On the Uzbek-Turkmenistan border, not far from the banks of Amu Darya river that Alexander the Great knew as Oxus, sits Khiva. Sandwiched between two mammoth Central Asian deserts, the Kyzlkum (red sands) and Karakum (black sands), Khiva was a bazaar city that traded in everything from camels, coffee, concubines and carpets.
Swagata Ghosh stepped into what seemed like a film set from The Arabian Nights. Khiva has a very authentic Central Asian feel. Itchan Kala, the walled inner town of the city, is almost uniformly monochrome—a brick and mud oasis with high ramparts skirting around a mishmash of madrasahs, mausoleums, mosques and minarets. The writer stopped at the Amin Khan Madrasah, Khiva’s premiere religious school that once housed 260 boarders and the chancery of the Supreme Court. She brushed past row of stalls selling chugirma (handmade sheep-skinned hats for Khiva men), suzanis, carpets and carved, wooden Quran stands. At a caravanserai, she indulged in a communal supper and discovered all the best bits of the Silk Route in a bowl—trade, travel, migration and food without borders. Later, she headed to the lone majolica-tiled domed mausoleum that towers over the mushrooming city dedicated to Pahlavan Makhmud. Surfacing into its open terrace, she realised what everyone from Alexander to Marco Polo and Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta saw in Khiva. The skyline of madrasahs, mausoleums, mosques and minarets may not have been the same, but its soul had remained unchanged.
Swagata Ghosh works at Bath Spa University and has recently completed her first novella set in Georgian Bengal. A former journalist, she now writes for the print and web in Britain, India and the Middle East. She lives in Wiltshire, England, with her husband and twelve fish.