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The Ichan Kala Walls

Opinions vary widely as to traveller's favorite places in Central Asia but ranking high on the "favorite" list is the walled city of Khiva, the IchanKala.
This with good reason. The fortification clay walls of the Ichan Kala are preserved to the point that you as a visitor will be delving into a town where the medieval spirit still reigns, as nowhere else in Central Asia. As you arrive by car or bus on the outer perimeter and step up to the gigantic Darvaza, the wooden gates, to pass through the fortification walls, you feel like taking a step back in time.
Khiva was first mentioned in the X century as a caravan stop over along The Great Silk Road on the lower Amu Darya delta en route to Kunya Urgench and Merv. With the city's ideal positioning, trade flourished and by the XVIII century, the Khorezm Shahs and their Khanat had gained a considerable reputation and standing. Feudal division, dynastic and political disorders, hostilie relationships with neighboring tribes and states however led to weakening and decline and only with the Kungrad dynasty's ascension to power in the early IXX century did Khiva become once again a major cultural center.
The territory of the Ichan Kala inner city was defined by a classic fortification wall built in the IV and V centuries ВС, about 8m thick with a circumference of 2,250m. Every 30m cylindrical watch towers were integrated into the wall, strengthening the defense. Yet in the case of Khiva, a second wall was built later, protecting the Dishan Kala, the outer town. It is assumed that Khiva was built on a sandy mound so the Ichan Kala walls with 8-10m were higher than those of the Dishan Kala.
The material used, available in great abundance in the surrounding swamps, was adobe clay. This may be an important reason why Khiva has preserved its visual aspect to this very day. It was relatively easy for the local inhabitants to patch up, maintain and restore the fortification walls throughout the year and the centuries. Adobe bricks with dimensions of 40x40x10 cm were piled on each other and the toothed upper rim and narrow loop-holes allowed for archers to hide safely while aiming at agressors. The town gates Darvaza were an integral part of the defense system. On both sides of the arched portals, impact towers accommodated the sentinels on guard and a gallery above the gate allowed for constant outlook over the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts. Corridors to the left and right of the gates, inside the fortification walls, lead to the mass of the sentinels and customs officers. The Ichan-Kala has 4 gates: Ata- Darvaza, Palvan-Darvaza, Tash- Darvaza, and Bagcha-Darvaza. All the gates were carefully locked at night by appointed guardians, just like in European medieval towns. The city gate was a regulator of the comings and goings of locals and strangers, a check-point and tax collecting control mechanism, of great significance for the life, wealth and wellbeing of any medieval town. As an additional safety measure, the concept of the water ditch was well known and used in Khiva. The elaborate irrigation system in Khorezm with the tapping of the Amu Darya River assured that the ditch was constantly filled. Not much of it remains nowadays though. In the course of time, the defense function of each gate lost its importance. The Darvaza became just another part of urban design, adorned with beautiful, multicolored glazed tiles and ayats from the Koran, one-liners in praise of the Khan or quotations from a poem. During Sovjet times and for the convenience of the first modern tourists in the 1970s, some gates were turned into souvenir shops. The Dishan-Kala walls were built by Alia Kuli Khan in 1842. Research has shown that its clay was extracted 2km to the north in a place called Ghovuk Kul, now a lake. That same clay, to this very day, is also used, just as in ancient times, by local ceramics makers all around Khorezm to produce the beautiful and distinct blue and white earthenware so unique to Khiva.

Discovery Central Asia #17

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