The Kuhna-Ark, which is located near the western gate of Khiva’s Itchan Kala, served as the primary palace of the Khans for the better part of 400 years. Built primarily as a fortress, the Ark was more purpose built for military use rather than as a lavish residence. Rather than have his residence in a fortress, Allakuli Khan instead commissioned the splendid Tosh-Hovli Palace which was built between 1830 and 1838 as an alternative to the already ancient Kuhna-Ark.
Allakuli Khan was known for several monumental projects in Khiva, including not only his palatial alternative residence within the walls of the Itchan Kala, but also for the construction of a large Madrassa, and the outer ring of defenses which enclosed the Dishan (oustide) Kala portion of the city. The Khan ordered the construction of these outer defenses in 1842 to protect the city from Turkmen tribal warlords who frequently attacked the city. Construction took just three years to complete the 6 kilometer wall, 6 to 8 meters high and 4 to 6 meters thick, with a workforce of 200,000 men from across the Khanate. So much locally mined clay was used in the brick construction of the outer walls that today a large lake exists where the mine once was.
Foreign policy was also important to Allakuli Khan who was fluent in Russian, and sent an embassy to St. Petersburg in 1842, setting the stage for Russian colonial ambitions later in the 19th century. When he wasn’t schmoozing with Russians and working on monumental infrastructure projects, the Khan was waging war with the Emirate of Bukhara. He formed an alliance with the Khanate of Kokand geographically boxing in the Bukharans. During this time, the Emirate of Bukhara was largely fragmented under the rule of Nasrullah, who was busy ineffectively dealing with feudal uprisings. The unrest gave the two neighboring powers, Khiva and Kokand, an opportunity to exploit the situation to their advantage.
The Khan’s savvy foreign policy, particularly with the Russian Empire, greatly enriched the Khanate to the point where he was able to invest in a new palace in the eastern part of the Itchan Kala. In 1830 the Khan brought together the best architects in the Khanate to draw up plans for the spectacular new residence for him and his family. Construction commenced immediately, but progress was slow. By 1832 only the reception room was completed, but the Khan by this point had lost his patience, summarily executing the lead architects of the project. Construction would drag on for another six years.
The completed Tash-Hovli Palace is considered one of the most outstanding architectural accomplishments of 19th century Uzbekistan. 270 rooms extend from three ornately decorated courtyards, complete with a separate harem, courtiers residence, and sections for the Khans extended family members. The state of preservation of the complex is remarkable considering the region’s tumultuous history, from the Bolshevik Revolution, 70 years under the USSR, and aggressive restoration efforts on other historic monuments since Uzbek independence, the palace has miraculously escaped both destruction and a complete renovation.
Today the palace is largely an empty museum. No furniture or precious objects survived the revolution and years under communism. While all the furnishings have been lost, the intricate tile, stone, and wood-work remain some of the best preserved examples in the country. Visitors come today to marvel at the blue majolica lining the walls of the three palace courtyards from floor to ceiling. With so many tiles, one might assume that blue was the Khan’s favorite color. On our visit in March 2016, the palace was mostly empty, but the custodian was still willing to let us poke around on our own. There isn’t much to see, so visitors are left to wander the halls and imagine what treasures the labyrinth of hallways and chambers must have contained back in the glory days of the Khanate.