The sun was setting on my first full day in Khiva, and I was sitting on a ledge watching it sink behind a horizon punctuated by minarets and mosques. The day had been a full one, wandering through the Ichon-Qala fortress which encompasses most of the remaining Old Town. Now, merely sitting and watching was enough for me.
And what a beautiful sunset. The air was slightly hazy, the sun barely visible as it dipped closer and closer to the horizon. The mini-minaret on the madrasah across the street was decorated in tiles of green and white.
As the skies turned bloody, I thought of a story about Khiva’s past I’d read in my Lonely Planet guide. The year was 1700, and Khiva was under attack. Harassment from nomadic tribes pushed Khan Shah Niyaz to the point where he offered to submit to Russia in return for aid. Eight years later, Tsar Peter sent an expedition, but it wasn’t until a second expedition was launched in 1716-17 that Russian forces–up to 4000 soldiers led by Prince Tserkaski–actually made it to Khiva.
They came under the guise of friendship, but there were other reasons. Beyond the Khanate lay India and all the trading opportunities Russia desired. Unfortunately for the Russians, there was a new khan, and he was not impressed with Russia’s delayed response. Moreover, he had no desire to submit to Russian rule. He expressed his regret that the city could not accommodate so many garrisoned troops. He told the prince to disperse them throughout the nearby villages, and Prince Tserkaski–presumably in an effort to improve relations with the khan–complied.
Once the Russian troops were divided, Khivan soldiers slaughtered almost all of them. Most of the survivors were enslaved, and Prince Tserkaski’s head was sent to the khan’s rival in Bukhara. Surprisingly, there was no reprisal from Russia.
The sun was getting lower, just becoming visible as it dropped down below the dome of the mosque in the distance. Some other guests came up to the roof briefly, but after saying hello and gazing at the horizon for a few moments they returned downstairs.
Khiva has a very colorful past with Russia, further illustrated by another tale over a century after the slaughter of Prince Tserkaski and his troops. This story took place during the storied Great Game between Britain and Russia.
It was the 1830s, and Khiva was still a powerful player in the Central Asian slave trade. Many Russian prisoners were among the enslaved, giving Russia a very valid excuse to make forays closer and closer to the Khanate. In 1839, a force of over 5,000 soldiers and 10,000 camels left Orenburg with the goal of freeing all the Russian prisoners. If they just so happened to increase the boundaries of the Russian Empire and stymie the expansion of the British–who had just taken Afghanistan–that would be delightful. Unbeknownst to the khan, the force had to turn back due to extremely harsh weather.
Enter a British captain by the name of James Abbott, who was dispatched in disguise from Herat to Khiva, where he convinced the khan to dispatch him as an emissary to Russia in order to negotiate the release of the Russian slaves. He had a difficult journey, involving betrayal and bandits, but eventually made it to St. Petersburg. Before he was successful, however, another British officer arrived in Khiva and succeeded in convincing the khan to release all the captives and escort them to the nearest Russian garrison. This removed Russia’s primary validation for expansion into the region and was a huge propaganda victory for the British.
It was all for naught, however, for on May 28th, 1873, Khiva fell to General Von Kaufman and his army of 13,000 Russian infantry and cavalry.
All that history, and I was looking out over where it all took place. Goosebumps prickled my arms, and they weren’t just from the cold. I couldn’t wait to explore the city more, but that could wait until the next day. For the moment, I was content to watch the dying embers of the day.