This palace, which means ‘Stone House’, contains Khiva’s most sumptuous interior decoration, including ceramic tiles, carved stone and wood, and ghanch. Built by Allakuli Khan between 1832 and 1841 as a more splendid alternative to the Kuhna Ark, it’s said to have more than 150 rooms off nine courtyards, with high ceilings designed to catch any breeze.
The introspective and labyrinthine corridors of the Stone Palace comprised the stylized world of Allah Kuli Khan (ruled 1826-42) and his extravagant entourage. The palace was first commissioned by the impatient khan in 1830 in a move that reflected a shift in emphasis from the west to the east of the city. When royal architect Usto Nur Mohammed Tajikhan timidly suggested that the 163 rooms and three courtyards could never be completed in the stipulated three years he was promptly impaled and replaced by Kalender Khivaki and famous tile decorator Abdullah Jin. The palace was finally completed some eight years later, but only with the help of over 1,000 slaves.
Museum staff now hide in the gatehouse where, in 1876, Frederick Burnaby met a "guard of thirty or forty men armed with scimitars all attired in long flowing silk robes of various patterns, bright coloured sashes being girt around their waists, and tall fur hats surmounting their bronzed countenances" and also a band of effeminate bacha, or dancing boys, ready to entertain. Today a folklore ensemble performs traditional music and dance whenever enough tourists gather.
The elements of Khivan residential houses and country residences -"khauli" - are widely used in the palace's complex architecture: a closed court yard, shady one-two-columned ayvans (terraces) and loggias, ornamented walls and rounded turrets.
Tash-Khauli means a stone country estate, or a stone court yard. This name reveals its original lay-out and architecture in the best way. Unlike a cob-walled khauli, the Allakuli-khan palace is laid out using burnt brick as a whole, and the court yards are deprived of the open space and gardens that are characteristic of rural homesteads. The high walls with towers and gates are similar to fortifications.
All premises, adjoining the court yard, irrespective of their purpose, are decorated richly. A variety of majolica panel ornaments, wooden columns and marble carvings are complemented by ceiling paintings and court yard composition. The oblique geometry and exact symmetry of the official architecture as a whole, reminds us of the richest picture gallery. Ancient masters owned the secret of colour ceramic glazes "ishkor" manufacturing, whereby paints do not fade throughout the centuries.
Two separate entrances take you into two separate wings of the palace. Don’t miss the harder-to-spot south wing, where the throne room and a sumptuous aivan are located.
The first section of the palace to be built was the Harem (1830-32), home to the Khan (first room on left) and his four legal wives in the five comfortable southern iwans and to female relatives and Persian serving girls in more austere quarters to the north. The royal rectangle is decorated with a sober riot of the finest china blue tilework and is complemented by beautifully carved, slim, wooden pillars on carved marble bases, fine painted ceilings, whose details were painted before assembly and then suspended upon hooks from the ceiling, provide a festive tone but the ice-blue right-angles of the courtyard still hint at the oppressive boredom of harem life, residents being forbidden to leave the high palace walls and with only an elderly, decrepit despot as company. Note the holy swastika-like emblem carved into the columns of the far iwan, next to the entrance of the Museum of Khivan Crafts, once the royal kitchens and now full of workshop diaromas.
A secret corridor, or dolom, to which only the khan was permitted access, joins the private world of the harem to the public offices of the court. These days humble tourists have to exit the building and reenter through a separate entrance to the southwest. The eastern courtyard, the Ishrat Hauli (1832-34), served as a reception court where, in winter, visiting Turkmen, Uzbek or Kazakh clan leaders or even the khan himself would pitch a yurt on the raised circular platform in preparation for a welcome feast or royal audience. It was here that Abbott met Alia Kuli Khan and suffered the unenviable task of explaining to a sniggering court why England was ruled by a young woman (Victoria) and why her future husband would not later assume control of the crown. It was also where Mohammed Rakhim Khan II ("a cheery sort of fellow") entertained Burnaby and where Vambery blessed the effeminate Khan Sayyid Mohammed. The courtyard is covered in glistening wall to wall tilework with second-floor calligraphy courtesy of the Chagatai poet Ogahi. The khan's throne room occupied the second floor and summer guest rooms surrounded it. The courtyard now hosts traditional song and dance shows for tourists
The third courtyard is the similarly laid out Arz Hauli or Court of Law (1837-38), where the khan would dispense justice for an expected four hours a day. All three courtyards were built at separate times and so all have individual gatehouses, but the Arz Hauli has two heavily guarded and complicated exits: one for acquittal, the other for execution. Again, tile decoration is at its most opulent with cucumber and medallion motifs crowding the walls, in a formal synthesis of local designs. The view from the roof of the Stone Palace is timeless:
It was now near midnight and the silent, sleeping city lay bathed in a flood of glorious moonlight. The palace was transformed. The flat mud roofs had turned to marble; the tall slender minarets rose dim and indistinct, like sceptre sentinels watching over the city...Far away the exterior walls of the city, with battlements and towers, which in the misty moonlight looked as high as the sky and as distant as the horizon. It was no longer a real city, but a leaf torn from the enchanted pages of the Arabian Nights.
J Macgahan, Campaigning on the Oxus and the Fall of Khiva, (1874)