KHOREZM REGION, THE AMU DAYRA AND URGENCH AND ITS DESERT CASTLES

KHOREZM REGION

Regarded as the oldest region of Uzbekistan, Khorezm is located in the western part of Uzbekistan on the northern bank of the Amu Darya river. Covering 63,000 square kilometers and home to about 1.8 million people, it borders the Republic of Karakalpakstan to the north, Turkmenistan to the south, and the Bukhara region to the southeast. Almost the entire territory of the region is occupied by plains and small hills. The capital of region is the city of Urgench The other main cities and towns are Khiva, and Pitnak.

The first mention of Khorezm is found in the Zoroastrians holy book “Avesta”. There are suggestions that the name Khorezm comes from an ancient Khorezmian language and means “low-lying ground” or “feeding ground”. In the 8th century B.C. in the modern territory of Khorezm region took shape as one of the oldest states in Central Asia. Founded by the ancient tribes of Khorasm Saki and Massagets, it formed the great state in the territory of the Central Asian Khorezmshahs Empire in the A.D. 12th century. The state reached its peak in the early 13th century under Ala ad-din Muhammad II. But the rise of the Empire did not last long and it fell to the Mongol invasions. The great Tamerlane rescued Khorezm from the Mongols in 1376 and in 1388, after bloody battles, the region finally became part of the Empire of Timur.

Khorezm is the birthplace of Mohammed bin Musa al-Khorezmi, the founder of Algebra and Algorithms, and Abu Rayhan Beruni, who created a map of the earth in the form of a sphere, poets Zamahshari and Ogahi, as well as other prominent scientists and public figures. The city of Khiva, which has more than 2500 years of history, is a real open-air Museum. The main attraction of Khiva, the Itchan Kala fortress. It is here that most of the ancient palaces, minarets and Madrasahs are located. There are 255 objects of architectural and cultural heritage in Khorezm region, some of them are under the protection of UNESCO.

Khorezm and Konye-Urgench

Konye-Urgench (in Turkmenistan near the Uzbekistan border, 45 kilometers from Nukus) was the capital of Khorezm empire and was a remote outpost on a branch of the Silk Road. . Founded around 1000 B.C. and located on the Amu-Darya Delta, where the Kara-kum and Kyzylkum deserts meet, it was ruled by Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks and reached its height in the 12th century under the Seljuk shahs of the Khorezm empire, which encompassed much of northern Turkmenistan and southern Uzbekistan.

Konye-Urgench is similar to Khiva but less well restored and less like a museum piece and much more empty than Bukhara and Samarkand because it is harder to get to. There are ancient mosques, minarets, mausoleum, madrasahs, and homes. Few modern structures obstruct the view. .Modern Konye-Urgench is a small town surrounded by state cotton farms.

Kunya-Urgench was named a World Heritage Site in 2005. According to UNESCO: “Kunya-Urgench is located in the territory of Dashoguz velayat of Turkmenistan. It is situated in the northwestern Turkmenistan, on the left bank of the Amu-Daria River. Urgench was the capital of the Khorezm region, which was part of the Achaemenid Empire. The old town area contains series of monuments mainly from the 11th to 16th centuries. This area has remained a vast deserted land with some remains of ancient fortified settlements, including a mosque, the gates of a caravanserai, fortresses, mausoleums and a 60-meter high minaret. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site, 2005]

“On the sample of Kunya-Urgench monuments one can see all variety of methods and décor of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. There are constructions from adobe and burned bricks, plain unicameral dome constructions up-going to ancient chartak and buildings with complicated compositions, sometimes with long history of development, repair and reconstruction. These monuments also demonstrate the evolution of methods of treatment of inner surface of domes from cellular sails to stalactite those times called “muqarnas” and brought to the highest perfection by local masters. The best monuments of this city are distinguished by high degree of decorativeness. They provide prominent examples of classical arabesques in monochrome terra-cotta and bright colorfulness of enamel. The monuments testify to outstanding achievements in architecture and craftsmanship whose influence reached Iran and Afghanistan, and later the architecture of the Mogul Empire of 16th-century India. The Islamic sacred objects concentrated in this city are exceptionally popular places for pilgrims and serve attractive objects for the international tourism.

The site is important because: 1) The tradition of architecture expressed in the design and craftsmanship of Kunya-Urgench has been influential in the wider region to the south and southwest i.e. in Iran and Afghanistan, and later in the architecture of the Mogul Empire (India, 16th century). 2) Kunya-Urgench provides an exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition (the Islamic culture of the Khorezm) and is unique in its state of preservation. The society that created this centre has disappeared; however we note that most of visitors are in fact pilgrims from the region.

Although the individual monuments are in variable conditions, the principal monuments have retained a substantial amount of original material, representing a reasonable level of authenticity. Other buildings have remained untouched or been more or less substantially reconstructed. The individual monuments have been subject to various degrees of repair, restoration and reconstruction. Seeing the condition before repair, it can be appreciated that in some cases the choice was a complete collapse or partial reconstruction. While taking note of the several reconstructions of individual buildings, the principal monuments are still considered to have retained a reasonable level of authenticity.

Early History of Khorezm

The origins of the settlement go back to the 5th century B.C., Archaeological excavations carried out on the hill known as Kyrkmolla revealed the contours of a powerful ancient fortress dated to the 5th-2nd centuries B.C.Urgench was mentioned in the Avesta — the primary Zoroastrian text — as Urwah (or Urga). In the Chinese chronicles of the Han dynasty (A.D. 1st century) Urgench was mentioned in a transcription as “Yuegan”. Chinese sources in the 7th century describe a period of revival of Khorezm. [Source: State Committee for Tourism of Turkmenistan]

In 712, Urgench was invaded by Arabs and named Gurgenge. Being at the crossing of trade routes between the Volga River in the northwest and Mongolia and China in the east, the town prospered and became a major trade center. At beginning of the 11th century, during the reign of Mamun I, historians describe military events, long marches, complex political intrigues. A brief reign. Under the reign of Mamun II the city reached its peak. Gurgenge was greater than Bukhara' and attracted famous scientists to the unique court “Academy” of Mamun. The great historian and Islamic scholar Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1050) and a brilliant scientist, physician and philosopher Abu Ah ibn Sina (980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna , were among those that lived there. This prosperous period in history of the city did not last long. After Mamun II died in 1017, Khorezm was conquered by the Ghaznavids and then by Seljuk Turks. After 1044, Khorezm was a a province of the Seljuk Empire.

