Khiva is the third of the “big three” historical cities in Uzbekistan. Further west than Bukhara and Samarkand, it was an isolated emirate until 1873, when the Russians “accepted” the khan’s pledge of obediance. The khans stayed around as Russian subalterns until 1920, when the Bolsheviks finally evicted them. No one mourned the khan’s departure, since he was every bit as ruthless and arbitrary as the rest of the Central Asian rulers.
Unlike the other two cities, Khiva is almost perfectly preserved. It is newer than the others, with many of its buildings dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, and the Russians took over without having to lob shells at the inner city. And during the Soviet period, it was preserved and restored while its residents moved to proletarian housing. As a result, Khiva has the feeling of a completely preserved medieval city, even if the museum-like atmosphere reeks of formaldehyde.
The largest minaret was actually completed only in 1910. From the top, one can see the vaults of the stone markets and madrassas, as well as one of the khan’s palaces. At 57 meters (190 feet), it is only slightly shorter than the minaret in Konye Urgench, but almost 1000 years newer.
Khiva was surrounded by two layers of walls. Gates allowed traffic from each of the four directions, and the east gate provided extra niches for displaying slaves for sale, one of Khiva’s specialties. Graves are stacked on top of each other in front of one corner of the inner wall.
The khans loved to build palaces. The oldest is the Khuna Ark, with parts dating back to the fifth century. But most of it was modern, with large covered iwans for the khan to sit in the shade and dispense whatever he considered to be justice.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the khans were tired of living in their ancestral digs, and almost every one built a new palace. They also built a summer palace on the edge of town. Each palace of course had its own harem sealed off from all male visitors except the khan. It must have been a pretty boring place for the ladies, who had nothing better to do than look at the painted ceilings.