by the Bolsheviks, the would-be heirs to the throne returned for a visit after independence. Speaking only Russian and Ukrainian, they strolled around in jeans and miniskirts, taking snapshots of this mysterious and alien land that might have been theirs.
Today, Khiva has a reputation of being a museum under open skies. Beautifully preserved, yet devoid of life, it has a ghostly, frontier feel, present yet absent, as if reluctant to rise from its long slumber and face past glories it can never hope to regain.
In 1997, both Bukhara and Khiva celebrated their 2,500 year anniversaries on a random date picked by a historian at the insistence of the government, though both cities are much older. Uzbek despot President Karimov, foreign dignitaries and the director of UNESCO turned up in Khiva, but locals were ordered to stay inside for ‘security reasons,’ snipers lining the rooftops as the populace watched the festivities unfolding just outside their doors on television. The men employed to renovate monuments and erect scaffolds for lights and loudspeakers were never paid.
About the book:
Conjuring images of nomadic horsemen, spectacular monuments, breathtaking scenery, and crippling poverty, twenty-five years after emerging from under the Soviet yoke, Central Asia remains an enigma. Home to the descendants of Jenghiz Khan’s Great Horde and a single nation of Persians, in the nineteenth century the once hugely important Silk Road states became a pawn in the ‘Great Game’ of expansion and espionage between Britain and Russia. With Afghanistan left as a buffer between these two empires, the rest of Central Asia soon fell to Russian imperialism, disappearing for over a century behind what would become known as the ‘Iron Curtain’.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the five new nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were born, in most cases against their will. Propelled to the center of a new Great Game through a combination of their strategic location and the discovery of vast oil and gas reserves, since independence Central Asia has seen one bloody civil war, two revolutions and seven dictators, one of whom presided over arguably the world’s most fully formed cult of personality ever.
Set for release through Hertfordshire Press this November, in his new book, Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans, journalist Stephen M. Bland takes the reader on a voyage of discovery. A humorous mix of travel, history, and reportage, the book explores the region’s rich folklore, as travelling to a desert sea, a collapsed Russian gas rig daubed the ‘Gate to Hell’ and along the ‘Heroin highway’ atop the roof of the world, the author unearths the stories of the people and places of these fascinating lands.
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