In 1097 an event marked the beginning of the last dynasty of Khorezmshakhs — the Anushteginids dynasty. The Seljuks appointed Qutb al-Din Muhammad I as a ruler of Khorezm. He ruled for 30 years until his death was a loyal subject of Seljuk Sultan Sanjar, who then did not hesitate to approve his son Atsyz to the throne of Khorezm shahs. However, Atsyz repeatedly showed independece, engaging in military confrontation with Sandzhar. Atsyz persistently carried out a policy of “gathering lands”, and gradually gained control over the entire northwestern part of Central Asia. In 1194, his grandson Tekesh ibn Il-Arslan finally freed Khorezm from Seljuk domination and expanded Khorezm into what amounted to a small medieval empire.

Under the Tekesh son Ala-ud-Din Muhammad II the state of Khorezm shahs reached its highest power: their empire stretched from the northern regions of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush. During this brilliant period Gurgenge (Konye-Urgench) was the imperial center, where arts, crafts and trade flourished. Mohammed II later anger Genghis Khan when he had one Mongol messenger killed and had the beards burned off of two others.

Later History of Khorezm

In 1221, The Mongol sacked Samarkand and Bukhara and then took Gurgenge (Konye-Urgench) and destroyed it after a siege of several months. However, thanks to its advantageous location, the city was rebuilt not long afterwards and described as the finest city of the Turks with fine bazaars and impressive buildings. After joining to the possession of Juchi, and then becoming almost independent in the Golden Horde Khanate, Khorezm entered into a prosperous phase, which lasted until Timur's campaigns. The famous Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta arrived in Urgench in 1333 and called it the largest and most prosperous Turkic city. The city was at that time the capital of the vast eastern province of the Golden Horde.

Kutlug Timur and his wife Tyurabek Khanum played a special role in Urgench’s development in the first half of the 14th century, constructed beautiful and important buildings such as a hospital, a mosque and khanaka and restoring surviving monuments of pre-Mongol period. They finished and repaired the minaret that became one of the highest in the world (about 60 meters), and built up a large area within the city walls which extended 10 kilometers from the Ak-gala fortress in the north, encircling the entire territory of the site reaching Khorezm-bag fortress and the river Amu Darya in the south.

After 1360 Uregnch was taken over by a Turkish Sufi dynasty that was independent from the Golden Horde. Tamerlane regarded Khorezm as a rival of Samarkand and sacked Konye-Urgench five times in the 14th century.The city suffered heavily from destruction by the Timurid troops between 1372 and 1388, and never gained its previous position again. The best artists, architects, builders and craftsmen went to Samarkand instead. In spite of attempts to restore the city, particularly in 1391, the city never. In the 15th century the Amu Darya River changed its course and moved about 40 kilometers away from the city. The political and economic center of the region shifted from Khorezm to Samarkand and Bukhara. Finally, the development of sea routes between Europe, India and China, as well as the discovery of America led to the gradual disappearance of the Silk Road transcontinental caravan trade. The economy of Central Asia as whole declined and found itself at the periphery of world civilization. By the 17th century, Uregnch was all but abandoned, with its former population having moved to Khiva..

Almost nothing is left from the once great Gurgenge, and its ruins have since become known as the Old Urgench. The city has experienced modem development since 1831 when the Yab Khan channel was dug here (north of the mausoleum of Najm al-Din al-Kubra) form the Amu Darya.

Places in Konye-Urgench in Turkmenistan

Under the Khorezm shahs, Konye-Urgench was filled with mosques, madrasahs, libraries, bazaars, arched ramparts, carved columns, turquoise domes, spectacular mosaic tilework, white-washed houses with magnificent carved wooden doors and became a showcase for Islamic art and architecture. It was regarded as the center of the Islamic world until the Khorezmshah Mohammed II moved the capital to Samarkand in 1210.

Sights at Konye-Urgench include the 19th century Sayid Ahmed mausoleum, the Sultan Tekesh mausoleum, the Il-Arsian mausoleum (built in 1172, the oldest standing structure in Konye-Urgench), Kirkmomlla (a scared mound of graves), Mamun 2nd minaret (built in 1011 and rebuilt in the 14th century), the Dash Kala Caravanserai Portal, the Turabeg Khanym mausoleum, the Aka Kala fortress and the Khorezm Dag.

Najm-ed-din Kubra Mausoleum is the most sacred place in Konye-Urgench. Built over the tomb of a 12th century poet, philosopher and leader of a Sufi order, it has three do mes, tiled portals and two tombs (one for his body and one for his head, which was chopped off by the Mongols). The tomb is believed to have healing powers and pilgrims gather around to pray for cures. Nearby are a small museum, the Matkerim-Ishan Mausoleum, the Sultan Ali Mausoleum.

Turabeg Khanym Mausoleum is regarded as the beautiful spot in Konye-Urgench. Built over the family tombs of a 14th Sufi dynasty, it features an array of geometric patterns that organized like a calendar. In the inner dome is a mosaic with 365 sections, representing the days of the year. Underneath are 24 point arched symbolizing the hours of the day. The 12 arches below them represent the months. The four big windows symbolize the weeks in a month,

Kutleg Minaret is the highest minaret in Central Asia, at 67 meters. Built in the 1320s, it is only surviving part of Konye-Urgenche’s man mosque. It has bands of brickwork and a few turquoise tiles.

