Karakalpakstan in an autonomous region within Uzbekistan. About half the size of Italy and adjacent to the Aral Sea, it occupies 165,000 square kilometers and is the largest “province” in Uzbekistan, covering the western third of the country. It is home to its own ethnic group, the Karakalpaks, and has it own government that handles matters like education with little interference from Tashkent. Karakalpakstan has its own legislature and executive branches, as well as its own constitution, but its autonomy does not apply in areas such as foreign affairs, defense or security.

Karakalpakstan was originally part of Russia and was created by merging parts of the Old Khiva Khanate (1811-1920) and the Khorizem People’s Republic of the early 1930s. It was made part of Uzbekistan in 1936. Karakalpaks are closer ethnically and linguistically to Kazaks than to Uzbeks. The population is around 1.8 million people. In the 1990s it was home to about 1. 2 million people, including 400,000 Karakalpaks, 400,000 Uzbeks and 300,000 Kazakhs. There are also lots of camels. They have traditionally been used more as a source of milk and meat than for transportation.

Karakalpakstan is a very poor and undeveloped. People complain that there is no work, no money and no food. Karakalpaks live six years less than other people from Uzbekistan and have a higher infant mortality rate and suffer from a number of diseases brought about in part by environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Some say Karakalpakstan has borne the brunt of the ecological damage associated with the Aral Sea disaster.

According to scientists finds, the people in Karakalpakstan date back to ancient times. In the A.D. 2nd to 6th centuries, as a result of the assimilation of the nomadic Turkic and indigenous Saks population, two new ethnic communities appeared — Oguz and Pechenegs, which became the basis of the ethnic formation of the Karakalpak people. The territory of Karakalpakstan was occupied and conquered by various nationalities at different times. At the end of the 19th century the territory, it was part of the Russia-influenced Khiva khanate. After the establishment of Soviet Union in 1918 it became part of the Khorezm Soviet Republic and Turkestan USSR. Karakalpakstan today is best known for being a jumping of spot for visits to the desiccated Aral Sea and home of the legendary Nukus State Museum named after I. Savitsky, sometimes called “the Louvre in the desert”, containing 50,000 pieces of avant-garde and post-avant-garde period Russian art.

Geography of Karakalpakstan

Spanning the delta of the Amu Darya and situated about 100 to 200 kilometers east of the Caspian Sea, landlocked Karakalpakstan is all about desert: 1) the southwest adjoins the Karakum Desert, which is mostly in Turkmenistan; 2) the northwest is dominated by the arid Ustyurt Plateau; 3) the northeast is occupied by the Kyzylkum desert. 4) The southern part of the former Aral sea is situated in northern Karakalpakstan.

Bordered by Kazakhstan to the west and north, Turkmenistan and Khorezm Region of Uzbekistan to the south and the Uzbekistan regions of Bukhara and Navoi to the east, landlocked Karakalpakstan as a mostly arid region with low scrubby plants, gravel and sand. Most places receive less than 12.5 centimeters of rain a year. There are few trees other than the remains of tungai forests in the Amu Darya delta. It suffers from severe droughts and environmental problems associated with the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Deep bore wells that provide drinking water have salinity levels 90 percent above what is considered acceptable by the United Nations.

Almost all the agriculture is done with irrigation. Locals say that life itself would be impossible without irrigation. The main crop is cotton produced in large collectives and state farms. Melons, sorghum, rice, wheat, alfalfa, grapes, apricots, apples, pears, potatoes and vegetables are also grown. There are also sheep and goats. Silkworms are raised.

In “Journey to Khiva”, Philip Glazebrook described the region as “level and dim wastes of sand, a hard reddish granular surface tufted with spiny shrubs, which reached to every horizon. The sand formed low undulations, or occasionally hillocks encroaching the road, and a rare pool amid marsh grass flashed water at the cloudy, hurrying sky. ” In some of the of pools are ducks.

