A Unesco World Heritage Site

From Bukhara we were taken for a ride through the desert by mini-bus to Khiva,  the famous walled city that is made out of clay. 

Introduction to Uzbekistan’s ancient cities along the Silk Road

Grab your magic carpet and come fly with us to the land of the Arabian Nights. Don your pointed slippers and silken robes. They are freely available at the markets and merchants compete with one another to offer you colourful silk scarves, carpets and handcrafted trinkets at the most competitive prices. Pick out the bargains and buy most of your items from only one vendor. Once they know they have the business, they can’t resist you when you ask for a few freebies for your Mother back home!

Khiva with JimsueIn the country of Uzbekistan the ancient cities of Khiva, Samarkand and Bukhara that we visited express the essence of typical trading stations along the famous Silk Road. They grew rich from the trading that took place through Central Asia between China and the West a few centuries ago. These three cities were regarded as oases, providing food, water and shelter for merchants with their caravans of camels laden with precious commodities. Bandits were active along the trading routes that developed between the major stops and these cities helped to protect the travellers, especially overnight. The cities all had walls and gates that were well guarded.

Products that were traded from the West to the East:

Gold, metalwork and glassware, saffron, cucumbers, pomegranates, peaches and wine

Products that were traded from the East to the West:

Ceramics, cinnamon and other spices (mainly pepper), dye (indigo), furs, rhubarb,  bronze and silk plus the secrets of paper making, printing and gunpowder

Silk was one of the main commodities exchanged along these routes. In many places the production of silkworms plus their cocoons provided jobs for people who had access to the mulberry trees that are used to feed the silkworms. The silk cocoons were transported between the major centres that wove the finest silk carpets as well as fabrics. The geometric zig-zag designs of the silks and cottons are a major feature of textiles from this region and it is worn with pride by the local folk. Nobody should leave without stocking up on silk. After all, it is the Silk Road!


The exchange of merchandise as well as technology, art and religion had remarkable effects on either side. Buddhism became popular in Central Asia, China and Tibet as it simultaneously declined in India. The ancient art of Central Asia developed into a vibrant medley of Indian, Persian, Chines, and Arabic or even Greek influences. It has a unique, vivid quality that expresses the love of colour and boldness, even in modern items that are made to supply the booming tourist trade. These attractive goods are made by people who suffered economically at the hands of communism. Tourism provides a good income for tour guides, drivers, hotels, restaurants as well as local craftsmen. There are enterprising carpet weavers, metalworkers and wood carvers as well as silk weavers and jewellery craftsmen to be seen busy at work at the many street markets.

Welcome to Khiva

Khiva is the most remote of the Silk Road cities, situated close to the Oxus River and surrounded by the Kyzylkum desert to the east and the Karakum desert to the west. According to archaeologists Khiva was founded in the 5th or 4th centuries B.C. As the first major structures were built, the city became known as trading post on the Silk Road. Khiva, according to legend, was founded by a son of Noah, Shem when he dug a well in the middle of the desert. People who drank the water of that well exclaimed: “Khey-vakh” which means “sweet water or: what a pleasure!" The city became known as Kheyvakh, now called Khiva. (Khiva actually had a water supply directly from the Amudarya River via the Khekanik canal, the present-day Palvanyap.) Khiva was once the capital of the kingdom of Khorezm, near the Aral Sea. This flourishing city came to a sudden end after Genghis Khan’s army destroyed it as well as the surrounding area.

Khiva is about an eight hour car journey from Bukhara with very little to see besides sand and dry little bushes. There are no toilets or rest rooms. Your vehicle makes a few stops along the way and the guide tells you that the “boy’s room” is to the left and “Ladies” is to the right. You take your own toilet paper and select the largest tuft of grass you can find. Everybody laughs and as usual, the men are better equipped for this sort of thing. 

Selfie service toiletsCredit: Sue VisserKhiva, in western Uzbekistan grew rich on the Silk Road trade along the various routes that wove their way across Central Asia's deserts. In modern times the local economy suffered badly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The revival of local handicrafts is helping to attract tourists to the remote areas of western Uzbekistan. Khiva has now become a significant centre for silk weaving, helping to uphold the “silk road” in a modern context. Silk carpets are woven by hand and coloured with traditional natural dyes. Designs are copied directly from Central Asian miniature paintings, tiles, and other decorative features of Khiva's historic architecture. Local and foreign tourism is now flourishing.