On monuments in Konye-Urgench one can see all variety of methods and decor of Islamic architecture of Central Asia. The buildings aree generally made from adobe and burned bricks and feature plain unicameral dome constructions. Some buildings have complicated compositions and a long history of development, repair and reconstruction. Others have distinctive Central Asian features such as cellular sails, stalactite bases, "muqamas" and classical arabesques in monochrome terracotta and bright enamel decorations.

Kyzylkum Desert

Kyzylkum Desert is a large desert that covers the western two thirds of Uzbekistan and much of southern Kazakhstan and part of Turkmenistan. Covering an area is about 300,000 square kilometers ((115,000 square miles), it is mostly flat, barren and shrubby and embraces gravel plains, stretches of sand and dry steppe. Kyzyl-Kum means “Red Sand” in Turkic languages. The Kara-Kum in Turkmenistan and the Kyzyl-Kum deserts merge, and together form the forth largest desert in the world.

By itself The Kyzylkum Desert is the 15th largest desert in the world. Its name means. It is located in between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, a region historically known as Transoxania or Sogdiana.. Most of the desert lies on an extensive plain at an altitude up to 300 meters (980 ft) above sea level and embraces depressions, saline type lowlands, and highlands. Much of the area is covered with dunes (barchans). In in the northwest large areas are covered with long and wide takirs (places where the clay soil is cracked under the influence of the scorching sun). There are also some oases and sandy hillocks that sometimes reach a height of 40 meters There are irrigated agricultural settlements along the rivers and in the oases. Temperatures can be alarming high during the summer, which runs from mid-May to mid-September. Kerki, a town on the banks of the Amu Darya River, recorded 52 degrees C (126 degrees F) in July 1983. It can also be quite cold in the winter, especially in the Kazakhstan part of the desert. In spring, after rains, sometimes there are mass bloomings of desert flowers, bringing the reddish sand alive with different colors.

Desert animals include the Russian tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) and a large lizard known as the Transcaspian or desert monitor (Varanus griseus), which can reach lengths of 1.6 meters (5.2 feet). The saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) occasionally migrates through the northern part of the desert but is usually seen in steppe environments. In the sands one sometimes sees saksaul (Haloxylon). The saksaul jay nests in the branches of saksaul tree). Other animals found in the desert, where they can find something to eat, include Bactrian deer (Cervus elaphus bactrianus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetus), goitered gazelle (Gazella subgutturosa), Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus przewalskii), Turkmenian kulan (Equus hemionus kulan) and MacQueen's bustard (Chlamydotis macqueenii).

Amu Darya

Amu Darya is one of the two largest rivers in Central Asia (the other is the Syr Darya). It originates and is feed by glaciers, snow melt and steams in the Tien Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan and the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, flows along the Uzbekistan to Turkmenistan border and empties into the Aral Sea. Much of the water used from drinking, bathing, industry and agriculture for Central Asia comes from it. The flow of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya into the Aral Sea have been reduced by three-quarters (See Aral Sea).

The Amu Darya was known as the Oxus in ancient times and has associations with the Silk Road and the great kingdoms of Central Asia. Looking down on it from a plane in eastern Uzbekistan it is surrounded by large cotton fields. In the deserts of western Uzbekistan it becomes a thin ribbon of brown water bordered by stretches of green grass and reeds with occasional salt marshes and patches of irrigated farmland. Boats make their way in some places through the series of pools and patches of reeds, some of over seven meters feet tall, that define much of the river, In some places the only way to get across the rover is on a pontoon bridge that breaks apart up when boats pass.

According to UNESCO: “During ancient and medieval times Amudarya river played a key part in the life of the population of adjoining territories as the basis of agriculture and the main transport and trade artery in Middle Asia. It was also a linking element for the peoples living on its left and right banks. Emergence and development of many pair towns-fortresses (laying on both river banks) was connected, first of all, with the favourable geographic location - in the places of water crossing. Large settlements were usually situated on the left bank of Amudarya, while small advanced posts - on its right bank.”

Amu Darya Delta extends from the southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea. Being an important source of water in a large arid region its has been inhabited for millennia and contains the ruins of several ancient Khorezmian towns and fortresses, some of them more than 2,000 years old. There are some ruins around Bustan (50 kilometers miles northwest of Urgench) and other sites further afield. The Badai-Tugai Nature Reserve (beginning 35 kilometers north of Urgench) occupies a strip of tungai swamp forest along the Amu Darya. Animals found here include the Karakal desert cat, badgers, jackals, wild boar, foxes and Bukhara deer. The last Caspian tiger was killed in an area of tungai north of Nukus in 1972.

Xuanzang

In A.D. 629, early in the Tang Dynasty period, the Chinese monk Xuanzang (Hsuan Tsang) left the Chinese dynasty capital for India to obtain Buddhist texts from which the Chinese could learn more about Buddhism. He traveled west — on foot, on horseback and by camel and elephant — to Central Asia and then south and east to India and returned in A.D. 645 with 700 Buddhist texts from which Chinese deepened their understanding of Buddhism. Xuanzang is remembered as a great scholar for his translations from Sanskrit to Chinese but also for his descriptions of the places he visited — the great Silk Road cities of Kashgar and Samarkand and the great stone Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. His trip inspired the Chinese literary classic “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch'eng-en, a 16th century story about a wandering Buddhist monk accompanied by a pig, an immortal that poses as a monkey and a feminine spirit. It is widely regarded as one of the great novels of Chinese literature. [Book: "Ultimate Journey, Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment" by Richard Bernstein (Alfred A. Knopf); See Separate Article on Xuanzang]