Archaeological and History Sites in Karakalpakistan

Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov wrote for orexca.com: “The Silk Road passed through the Republic of Karakalpakistan. A large number of historical and archeological monuments and sites of ancient cities are located on its territory. Unfortunately, many of them are on the verge of disappearing. Places such as the sites Devkesken-Vasir, Mizdahkan and Gyaur-Qala will certainly greatly impress travelers. [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, orexca.com|~|]

“The Devkensen-Vasir site of ancient cities is located on the Ustyurt plateau, bordering the Republic of Turkmenistan. It is known among the local population as Devkesken, which means "A fortress constructed by the Demon". The history of the city traces back to the 6th-3rd century B.C. The history of the study of Devkesken is rather short, and publications of corresponding material are not extremely numerous. The city, containing a citadel and a castle, is located at the end of the narrow gap of the Ustyurt. By layout it has the shape of an imperfect rectangle extending to the West. Three sides of the city walls have been preserved. The general area of the city is about 17 hectares.

“Two mausoleums and a cathedral mosque are located within the city boundaries. The mosque on the plan is represented as a rectangle surrounded by stone walls with an arch and cupola gallery on columns inside. The Mihrab niche is oriented to Kiblah and arranged in a southern wall according to tradition. A hallway is also in the southern wall, closer to the western corner of the mosque. The monument represents one of the finest architectural constructions built from both adobe and annealed bricks. On the base a reed layer was placed which protected the building from dampness and gave seismic stability to the walls. The building is dated to the beginning of the A.D. 9th century.

“Mizdahkan site of ancient cities represents a huge complex of monuments of various periods. It's extremely difficult in topographical terms. Under the long influence of the weather, the complex has lost essentially its original distinctness, and definition of some of its parts has become possible only through micro relief which is problematic with ground methods of topographic work.

“In 1966 Air photography of the whole Mizdahkan complex was completed. Based on the material of this activity, some objects were deciphered for the first time and the general plan of the complex was created. The whole complex of ruins is located on three small hills and on empty space between them. The ancient necropolis, located on one of these hills, was named "The Eastern Hill". A number of sites of archeological significance have been revealed on the northern side of the hill.

Some of the archeological objects located on the territory of the necropolis have already been studied. Mazlumhan sulu mausoleum, Caliph Erezhep, Shamun Nadi and Djumat kassab are among them. Each of these objects has related folk legends, which are transferred from generation to generation.

Legends of Ancient Karakalpakistan

Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov wrote for orexca.com“There are various legends on Shamun Nabi. One of them declares: Shamun Nabi was one of the religious preachers in Khorezm before the adoption of Islam. The inhabitants of these places were not Muslims before his arrival. He appeared in these towns and concealed his real intentions. Yakhiya and Zakariya, the missionaries, arrived before him at these locations and started working openly, for which they were seized and thrown into zindan (prison). [Source: Dr. Oktyabr Dospanov, orexca.com]

“Shamun Nabi took the position of a yard keeper, after which he was promoted to the treasurer of the state. Having discovered the jail where Yahin and Zakariya were imprisoned, he demanded they be released, stating that both of them were prophets and could be useful for sovereign Geura. The latter agreed to let them out, agreeing with that they were real prophets. To prove this, he suggested they revive the dead, and return sight to his blind daughter. The prophets executed this order and received freedom. From that time on, Shamun Nabi was considered sacred.

“Another legend is told about the cult building of Caliph Erezhep. He taught his subjects for 40 years, and after his death his spirit continued the deeds of the sacred Caliph Erezhep. Once, two travelers argued over the sanctity of Caliph Erezhep. And when they came to his grave they heard a voice from it: "Return any borrowed money ". And since then people have believed in the sanctity of Caliph Erezhep.

“Two mausoleums are located near the mosque. The history of their construction is connected with the legendary names of Farkhad and Shirin. The legend states that very long ago a powerful Edhem-shah ruled in the area of Daryalyk and Sarykamysh (ancient channels of the Amu-Darya river). He had a beautiful daughter named Shirin who was in love with the mason Farkhad, who also loved her passionately. Being against the marriage of the young people, but at the same time not wishing to offend his favorite daughter with a direct refusal, Edhem-shah declared that he would let her marry the person who could dig a ditch in the Ustyurt outcrop and build a fortress.

“Though Farkhad was very skilled as a mason, such titanic work was beyond his power. However, Shirin was cunning enough to make thousands of her slaves work nights while Farkhad alone worked in the daytime. Some time had passed, and Edhem-shah got the report on the ditch and the fortress being finished. Being shocked and furious, the Shah declared that something was not right. Such colossal work couldn't have been completed by a human being but a Dev (i. e. malicious spirit).