 An entrepreneurial spirit now inhabits this city that suffered badly during the long decades of Soviet isolation. Tourists can enjoy it as an open-air museum of history, culture and architecture. People-watching is a pleasant pastime, even from our small hotel on the central city square. The folk are friendly, busy and seem to bustle about with a sense of purpose. The streets are kept clean and as is typical of these desert cities in Central Asia, nobody begs and nobody messes about or drops any litter. That evening we dined in the square. As soon as the bustling little market packed up for the day, the hotel staff laid out a banquet for us. A feast of delicious local food followed by dancing and lots of laughter.

breaking bread

The fortifications of Khiva          

Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva is a completely fortified city. The Inner City or Icahn Kala is surrounded by 2.4 kilometres of city walls, some of which date back to the fifth century. The old inner city is rectangular in shape, measuring 650 meters by 400 meters. It has four gates facing to the cardinal directions. Khiva's East Gate was once the site of the city's notorious slave market. There were many Russian slaves. The men were reportedly the most valuable slaves fetching a price of up to four camels, though Persian women were more sought after than Russian women. Slavery was only abolished here in the middle of the nineteenth century when the expanding Russian empire conquered Khiva. The Khan’s palace is situated in the old city. High officials, clergy and rich merchants lived there. The foundations of the brick walls are believed to have been laid in the 10th century. Inside the walls and set around the main street linking the east and west gates are a remarkable collection of original mosques, madrassas, palaces, mausoleums and the town fortress, while to the north and south run a maze of narrow alleyways with small mud brick houses and hammam.  

The ordinary people, small merchants and craftsmen still live in the newer outer area, the Dishan Kala. The outer city was built in 1842 by the order of Allakulikhan by volunteer workers in thirty days. Every citizen of the Khanate had to work for the government free of charge for twelve days. This was called beghar. So 200,000 of the Khans subjects were thus obliged to construct the walls of outer city according to Agakhiy, a famous historian. These walls are 6,2 kilometers long and there are ten gates; Khazarasp (known as Kuydavaza), Pishkanik, Angarik, Shikhla, Tazabagh. Shakhimardan, Dashyak, Gadaylar, Kushadarvaza and Gandimiyan. ) The present-day crenelated (petal shaped) walls date back to the late 17th century and attain the height of 10 meters.

mud houseCredit: Sue VisserSome interesting places in Khiva

Particularly impressive is the Kalta Minor, the huge unfinished minaret, clad in attractive blue mosaics. Commissioned by the Khan in 1852 to stand at over 70 metres high, the biggest in the Islāmic world, it was abandoned after his death at a height of only 26 metres. The massive base with a fine display of ceramic tiles attracts the eye of tourists who stroll down what would otherwise be a street enclosed by walls made out of mud. In the two palaces, the blue and white tiling was more intricate. The old town offers more than 50 historic monuments to view and 250 old houses, mostly dating from the 18th or the 19th centuries. Djuma Mosque was established in the 10th century and rebuilt in 1788-89. The vast hall still retains 112 of the characteristically carved wooden columns taken from ancient structures.

The Mohammed Amin Khan Madrassah – the city’s largest - is now being used as the Hotel Khiva, one of the most popular tourist attractions, with student cells that have been converted into luxury guest rooms. The architecture of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva has many similar features that include mosques and madrassas with enormous front portals that are usually decorated with blue and turquoise mosaics and tiling. The complex is surrounded by high walls in some places. An open-air courtyard in the central space accommodates small recessed doorways that lead into small plain cells that housed the religious students who came to the madrassah. A mosque is usually present at the back of the courtyard. Many of the caravanserais, the accommodation given to merchants, have a similar layout being rectangular with a main entrance and a central courtyard.

It rains in the desert - a rare event

We passed the time by exploring the mud city on foot, especially the vast outer wall. From the top we could spy down on the houses below. Ventilation takes place by taking advantage of hot air rising from a top vent and drawing in cooler air from a lower opening. This is the principle whereby a veranda provides a cool place to sit. The houses are built out of mud,  (what we call green brick or sun dried clay) but from what we could see some of them had brick walls and modern toilets. By the time we returned to our hotel the sky had opened and let out a little shower of rain on the hot dusty streets. We snuggled into our traditional seating cum sleeping structure provided by the hotel. A cat joined us, lest we missed our feline companions back home.

The family lounge and bedtroomCredit: Sue Visser

     The hotel also provided a few more props, for travel buffs like us. A complete yurt or tent used by people who migrate across the plains of central Asia at high altitudes at extreme temperatures. We may need this setup for the next part of our journey of the Great Silk Road in the near future, so we need to learn how to test-drive the yurt (tent) and the wagon for the epic finale to the Silk Road in September 2016. We will keep you posted and hope you enjoy the armchair version we provide at Infobarrel.

    Yurt, a mobile homeCredit: Jim Visser                                                                        

Our video of Bukhara and Khiva in Uzbekistan