Xuanzang was as philosopher, educator and translator as well as being a monk and traveler. Tansen Sen wrote in Education about Asia: “ Xuanzang was a leading Indophile of ancient China. The Chinese monk not only promoted Buddhist doctrines and the perception of India as a holy land through his writings, he also tried to foster diplomatic exchanges between India and China by lobbying his leading patrons, the Tang rulers Taizong (reigned 626–49) and Gaozong (reigned 649–683). In fact, the narrative of his pilgrimage to India, The Records of the Western Regions Visited During the Great Tang Dynasty, was meant for his royal patrons as much as it addressed the contemporary Chinese clergy. Thus, Xuanzang's work is significant both as an account of religious pilgrimage and as a historical record of foreign states and societies neighboring Tang China. In fact, in the work Xuanzang comes across both as a pious pilgrim and as a diplomat for Tang China." [Source: Tansen Sen, Education about Asia, Volume 11, Number 3 Winter 2006]

According to Silk Road Seattle: Xuanzang was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Hindu Kush to India. He departed the Tang capitol (Chang'an) in 629 and returned via the southern route in 645. The remainder of his life was spent translating into Chinese the sutras which he had collected in India. At the request of the Tang Emperor Taizong (r.626-649) he composed a description of the lands through which he traveled. After his death, his travels and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels."Source: Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad ]

Xuanzang Along Oxus River (Amu Dayra) in Southern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan

Sally Hovey Wriggins wrote: Xuanzang “turned his face to the south to pass through Shar-i Sabz (Kesh) and an eastern spur of the Pamir Mountains. He entered the famous pass called The Iron Gates, 8 miles west of modern Derbent on the regular trade route from Samarkand to the Oxus and beyond to India. On the Oxus River lay Termez where he found Buddhism flourishing. He notes that there were some 1,100 brethren. As he passed through lands south of the Oxus (Amu Darya), which nowadays divides Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, he would learn more about Buddhism's chief form of architecture, the stupa, more about the great Buddhist Kings Asoka and Kanishka, and come to know some of the well-known images of the Buddha, such as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. [Source: “Xuanzang on the Silk Road” by Sally Hovey Wriggins mongolianculture.com \~/]

Xuanzang reported: “Following the coarse of the Oxus as it flows down from the north, there is the country of Ta-mi [Termed, Termez, Uzbekistan on the border of Afghanistan]. This country is 600 li or so from east to west, and 400 li or so from north to south. The capital, of the country [p.39] is about 20 li in circuit, extended from east to west, and narrow from north to south. There are about ten sangharamas with about one thousand monks. The stupas and the images of the honoured Buddha are noted for various spiritual manifestations. Going east we arrive at Ch'i-ngoh-yen-na. [Source: “Xuanzang's Record of the Western Regions”, 646, translated by Samuel Beal (1884), Silk Road Seattle, depts.washington.edu/silkroad |:|] |

“Ch'i-ngoh-yen-na [Chaghâniân, north of the Oxus River (Amu Dayra)]: This country extends about 400 li from east to west and about 500 li from north to south. The capital is about 10 li in circuit. There are some five sangharamas, which contain a few monks. Going east we reach Hwuhlo-mo. Hwuh-lo-mo [Garma]: This country is some 100 li in extent from east to west, [p.40] and 300 li from north to south. The capital is about 10 li in circuit. The king is a Turk of the Hi-su tribe. There are two convents and about one hundred monks. Going east we arrive at the Su-man country. |:|

“Su-man [Sumân and Kulâb in Tajikistan]: This country extends 400 li or so from east to west, and 100 li from north to south. The capital of the country is 16 or 17 li in circuit; its king is a Hi-su Turk. There are two convents and a few monks. On the south-west this country borders on the Oxus, and extends to the Kio-ho- yen-na country. Kio-ho-yen-na [Zubadian]: From east to west it is 200 li or so in extent; from north to south 300 li or so. The capital is 10 li or so in circuit. There are three convents and about one hundred monks. Still eastward is the country of Hu-sha. |:|

“Hu-sha [Wakhsh, Vakhsh in southeastern Tajikistan]: “This country is about 300 li from east to west, and 500 li or so from north to south. The capital is 16 or 17 li in circuit. Going eastwards we arrive at Kho-to-lo. Kho-to-lo [Khotl]: This kingdom is 1000 li or so from east to west, and [p.41] the same from north to south. The capital is 20 li or so in circuit. On the east it borders on the T'sun-ling mountains, and extends to the country of Kiu-mi-to. |:|

URGENCH

Urgench (near the Turkmenistan border, 450 kilometers northwest of Bukhara) is a medium-size Soviet city with a population of about 150,000. Situated on the Amu Darya delta in the heart of Aral-Sea-draining cotton country, it was founded in the 16th century after the Amu Darya changed course and is the capital of Khorezm province and is of little interest to tourists other than being a jumping off point for Khiva. Some people regard it as a miserable, bleak, depressing place of Soviet-era apartment blocks and abandoned factories, scoured by desert winds.

There are two cities named Urgench in the Khivan oasis. The modern city near the Amu Dayru and the ancient one, about 160 kilometers miles away, that was ravaged by Genghis Khan’s hordes. The later is now a ruin and lies in Turkmenistan (See Turkmenistan). Modern Urgench is the capital of Khorezm Region. It is located on the Amu Darya River and the Shavat canal. Urgench is a Soviet-style city with cotton motifs adorning many objects, from street lights to apartment houses. Of note is a monument to the twenty Komsomol members killed by Tekke basmachi on the banks of the Syr Darya in 1922, and a large statue to Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, the 9th century local mathematician who revolutionised algebra, stands outside the Hotel Urgench. Khiva 35 kilometres (22 miles) to the southeast/

Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm

Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. The property consists of following castle sites: Toprak Qala, Ayaz Qala, Koy-Kirilgan Qala, Big Guldursun fortress, Pil Qala, Anka Qala, Kurgashin Qala and Djanbas Qala. The condition of the structures varies a great deal. Some look like natural hills with a few piles of mud bricks here and there, or like beach sand castles that have just been drenched by a big wave. Others are more intact: you can clearly make out walls and rooms with the fortress walls rising several meters.