“Nevertheless, the promise given needed to be carried out. Still, not being eager to marry off Shirin to a commoner, the Shah himself ordered a thousand of his slaves to deepen the ditch in one place at night, and the next morning he said: "See, your Farkhad did not work today, and still Dev has done the job. He is a deceiver and you'll not marry him". Despairing, Farkhad died. This gave the name to the fortress "Strangled by Dev" - Devkesen. Soon after, Shirin also died. The two mausoleums, adjacently located in the southern part of the city above the rim of the Ustyurt plateau were built for them. . .

“On the eastern hill of Mizdakhan, there is a small hill named Djumarat Kassab, (“Djumarat” is a name, “Kassab” means “butcher”) which some say was a tomb. There are many local legends about this hill. One of them says a mausoleum of a butcher named Djumarat is hidden under it. Djumarat was known for distributing meat to poor people in times of poor harvest and famine. For his kindness and compassion he was deemed a holy person.”

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).


Nukus (120 kilometers northwest of Urgench) is a remote Soviet-era town in the middle of a bleak, dusty desert. The capital of Karakalpakstan, it is home to 180,000 people and is known for it modern art museum and its innovative school. For the most part it is a depressing place with an impoverished population that suffers from unemployment and health and environmental problems related to the disappearance of the Aral Sea.

Progress Center was an innovative school in Nukus where students took classes in English and didn't sit in rows and listen to lectures but instead sang songs, createed their own dramas, watched films, and discussed their feelings. The Progress Center opened with 40 students in the Soviet era and had more than 500 in 2000—all of whom took a regular class load at public schools. Competition was stiff to get it. Only 25 percent of those who applied got in. Parents from Tashkent tried to get their kids in. Visitors were welcome but often they were asked to sing a sing or recite a poem for the benefit of the students. I think its closed but maybe it still open.

Sights in Nukus include the Museum of Applied Arts. The Amu-Darya River winds around the west side of the city and is about three kilometers from the city center. It is worthwhile to check out the pontoon bridge set up there. Near the town of Hojeli, 15 kilometers from Nukus, are some Khorezm ruins that date back to the A.D. 4th century and medieval mausoleums.

State Museum of Local History of Karakalpakstan is one of the oldest museums in Uzbekistan and Central Asia. When it opened in 1929 it housed several dozen exhibits. Today there are 65,970 exhibits some of which contain rare artifacts that date back to ancient times. There are separate areas for Precious metals, Ethnography, Recent History, Nature, Archaeology, Photography and Art. Among the more interesting items are the display of musical instruments, folk art, costumes and stuffed animals from the Karakalpakstan region, including the last Caspian tiger killed in 1972. Address: Republic of Karakalpakstan, Nukus, ul. Karakalpakstan, 9 Tel: +99861 222-73-92, +99861 222-73-89 Fax: +99861 222-73-92; Hours Open: weekdays 09:00am-5:00pm; Saturday 10:00am - 4:00pm

Igor Savitsk Museum

Igor Savitsk Museum is an art museum with as a treasure trove of lost avant-guard Soviet art created when the Bolshevik Revolution was recent history and people had high hopes, grand ambitions and life seemed liked it had unlimited possibilities before the authorities clamped down. Charlotte Douglas, a professor of Russian art at New York University, told the New York Times, "There are wonderful artists people have never heard of, including women, and great works from artists we thought we understood but know we realize we don't. " Many of the artists had been locked away on gulags.

In a relatively short period of time, the Nukus Museum has amassed a large collection of about 100,000 items. The reason these works are in Uzbekistan is that the artists who create them painted them here while they were either exiled or imprisoned and Nukus happened to be the home of the collector Igor Savitsky. The museum also has an interesting collection of crafts. Interested item her include ornately designed women's silver belts and sculpted charmed intended to protect wearers genitals from the evil eye. In the gifts ship Karakalpak carpets are sold.

The museum is housed in a white two-story building and its annex, both of which were part of chemical weapons plant. The paint is pealing, the employees wear frayed uniforms. The lighting is poor and paintings with beaten up frames have been placed all over the walls in a haphazard manor. Often dozens are placed together on a single wall. The bathroom is an outhouse. Trays of water serve as humidifiers. In the early 2000s, many of the employees earned less than $25 a month. Often days passes without a single visitor showing up.

