Khiva: Staging post on the Great Silk Road

Stephen Scourfield delves into historic Khiva.

MORNING

There is the rhythmical, morning sound of sweeping — thin, blond brushes wafting dust from the Kyzyl Kum Desert into shafts of early sunlight.

And with it comes sing-song conversation in Uzbek. A chorus of dawn chatter. The low stream of Uzbek words echo around the remote, medieval walled city of Khiva in the deserts of Central Asia.

The city itself dates to the sixth century, its earliest inhabitants originating from nearby Iran. Turkic speakers gradually became the majority, and Muslim beliefs replaced Zoroastrianism, largely due to the tax relief offered by the ruling Khan of Khiva in the seventh century.

Khiva

Khiva has been destroyed 10 times — including by the army of Genghis Khan and again by the Uzbek ruler Emir Temur. In 1873, Russian Empire forces attacked the town and it became incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1924, before Uzbekistan’s independence in 1991, a year after UNESCO listed the walled town.

Today, penned within walls whose foundations date to the 10th century but whose present-day 10m faces and crenellations are of late 17th century origin, are us tourists.

I am staying at the Orient Star hotel — a converted madrasah, or Islamic school, which was the biggest in Khiva, dating from the 19th century and converted to a hotel in the 1970s.

Pointed arches, the big courtyard, blue and turquoise mosaics and systematic patterns dominate the madrasah and its courtyard but the outside is rather dominated by the base of a big, unfinished (once again blue and turquoise) minaret, which, with a base diameter of 14.2m, was destined to be the world’s tallest.

Local legend has it that an official climbed the tower to check its progress, realised he could see over the wall of the Khan’s adjacent harem and saw the unveiled women inside. Work was then stopped at 26m. Other history simply says that the Khan of the day died and the next one didn’t complete it.

The morning is filled with history, as a local guide starts to reveal Khiva’s story.

There is the old citadel — the Khans’ palace — with its three courtyards and the harem where girls were brought, perhaps at the age of eight, and expelled (used, as it were) when they were 18. Often they were given up for non-payment of taxes.

The 19th century tiles are of particularly fine design.

By comparison with the unfinished minaret, Khiva also has the tallest minaret in Uzbekistan, banded with patterns.

But with more than 50 historic monuments, many restored or rebuilt, in the inner town, Itchan Kala, within these walls I am equally keen to get away from the group and discourse and walk and let the place seep in.

For there are also 3000 people and more than 200 homes in the old city, most built in the 18th and 19th centuries, but I stand and watch, for a few minutes, three men mixing mud and straw, in a continued tradition, as they make a new wall.

The Djuma mosque, first built in the 10th century but rebuilt in 1788, is a wooden structure dominated by 200 carved timber columns which have become the victim of white ants.

City Wall in Khiva

AFTERNOON

In summer the daytime temperature can reach 48C. “In the shade,” one local exclaims. And yet winter kicks in quickly and temperatures of -30C have been recorded. It is, of course, extraordinary to have a range of more than 70C.

And so the thick knitted socks dominate stalls at $US2 ($2.70) a pair, and the elaborate fur hats, many imported from Russia, are easily explained on this warm afternoon.

I walk courtyards of blue tiles and mosaics and big courtyards full of sun. But there are telltale circular platforms, which were for woollen felt yurts (tents) in winter when it was cold.

There were originally 11 gates through the town’s 2200m-long walls but now there are four, and I step through one, to the outer town, called Dichan Kala.

Excuse the intimacy but I need to buy deodorant.

And isn’t it a pleasure to be shopping not for souvenirs but for something ordinary, in everyday shops. I am the only Westerner in sight as I walk the ordinary folks’ bazaar, partly outside and partly under a big roof. Behind the fresh produce and simple butcheries, I find a stall with an odd mishmash of household products. We work out a price using sign language (quite a few people getting involved) and I tuck my purchase in my camera bag and am farewelled.

Back inside the walls, I feel a little herded back into tourism.

Khiva is busy with French, Germans and us few Australians, at this tail end of the visitor season.

The madrasah in which we are staying is almost full.

Uzbekistan might be slightly off our usual radar but it is centre screen for others, and last year more than two million people visited.

Locals in tourism estimate that there have been 30 per cent fewer visitors this season, between May and the end of September (July is hottest).

It may be that Uzbekistan has been affected by travellers’ concerns about Islamic State, not realising this country’s strong secular, tolerant and temperate nature.

Interestingly, most of the visitors in Khiva seem to be from France — a nation not only with a significant Muslim population but its own issues with extremism.

And yet these French know that Uzbekistan is secular and safe, as does Tony Evans, who dreamt up, created, researched and is leading Travel Directors’ Five Stans tour, for which I have joined this section.

For this is a nation where “hospitality is rated higher than courage”.

I retreat from the light. My room is down a tunnel-like passage but spacious and with a big bathroom. I open the small, high window and the day floods in.

Khiva Cityview 

EVENING

The moon is full, rising over a dusty golden sunset, and it has a particular connection to this moment and this place. For on the far side of the moon there is a crater called Al-Khwarizmi, named for Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, whose statue I have just been sitting next to, just outside the town walls.

His surname, Khwarizmi, points to this region of Khorezm as the place he came from, and he is thought to have been born into a Persian family in Chorasmia, quite near here. And Khwarizmi translates to Algaurizin, or today’s “algorithm”.

For Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who lived from about AD780-850, is, indeed, credited with establishing the bases for the innovation of both algebra and trigonometry.

He wrote the mathematical book The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing about AD 830, a detailed account of how to solve polynomial equations up to the second degree.

From there, the term “algorithm” comes from the technique of doing arithmetic with Hindu-Arabic numbers developed by al-Khwarizmi.

He is considered the father of the algorithm, and somewhere down the tree of development come the functions of your smart phone, tablet and computer, and the fact that you can draw money from an ATM and check-in online.

But all that tech stuff seems rather a world away.

I am up on the highest lookout on top of the city wall, watching that moon rise and emerge as the sun falls and light fades.

Minarets take on the magic of the spiritual lighthouses for which they were named.

Among the old houses of Itchan Kala, the three men are finishing mixing mud and straw. The market is quiet and some of the souvenir sellers are packing up, some preparing for the evening shift. The lights are on in the many good restaurants, and musicians are beginning to play.

The evening is mellow. Already the desert wind is pushing in; evening and then night coming.

Sky in Khiva

And suddenly everyone else has gone down the steep steps and I am alone up here, on a veranda high over this ancient city, witnessing history past, and in this moment. I am here, at a staging post, a caravanserai, on the Great Silk Road.

Stephen Scourfield was in Uzbekistan as a guest of Travel Directors.

Article: Staging post on the Great Silk Road, by Stephen Scourfield, March 21, 2016, 6:15 am.

Article & Photo by: (c) Stephen Scourfield 

Copyrights: (c) The West Australian Travel, Stephen Scourfield by au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/travel 

Permanent link: https://au.news.yahoo.com/…/staging-post-on-the-great-silk…/

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