Monday, September 13, 2010

Khiva revisited

This is my friend Mukhammed Riza Irniyazbek og'li Agakhiy (1809-1874), a renowned irrigator, poet, calligrapher, translator and historian from the late Khiva Khanate. In those days, right before the Russian takeover, Khorezm had been slowly marginalized. With the breakdown of the silk roads and the Central Asian empires in the 16th century, Khiva became a backwater. So exactly how famous Agakhiy was, is hard to tell. (His picture is in the Khiva museum though)

In his History of Khorezm, written in Chagatay Turk, a work he took over from his nephew Muni in 1839, Agakhyi mostly describes the military exploits of the young Qongrat dynasty. He himself was close to the Khan, followed him on military expeditions -maybe more appropriately called 'raids'- as one of his top civil servants, one of the four mirabs, or superintendents of the irrigation systems. Even though the Khanate then spoke Turkish, as opposed to Persianised Bukhara, the Persian tradition of an intellectual and artistic bureaucracy lived on. Since even then, everything depended on irrigation, it is not so strange to find a top bureaucrat that is an irrigation planner/ poet.

On my second visit to Khiva, last Sunday, it struck me more than before how much the present structure and appearance of the old town is a product of that 19th century, of the new Qongrat dynasty trying to leave a mark, and the new Russian overlords doing the same. It also struck me to what extent it is the result of restoration: old pictures and paintings show a city that is much denser, more chaotic, less dominated by geometric open spaces, more by mud than brick. Also in the details, the historicized Khiva is a rough reinvention, with hasty reconstruction showing in dangling wires, awkward gas pipes, cracks and holes, new brick types, and -not really a detail- residents moved to the margins. Unesco sponsored those imperfect projects, but one can wonder what the alternatives would have been. Yes, it partly is an orientalist dream now, but would Soviet urbanization or total marginalization (sold as authentic) would have been better?

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