Some of the qalas (desert castles) are in the middle of nowhere in the desert and are near impossible to reach, unless you hire an SUV with a good guide and GPS system, or maybe even a helicopter, and rarely visited by anyone except maybe extremely dedicated archaeologists. Others are relatively accessible: near main roads or within villages. With some, the archaeological remains are not as impressive as their locations in the stark Kyzyl Kum desert. It can be fun scrambling around the hills on which the castles are often situated.

On the ones that are accessible from Khiva, one person posted on Trip Advisor: “Well worth a visit if you have 5-7 hours free in Khiva. You may find a driver who after visit of Ayaz Kala, Toprak Kala and Kyzyl Kala will take you to the Urgench airport for the evening flight to Tashkent or Bukhara. There are drivers just outside the Northern Gate of Khiva - I paid 35 USD for two passengers in quite a good private car. Nice landscapes, semi-desert area; take a lot of water, wear good shoes, put something to protect your head and skin.. From car parks you will have to walk a bit to the top of the hills, but no serious difficulty. I recommend also another short trip - 2 hours for 5 USD.. There is a nice mausoleum of Sheikh Mukhtar-Vali 25 km east of Khiva in Yangiariq and going back to Khiva - 19th century Chodra Khovli palace of former Khivan khans.

Another person posted: “It's worth a trip from Khiva to see this ancient fortress. It's mind-boggling to imagine how people could construct and live in such a fortress in the middle of a desert. It's fun to climb to the top and walk among the many crumbling rooms and steps.

Toprak Qala

Toprak Qala (75 kilometers northeast of Urgench, 10 kilometers west of Boston) occupies the area of 500 х 350 meters (17 hectares) and is rectangular in form. This fort about was the main temple complex of the Khorezm kings who ruled this area in the A.D. 3rd and 4th centuries. The many rooms of the main corner palace are still clear and you can just make out the central Zoroastrian fire temple. The fort was abandoned in the 6th century. Google Maps Coordinates: Toprak Qala 41.927508, 60.821932

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: It is surrounded by the fortification walls, which have preserved in the form of shaft, reaching the 8-9 meters. height in some places. The walls are strengthened by the numerous quadrangular towers with oval corners and led round with wide ditch. Originally, walls were in two floors with corridors and vaulted ceiling on the ground floor, and arrow-shaped loopholes - on the second. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The entrance of the site of ancient settlement was in the middle of the southern fortification, in the form of complex gate's constructions. The citadel located in the northern part of the site of ancient settlement where palace was with 80х80 meters. area. It was built on the platform. The general view of the palace represents the form of the truncated pyramid and reaches 14,3 meters. height.

Facades have been decorated by the system of vertical ledges and niches, covered by alabaster of whitewashing. Until now has partially preserved about 100 rooms of the ground floor of the central file and some rooms of the second floor. Walls of premises were preserved almost on the full height. Ceilings were as vaulted, and beam-type, supported by columns. Excavation discovered the rests of the palace archive, warehouses of the weapon, room of ablution, two-chamber sanctuaries with altars and niches, inscriptions with the stage of mourning of the late. The most part of the palace was occupied with the complex of front rooms and sanctuaries connected with aspects of an imperial cult. Inscriptions and clay bas-reliefs have decorated the walls.

The most valuable is “Hall of tsars” - dynastic sanctuary in which on an altar burned fire before big images of 23 tsars of Khorezm, (sculptures were full volumetric). They settled down on sufas (bench). Besides, there was “Hall of Victories” with images on the walls, in the form of the bas-reliefs sitting tsars and soaring near them of goddesses. There was a hall and “Black soldiers” with images of tsars and the black soldiers blown glory to tsars. “The hall of deer” was decorated with figures of these animals. The hall of “Dancing masks” partially has preserved on walls of the image in pairs men and women. In this temple part of the palace have been found out Ancient Khorezm written documents.

Features of internal building with symmetrically located concerning the unique central highway leading from the entrance gate of city to the palace complex, put Toprak Qala in one line with such correctly planned cities of the antiquity, as old Indian centers of Kharapsk civilization, Taksila (Sirkap), Hellenistic the Dura-Europos, etc. The origin of the correct, regularly reticular layout, many researchers connect with the name of Gippodam Milletskiy. Direct reflection of Hellenistic town-planning ideas is the plan of Dura-Europos.

Ayaz Qala

Ayaz Qala (about 10 kilometers west of Toprak Qala, near a tourist yurt camp) was built in the A.D. 2nd century by the Kushan Empire. The now-ruined fortress sits on a hilltop overlooking the Kyzylkum Deser. It is surmised that the ancient Khorezm fortress was part of a chain of border fortresses perhaps guarding a buffer zone around the Amu Darya. In addition to the eroded remains of defensive works, the remnants of several residential structures have been uncovered at site. Google Maps Coordinates: Ayaz Qala 42.014114, 61.028892

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Site of ancient settlement Ayaz Qala has a quadrangular layout with the parts of 182х152 meters. It constructed at the flattop of the hill and surrounded by multi meter breakages from three parts. The internal layout is absent. The walls, preserved places up to 10 meters., have constructed from adobe brick in the size of 46х32-46х10-13 centimeters. Ayaz Qala is a group of widespread on wide plain at bottom of Ayaz Qala's rocks, large not strengthened country manors, each of them consists from huge, surrounded by the low brick wall, court yard, deprived traces of the building and, probably sometime occupied by the gardens. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The house consists of 10-15 rooms. This place of dwelling has already allocated from tribal community of separate patriarchal family. Among the group of manors, three of them are sharply marked out. First, the huge fortress is Ayaz-1 with the extensive empty courtyard, surrounded by the mighty wall with the towers with gate labyrinths, not conceding to the walls of Antique cities of Khorezm. The grandiose similar manor is located in the northwest corner of settlement. On the cone-shaped rock towering at the bottom of the hill Ayaz Qala, rise effective ruins of the castle- Ayaz-2, modernized in V-7th centuries but constructed in Kushan period. At last, above everything, on breakage of plateau Ayaz Qala on the adjoining settlement, are located majestic ruins of perfectly preserved fortress Ayaz-1, with the numerous semicircular towers, strengthened by constructions with the arcade in the basis of walls, cut well in the center by rock, and nearby located antique tower.

