Located in the city of Khiva, Itchan Kala (also spelled Ichan Qa’la) was an important stepping stone along the Silk Road. Coming from the West, it was the last place for caravans to stock up before tackling the desert. Like most cities in the region, the original settlement consisted of an inner and an outer part. Incha Qala was the inner, fortified section of this city.
With such a steady stream of visitors, it’s hardly surprising to find that the fortified walls were built to stretch upwards of more than 30 feet high. The oldest section of the barrier, which was built using mud bricks, dates back to the fifth century.
The walls once featured four gates that faced the four directions. The crenellated wall is punctuated with semicircular towers and together they create mesmerizing wave patterns that have captured the imagination of artists through the years.
The beautiful walls aren’t the fortified city’s only treasure. As testimony to the geopolitical importance it once had, Ichan Kala is an impressive sight to behold. Its history goes back millennia, but the buildings remaining standing are mainly from the beginning of the 19th century. In all, there are 51 monuments and 250 buildings nestled within its walls. Among the highlights are Djuma Mosque (also the oldest structure in Ichan Kala), Oq Mosque, Alla-Kulli-Khan madrasah, Pahlavol Mahmoud Mausoleum, and various caravanserais and bazaars, all exquisite examples of ancient Central Asian Islamic architecture.
Being a frontier city, ancient Khiva achieved a respectable degree of notoriety, with marauders and slave traders coming and going all year round. If by the beginning of the 20th century, Khiva’s fame began fading, the advent of the Soviet regime delivered the coup-de-grace. Martial surveillance ensured that no lawless activities would be carried out. So much so that the city was all but forgotten, and so was Ichan Kala. Today, people in Khiva look at Ichan Kala as a beacon from a grandiose past from which they all derive.
Know Before You Go
Most people arrive at the regional capital of Urgench via train, plane, or bus. From there, you can take a taxi to Khiva (it’s about a 40-minute drive). Be prepared to negotiate the price of the ride.
Itchan Kala is relatively small and is easily walkable. You can wander within the old city at any time. Some of the higher vantage points offer breathtaking views of the sunset.