The Mennonites of Khiva, A Modernizing Community

The Mennonites of Khiva: A Modernizing Community

For more information about the conference where this presentation was given, click here.


  • This talk is about the Mennonites of Ak Metchet and their role a s a modernizing community
  • The three main points I will cover are the time periods most critical to their influence, the three cultural keys to their role as modernizers, and the significance –the “so what” of the story for Muslim-Christian relations today.
  • The first time period is from 1882 to 1884: The Mennonites arrived in Khiva in 1882, and they lived in relative isolation in the settlement of Lausan. This settlement was far downstream from the capital city on the Amu Darya River. In this location, they had little opportunity for direct influence in the Khanate.
  • In 1884, the Mennonites moved to the settlement of Ak Metchet about a dozen miles from the capital city of Khiva. Right away they were employed by the khan working on building projects as craftsmen and day laborers. This was the period that they installed the first parquet hardwood floor in the khan’s harem.
  • This was also the period when two young men went to study languages and Islamic literature in the palace. Emil Riesen and Herman Jantzen had embraced local languages since they first set foot in Central Asia, and were being trained as translators. Herman eventually left Khiva and became a missionary in later life. Emil Riesen remained in Khiva his entire life and became an important figure in the modernizing relationship between the palace and the Mennonites.
  • The third period is 1901 – 1918. Most of the large scale modern building projects (mentioned by Diloram) happened during this period. This was also the period when Mennonites played the largest role in the modernization of the khanate.
  • Next are the three cultural keys that enabled the Mennonites to become modernizers in this Muslim kingdom. First, Khiva – this small isolated principality in the middle of the desert – had a history of drawing upon outside influences.
  • A prime example of this is the most powerful man in Khiva when the Mennonites arrived. Before he achived such high office, Muhammad Murad was a Afghan slave. Murad was the divan-begi, or treasurer and prime minister in Khiva, and had the lucrative job of collecting the taxes in the khanate. At least one of his recent predessecors was also a slave who rose to the highest office under the khan. Murad was also the chief catalyst for brining the Mennonites to Khiva.
  • Islam Khoda followed his grandfather, Murad, into the role of Divan-begi. He was educated abroad. He also embarked on a sweeping modernization program in Khiva. This included revamping Islamic education in Khiva as part of a movement that originated among Islamic scholars living along the Volga River. He also was a friend of the Mennonites, reportedly spending a lot of time at Ak Metchet, and enlisting the help on some modernization programs that we will talk about later.
  • The second cultural key involved the Mennonite values and talents that provided a path to influence in the palace.
  • These Mennonite values and talents include the Mennonite commitment to nonviolence: Khiva’s treaty with Russia included allowing settlers from Russia to take up residence in Khiva. Russia initially opposed the Mennonite settlement in Khiva, possibly hoping to settle Cossacks in the region. As pacifists, the Mennonites were an attractive group from the Khivan perspective to fulfill their obligation in the treaty. They also made themselves valuable to the khan through their craftsmanship. You see here an image of the parquet floor in the Nuruballair palace. This is the second major decorative wood floor made for the khan. The first was laid in the 1880’s in the khan’s harem. Mennonites like Emil Riesen and Herman Jantzen also showed their talents for learning languages and communicating across cultures, whether it was between Khivans and Mennonites, or even Russians and Khivans.
  • Third, Mennonite cultural and kinship ties kept new ideas flwoing into the khanate.
  • These new ideas manifested themselves in bringing modern ideas about photography and motion pictures, streamlining Khiva’s cotton harvest, brining German technology into the palace, and Mennonites examples of entrepreneurship.
  • Photography. Here you see a picture of Khudaybergen Divanov and Wilhelm Penner. Penner introduced Divanov to photography when he was a boy. Divanov eventually became known as the father of Uzbek photography – but not before there was a clash over the production of photo images with Islamic traditionalists. The khan sided with the modernizers, and Divanov was able to pursue his interests. His history is always told with the  Mennonites at the beginning of his biography.
  • Cotton was the most important crop in Central Asia. Khiva took the lead in the region in the adoption of high-yield American cotton. Letters between Mennonites living at Ak Metchet show how they requested samples of the best American cotton seed, and discussed how to grow it.
  • The Mennonites also had an exclusive contract with the palace to operate and repair Khiva’s cotton gins. In a kingdom where the printing press was still somewhat of a novelty, the Mennonites had the technological know-how to bring in this critical piece of modern equipment.
  • Here is the result: By 1904, half of Khiva’s cotton harvest was of high-yield American cotton. BY 1914, two thirds of their crop was American cotton. In contrast, Bukhara, Khiva’s much larger neighbor to the east adopted more productive varieties of cotton much more slowly, despite their closer proximity to Russia, and even greater numbers of Russians living in their borders. At the same time American cotton was being widely adopted in Khiva, low-yield Central Asian cotton still outnumbered high-yield American varieties 30 to one.
  • When it came to brining electricity to Khiva, the first generators installed in the palace were from the German company AEG. Russian officials criticized the purchase of German equipment over Russian generators, blaming the influence of the Mennonites in the palace.
  • One of these same Russian officers conceded that “Mennonites are very important to the khanate of Khiva since the natives see the model order in the German village, value the rational, business-like intellect of its residents, esteem their industry, their entrepreneurship and their skills and thus they try to learn from and imitate the Mennonites in all these traits and values . . . No doubt, every German appears to the natives as a very clever and virtuous person.”
  • Speaking of entrpreneurship, here is a picture of Otto Toews and his family. Otto was the chief administrator of Ak Metchet. He was also a keen businessman who ran one of a couple of woodworking and manufacturing enterprises.
  • The Toews and Schmidt workshops provided carpentry services. They also built carriages for wealthy patrons. They built western-style furniture for the khan and other VIP’s. And. Just as importantly, they employed a comparable number of Uzbeks as Mennonites in their shops. This provided direct examples of modern ways to run a business between the Mennonites and their Muslim neighbors.
  • The Toews and Schidt workshops were successful, too – brining in 25,000 to 30,000 rubles per year into Ak Metchet’s economy.
  • So why is this multi-facted modernizing effect the Mennonites had in Khiva significant? First, the Mennonites had much more of an impact on Khiva than historians have previously thought. Seymour Becker, who wrote an authoritative book on the history of Central Asia, asserted that the Mennonites simply kep to themselves and had little outside influence. The emerging evidence seems to correct that assumption.
  • We are beginning to understand these Mennonites as “rooted cosmopolitans.” That is, they were secure in their Mennonite identity, lifestyle and values. Yet, they were comfortable working in a much broader context – whether it was Khiva’s palace, working with Russians and even remaining in touch with the broader German culture.
  • Finally, this episode provides a solid example of Muslim-Christian cooperation and partnership. Last week, I attended a conference dealing with the relationship between Evangelicals and Muslims, It seems like most dialogue between Muslims and Christians today centers around overcoming histories of conflict. This story provides a much neede correction to the conflict narrative by showing how Muslims and Christians – Mennonites – had a close, productive relationship over an extended period of time.