Studying of the complex of Ayaz Qala monuments opened an unknown veil of social and economic history of Kushan Empire. We are present at disintegration of traditional tribal community of free citizens of the slaveholding state. Few agricultural aristocracies have been sharply marked out from others. The sovereignty of the city community gives the place to the imperial sovereignty. These fortresses protect oasis's borders from enemies. Similar process occurred in the antique Mediterranean, in Roman Empire. Bearer germs of the new social order were villages that removing conservative city community on the second plan. An origin of such process of social development on the huge spaces from Greece-Rome down to the borders of China testify of close contacts of the people of Central Asia with antique and Late Antique state formations of Greece and Rome.

The meaning of Ayaz Qala consists also in that here has been found out of Ancient Khorezmian writing materials, in the big degree. It is very close to Ancient Syrian Aramaic alphabet. From Aramaic letters appear the family tree various alphabets of Iraq and Central Asia - arshakid pehlevi, sasanid pehlevi (or farsi), alphabet of avesto, alphabet of Sogdia - even Uigur, Bukhara and usrushan, distinct from Sogdian. Khorezmian alphabet represents the independent branch, coming from classical Aramaic and from all listed alphabets in the greatest measure preserved Ancient Aramaic traditions. Being on the Silk Road, Ayaz Qala was the bearer in the greater degree of the culture, conceiver and transferring the great cultures which are passing through it as from the East to the West, and in the opposite direction.

Koy-Kirilgan Qala

Koy-Kirilgan Qala (south of Ayaz Qala and Toprak Qala, about 70 kilometers northeast of Khiva) is an archaeological site located outside the village of Taza-Kel'timinar in the Ellikqal'a District in the Republic of Karakalpakstan. In ancient times, it was sited along a canal in the Oxus (Amu Darya) delta region. There is some relationship between and Koi Krylgan Kala and Toprak Kala, 30 kilometers to the northwest. Koy-Kirilgan Qala’s temple complex was built by the Chorasmian Dynasty, an Iranian people who ruled the area of Khwarezm. It was built c. 400 B.C. The Apa-Saka tribe destroyed it c. 200 B.C. but later it was rebuilt into a settlement, which lasted until A.D. 400. It was discovered in 1938 by Sergey Pavlovitch Tolstov, leader of the Chorasmian Archaeological-Ethnological Expedition. It contained a Mazdian fire temple and was decorated with frescos of wine consumption. Google Maps Coordinates: Koy-Kirilgan Qala 41.755214, 61.116921

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Koy-Kirilgan Qala represents ruins of round fortification form, diameter 90 meters., focused by the entrance to the northeast. The monument completely excavated. The fortification construction consists of the big cylindrical building surrounded by the fortification wall, located from its basis on the 15 meters distance. The functioning of the monument to the end of the long period, the closed space between the well-kept original form of the central building and fortification wall, completely has been built up in some circles. The monument has three building periods. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The central building belongs to the first, round form is a monumental construction, surrounded arrow shaped gallery with one line of loopholes, below on 9,7 - 3,9 meters settled down 7 trapezoid windows. The height of the central building reaches up to 8,5 meters., the base of the diameter is 44,5 meters. The walls are built from pahsa (adobe wall) in alternation with adobe brick. The thickness of the walls in the basis is 7,2 meters. The building consisted of two - storey. The entrance was from the east side. The second construction period is characterized by the construction of external ring building. Building of the space concerns to the third construction period between the central building and external wall.

The meaning of Koy-Kirilgan Qala is difficult for overrating. It greatly characterizes of material and spiritual culture of Khorezm in its development during almost thousand-year historical period, shows the cultural relations of this detached area of Central Asia with the next steppe tribes and developed countries Front and Middle East and Black Sea Coast - with another side. Excavation of the bottom constructional horizon allows stating opinions that, originally, it was the cult construction that strengthened by the temple - a tomb, astronomical supervision here were made. Inside of the fortification around of the central cult building settled down economic and housing estates, possibly, for attendants of a cult. Archeological finds characterize original art of Ancient Khorezm. Numerous monuments of the writing materials from excavation, the most ancient written monuments in the whole territory of Central Asia and represents the earliest Ancient Khorezmian inscription.

Big Guldursun

The Big Guldursun (with a village near the fork of two main road, 10 kilometers east of Buston) It is one of the largest ancient Khorezm fortresses. Occupied from 4th-3rd centuries B.C. to A.D., 7th-8th centuries, it is one of the most splendid monuments of the Khorezm Shahs Dynasty. Google Maps Coordinates: Big Guldursun fortress 41.69311, 60.98141

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Archeological monument of Guldursun consists of two independent objects. Big Guldursun represents the most attractive in the historical and town-planning aspect. It is the largest boundary fortress of Khorezm 12th-13th centuries, constructed on the base of desolation of the antique fortress. The monument represents a wrong rectangular form in the size of 350х230 meters. focused by corners on the sites of the world. The entrance is located in the middle of the southeast wall. Antique walls and towers have been built up in the socle part from pahsa (adobe wall), and above from the adobe bricks. The walls were preserved almost on all height reaching 15 meters. in some places and make the basic file of the medieval fortification. In the cut section of the wall, the remains of bygone antique wall with loopholes were preserved. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The fortification of the fortress has strengthened by construction of the front wall barrier with the second line of the panel towers, flanked approach to the wall. Front gate construction became a semi circle form. According to that medieval fortress has been weekly to wall in inside, unlike of fortified cities of the antique period, it played only strategic role.

