Thursday, December 16


All day I have bumped across Khorezm, hugging the Turkoman Uzbek borderlands and the Amu Darya, and when the gates of Khiva appear in the late afternoon most of the city is already in shadow.

In 1863 Ármin Vámbéry, Hungarian linguist, Turkish osmanli, Sufi dervish and British spy, reached the desolate Khanate of Khiva. From Wikipedia:

This was the first journey of its kind undertaken by a Western (sic) European; and since it was necessary to avoid suspicion, Vámbéry could not take even fragmentary notes, except by stealth. He returned to Europe in 1864 ... That same year, he published his Travels in Central Asia, based on the few, furtive notes he was able to make while traveling with the dervishes.
Vámbéry was one of the Jewish Orientalists [], who assumed Muslim identities and wrote about Muslim life. He converted four times. He was a double agent and a double dealer. He was close to the Ottoman sultans. In 1900-1901 he promised Theodor Herzl to arrange an audience for him with Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II, but his real goal was to obtain money from Herzl, and he did not arrange the meeting … Vámbéry became known also as a publicist, zealously defending English policy in the East as against that of the Russians. In 2005 the National Archives at Kew, Surrey, made files accessible to the public, and it was revealed that Vámbéry had been employed by the British Foreign Office as an agent and spy whose task it was to combat Russian attempts at gaining ground in Central Asia and threatening the British position on the Indian sub-continent.

Here are some excerpts from Vámbéry's Travels in Central Asia about reaching Khiva:

The reader will easily imagine in what a state my spirits were when I found myself before the walls of Khiva, if he reflects on the risks to which any suspicion of my disguise would expose me, as soon as a first introduction should discover my European features. I was well aware that the Khan of Khiva, whose cruelty was displeasing to the Tartars themselves, would, in case he felt any distrust, become far severer to me than the other Turkomans. I had heard that the Khan was in the habit of at once making slaves of all strangers of doubtful character; that he had, not long before, so treated a Hindustani, who claimed to be of princely origin, and who was now, like the other slaves, employed in dragging along the artillery carriages. My nerves were all strung to the highest point, but I was not intimidated. I had, from constant risk, become inured to it. Death, the least serious result of my enterprise, had now been floating continually before my eyes for three months, and instead of trembling I considered how, on any pressing emergency, I might by some expedient get the better of the watchfulness of the superstitious tyrant.

At the very entrance of the gate we were met by several pious Khivites, who handed up to us bread and dried fruits as we sat upon our camels. For years so numerous a troop of Hadjis had not arrived in Khiva. All stared at us in astonishment, and the exclamations ' Aman eszen geldin ghiz ' (welcome) ! 'Ha Shah bazim ! Ha Arszlanim!' (ah, my Falcon, my Lion!) resounded on all sides in our ears. On entering the bazaar, Hadji Bilal intoned a telkin. My voice was heard above them all, and I felt real emotion when the people impressed their kisses upon my hands and feet—yes, upon the very rags which hung from me. In accordance with the custom of the country we dismounted at the karavanserai. This served also as a custom-house, where the new arrivals of men and merchandise are subjected to severe examination. The testimony of the chiefs of the karavans have, as is natural, the greatest weight in the balance. The functions of chief of the customs are filled in Khiva by the principal Mehrem (a sort of chamberlain and confidant of the Khan). Scarcely had this official addressed the ordinary questions to our Kervanbashi, when the Afghan pressed forward and called out aloud, ' We have brought to Khiva three interesting quadrupeds and a no less interesting biped.' The first part of this pleasantry was, of course, applied to the buffaloes, animals not before seen in Khiva; but as the second part was pointed at me, it was no wonder that many eyes were immediately turned upon me, and amidst the whispering it was not difficult to distinguish the words ' Djansiz ' (from Arabic djasus or spy),'Ferenghi,' and 'Urus' (Russian). 

In the last court I found about three hundred Tchaudors, prisoners of war, covered with rags; they were so tormented by the dread of their approaching fate, and by the hunger which they had endured several days, that they looked as if they had just risen from their graves. They were separated into two divisions, namely, such as had not yet reached their fortieth year, and were to be sold as slaves, or to be made use of as presents, and such as from their rank or age were regarded as Aksakals (grey beards) or leaders, and who were to suffer the punishment imposed by the Khan. The former, chained together by their iron collars in numbers of ten to fifteen, were led away; the latter submissively awaited the punishment awarded. They looked like lambs in the hands of their executioners. Whilst several were led to the gallows or the block, I saw how, at a sign from the executioner, eight aged men placed themselves down on their backs upon the earth. They were then bound hand and foot, and the executioner gouged out their eyes in turn, kneeling to do so on the breast of each poor wretch; and after every operation he wiped his knife, dripping with blood, upon the white beard of the hoary unfortunate.

Ah! cruel spectacle! As each fearful act was completed, the victim liberated from his bonds, groping around with his hands, sought to gain his feet! Some fell against each other, head against head; others sank powerless to the earth again, uttering low groans, the memory of which will make me shudder as long as I live.


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