Big Guldursun is unique as the monument of the military-engineering construction for the epoch of the developed Middle Ages. Similar monuments even present in Ancient Khorezm, however, the given object surpasses all available monuments by its sizes and fortification. Guldursun protected the borders of Khorezm state since antique times, occupying the major strategic point on the approaches of blossoming and vital valleys of Khorezm oasis. Guldursun shows us about bygone progressive development of the principles, in the rudiment acting already in fortification large afrigid castles.

Pil Qala

Pil Qala (20 kilometers northeast of Ugrench) is really only of interest to people seriously into Khorezm as its mainly just mounds and heps of stone. It is relatively easiy to get to though. It is situated behind a residential street on the northern edge of the village of Biruniy, only two kilometers north northwest of the city centre. It was built on the right bank flood plain of the Amu Darya, which today flows just over 5 kilometers to its southwest. Google Maps Coordinates: Pil Qala 41.70567, 60.73663

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Site of ancient settlement is similar to the square form with size of 230х227 meters. sides also is focused on the sides of the world. The walls have preserved in the form of strong mud-stream. The traces of the internal layout were not preserved. Archeological excavations have shown that shaft hide inside of themselves the bottom parts of double walls with shooting corridors between them. They were constructed from pahsa (adobe wall) and reach the 1,8 - 2,4 meters. width. The width of the shooting corridor is 2,3 - 2,4 meters. The walls have been strengthened by semi oval towers which built from adobe brick in alternation with pahsa. Size of slope walls are reached to 10 meters. The southwest corner of the fortress is strengthened by the rectangular covering tower in the size of 17х17 meters. The wall were preserved 11 meters. in the height and 6,5 meters. in the thickness. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

Reference of this monument to "Outstanding" is based that the city was formed on one place from IV-II centuries B.C., and keeping traditions of construction of antique cities with one street highway and dense square reticular construction. However, in the Late Antique time, with its decline, instead of week strengthened cities like Аyaz Qala, being under the protection of the state, came strongly strengthened, laying separately among fields a manor of farmers and above these country "castles" is proudly rising strengthening of aristocracy castles. Antique fortresses are trailing oasis from desert, fall into decay. It is visible on example Pil Qala and is very evident on monuments of Berkut Qala oasis of Ancient Khorezm. It is visible all dynamics on their example of development of antique cities and Late Antique Khorezm up to the Arab conquer.

Anka Qala

Anka Qala (40 kilometers east of Buston) is the fortification construction on the caravan way leading both from the east to the west, and from the west to the east. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: It has plan similar to the form of the square with the sizes on the sides 90,8 х 91,6 meters. focused on corners to the sides of the world. The walls of good safety, reach the height 7-8 meters. They are double; between them installed the corridor. Walls are erected on adobe socle in the height of 3,2 meters., and in some places up to 5 meters. The walls have erected from the bricks above the socle. The entrance is in the middle of the southeast walls and protected by the two rectangular towers (12 х 6 meters.) put against each other. The external walls and towers are cut in one line by loopholes arrow-type form. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The courtyard of the fortress is almost free from building. The well was erected in the middle of the courtyard. Anka Qala is the fortification construction by the functions, which protected the borders of Khorezm state and trading caravan ways.

The value of this construction is in not only military purpose, but also in planning structure, where domestic building is absent. Probably, here has carried the keeping watch a garrison. It is remarkable that on the opened bricks were tamgas- marks. In one of them, in the top part of tamga is made the ancient Khorezmian inscription from five marks in one line. Fingers in 2-3 mm on crude clay have drowned marks. The sense of tamga and inscriptions are unknown yet.

The great value of this monument is one of the most ancient buildings, but also this fortress existed, in the 12th century inclusively did not change the function as the defensive construction, and entered into the line of ancient Khorezmian strengthening constructions, not only the state, but also Great trading caravan route. Google Maps Coordinates: Anka Qala 41.758569, 61.150981

Kurgashin Qala

Kurgashin Qala (80 kilometers northeast of Urgench) is in a rectangular fortress, measuring with sizes of 132.9х89.2 meters, oriented towards the four cardinal direction. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The walls are double; some places have preserved on the height 14-16 meters. The thickness of the walls is 2,35 meters. The width of the shooting corridor is 2,35 meters. It constructed from adobe blocks in alternation with the brick. The walls have been flanked on the corners with three towers and with one by one rectangular tower, slightly oval in the middle. The top part of walls and towers has system of protection in the form of loopholes arrow-shaped forms. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

The entrance is in the middle of the southeast wall and protected front gate construction of the rectangular form. Unlike from other fortifications of Ancient Khorezm, Kurgashin Qala was surrounded by the barrier wall - proteihizm, from the different sides (except for southwest) constructed from a square brick.

Monument of Kurgashin Qala as the defensive fortress has bright trace of traditions of the fortification of the classical east - from archaic Egypt and ancient Sumera until Assyria and Aheminid Iran. However, considering developing of the "Silk Road" Khorezmian architects on the example of the given monument was independently solved the problem of defense. Here is necessary to see more likely result of independent development in the similar historical conditions, than direct influence like, ahemenid fortifications. Google Maps Coordinates: Kurgashin Qala 42.034167, 61.321657

Djanbas Qala

Djanbas Qala (40 kilometers east of Bustan) is a rectangular fortress, measuring 200х170 meters and oriented towards the four cardinal direction. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Unlike of all other fortresses of Khorezm, Djanbas-Qala differs by the absence of towers. The gate is located from the northwest part and protected by the rectangular front gate construction with the length of 65,2 meters. and width of 20 meters. The safety of fortification walls reaches 9-10 meters. The walls are two-tiered, top arrow-shaped gallery. The laying of the walls combined - pahsa (adobe wall) alternates with brick. From the both parts of street all area of the fortress is built up by the habitation, consisting, as well as in Tuprak Qala from two up to eight houses-blocks, each of them includes from 150 to 200 rooms. Google Maps Coordinates: Djanbas Qala 41.85816, 61.30365

The city houses-blocks differ only that they are not strengthened. Functions of the protection are realized by the external defensive system of the city. There are two massifs in Djanbas Qala, the unique wide street of the city was stretched between them. In the walls of Djanbas Qala precincts to each of two big buildings, tamga - marks on the bricks were different, that testifies about existence of patrimonial divisions - partition. The important element of city settlement of antique Khorezm is “House of fire” located in the opposite part from the beginning of the street.

In the fortress of Djanbas Qala, as well as a whole, the plan of settlements of Ancient Khorezm of the epoch of development came after disintegration of the power of Ahemenid's state. It amazes with its archaism, vivacity and variety of display primitive-communal, patrimonial, including maternal-patrimonial traditions. The archeological material testifies about high degree of the development craft, ceramic industry. All of them have been executed on the potter's wheel. There was found out stone beads, which describe a high degree of the developments of the trade of the Ancient Khorezm with Syria, Egypt, cities of North Black Sea Coast.

Complex of Sheikh Mukhtar-Vali

Sheikh Mukhtar-Vali Complex (30 kilometers east of Khiva, five kilometers southwest of the town of Yangiariq) is a mausoleum erected in the 16th century, above the grave of Sheikh Mukhtar-Vali. It was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996 and is part of the Silk Roads Sites in Uzbekistan that was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. .Coordinates: Khorezm region Long. 60°23' East Lat. 41°16' North

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The mausoleum was erected in the 16th century above the grave of Ostana settlement founder Sheikh-Mukhtar-Vali, who was died in 1287. The Mausoleum has longitudinal shape, one of the most ancient of such kind. The composition of this multi-cupola and multi-volumetric monument was built on the long axis from east to west. The plan of the construction has not definite geometric outline but it is complicated by annexes. In spite of this complex is perceiving as integral organism. [Source: Ministry of Cultural Affairs - Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan]

“The hall of large mosque and smaller mosque behind emphasize the long axis in a complicated asymmetric composition. The big and small halls are covered by arched sails of different shapes. The burial—vault is overlapped by dome on the shield sails. The floors of store rooms have different kinds of the arches. The façades are decorated by baked bricks. All interiors are plastered by gunch. The grave stone is made from baked bricks, with stairs at the basis. The carving of three wooden doors make them special and distinctive.”

“Legends represent the Sheikh Mukhtor-Vali as the founder of settlement Ostana, contemporary of well-known poet and wrestler Pakhlavon Makhmud in Khiva. The detailed architecturally archeological research confirm the date of the construction of the complex - the beginning of the 14th century. In the complex dissymmetric, space-planning composition of the mausoleum is marked out with the large sizes - hall of the big mosque, behind it - small mosque. The complex of the mausoleum of Sheikh Mukhtor-Vali is perceived as an entire ensemble. A variety is reached due to combination of the original arch vaulted and dome ceilings, logically developing planning configuration of the premises. The hall of the mosque predominates. The dome ceiling of the small mosque is laconic: an octahedral circle of arch pendentives, minimal by the height and angular pendentives are presented original stalactite filling. The dome completed with the octahedral light lantern.

“The Complex of Sheikh Mukhtor-Vali — constructed at the end of 13th - the beginning of 14th centuries — was one of the first monuments of the period of revival of local architecture after the Mongol invasion. Its architecture rather than being based on provincialism reflects best selection that has been created during great Khorezmshahs in the field of building techniques. Limitation constructive and architecturally shaped has found the natural, perfect construction in this monument. In the complex have found the reflection the further development of an architectural idea after the deep crisis connected with the Mongolian conquer of Region, preservation and multiplied traditions of the Khorezm School of architecture after 300-years of ruin and decline.”

Khazarasp

Khazarasp (80 kilometers southeast of Urgench, longer from Khiva) is one of the most ancient cities of Central Asia. Many ancient authors of the Middle East — At-Tabbari (11th century), Arabian historian Al-Istakhri (10th century), Beykhaki (11th century), Djuveni (13th century) and many others — mentioned about this city. Nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, it was a contemporary of Memphis, Rome, Athens, Merv and Samarkand.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Khazarasp was the main advanced post of Khorezm state on the Silk Road and the largest trade center in the past. Ruins of this ancient city amaze the looks of visitors until present. The city has been surrounded by the fortifications. Walls are strengthened by towers. At present time, only 12 towers are left. In the southeast corner rises above the citadel tower Dev-Solgan. The height of the walls of kept tops is 12 meters, and without them - 10 meters. In some places of the wall are totally destroyed. They are combined from pahsa (adobe wall) and adobe bricks. [Source: National Commission of the Republic of Uzbekistan for UNESCO]

Archeological research in Khazarasp confirmed; that it has arisen based on the settlement in the middle of first millennium B.C. In the beginning of the 8th century Khazarasp is known as one of the three most strengthened and large cities of Khorezm. The city arises not as spontaneously developing structure, and as the unique center, that has been being construction simultaneously, according to the common plan.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Uzbekistan Tourism website (National Uzbekistan Tourist Information Center, uzbekistan.travel/en), Uzbekistan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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