Igor Savitsky dedicated his life to collecting works by dissident artist that otherwise would have been destroyed. He opened the museum in 1966. He collected more than 90,000 objects of art, with hundreds of works by a single artist. Savitsky first came to Karakalpakia in 1950 as part of an archaeological and ethnographic expedition as an artist. He began collecting art almost immediately. With the opening of the museum in February 1966, Savitsky devoted himself entirely to replenishing the museum collection. After that he began to collect paintings by not only famous artists but also completely unknown ones. Since 1984, the museum has been named after him

Collection at Igor Savitsk Museum

The museum possesses more than 30,000 paintings, only a fraction of which are shown, and is regarded as the best collection of Soviet-era dissident art. Some of the works are by famous artists such as Ivan Kudryahove and Lubov Popova, whose works have been shown at the Guggenheim and Museum of Modern Art and have been sold for $300,000 in the West. There are more than 1,400 works by the Jewish artist Ruvim Mazael, who worked side by side with Marc Chagall.

Interesting works include “Apocalypse” by Alexeu Rybnokov, featuring a rider in horseback with a trumpet wonderfully executed with bold colors; “Capital” by Mikhail Kurzin, with grotesque couple that brings to mind the works of Otto Dix; “Dumplings,” a realistic representation of one of Russia’s favorite foods which the starving artist Mikhail Kurzin, made after being released from prison; and “The Bull,” a crazed animal rendered almost completely in blue painted by Yevgeni Lysenko, an inmate at a metal hospital, There are also geometric pieces by Liubov Popova, works by Robert Rafailovich Falk and impressionistic scenes of local life by Viktor Ufimstev.

The Guardian newspaper called the museum “one of the most beautiful museums in the world” Prof. Hansen-Levé, J. K. Markade said the collection of the Nukus Museum is “shedding light on the history of Russian art” and “giving a true picture of the artistic life of 1920–1930” (by). Leading Western art historians — S. Douglas, D. Bolt, A. Flaker and others — stated that the collection of the Savitsky Museum should be the basis for revising the history of Russian and Soviet art.

Address: Republic of Karakalpakstan, Nukus St. T. Kaipbergenova, 52 Tel: (+998 61) 222-61-28, 222 71 25. Hours Open: Monday: closed; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday:9:00am-6:00pm; Thursday: 9:00am-7:00pm; Saturday: 10:00am-6:00pm; Sunday: 10:00am-5:00pm; Mondays through Fridays lunch taekn 1:00pm to 2:00pm.

Ancient Sites in the Nukus Area

Chilpyk Fortress (43 kilometers south of Nuku) features a “Tower of Silence” (Zoroastrian funerary tower) enclosed in high walls, located on the top of a 35-meter-high hill. The fortress was built at the end of 1st century B.C. In the 7th — 8th century after the arrival of the Arabs, the building was rebuilt. During a period of prosperity during the ancient Khorezm period in the 9th and 10th century, the fortress was used as a watchtower and signal tower. Numerous fragments of clay ossuaries were found in the hills surrounding Chilpik (Shylpyk) are evidence of its original purpose as a Dakhma (Zoroastrian burial building). The fortress offers a beautiful view of the Amu Darya River. The inner part of the fortress is a flat clay platform, paved with fragments of black sandstone.

Dzhampyk Kala Fortress (50 kilometers from Nukus, near the National Park Badai — Tugai is very old. The first buildings of the fortress were built in the 4th century B.C. to A.D. 1st century A.D. The walls were built much later — in the 9th and 10th centuries. Inside the fortress there are residential buildings dating from the 12th to 14th centuries and the citadel. In the Middle Ages, Dzhampyk — Kala served as a port city.

Toprak-Kala (30 kilometers northeast of the city of Biruni) is an ancient settlement dated to A.D. 1st to 6th centuries. It is believed that the settlement was the capital of the ancient Khorezm until A.D. 305 and the residence of the Khorezm rulers. The Toprak-Kala complex included several palaces, a city and residential buildings. During the excavations archaeologists found the remains of a palace with 150 halls and rooms, which were richly decorated with monumental painting and sculpture. The height of the palace reached 40 meters. In the palace there were shrines in which certain rituals and ceremonies were performed. Unique manuscripts in ancient Khorezm language — 116 documents written in black ink on leather scrolls and wooden plates — were found on the territory of the settlement.

Mizdahkan Complex

Mizdakhan (20 kilometers west of Nukus) is identified with the city of Mazda mentioned in the holy book of the Zoroastrians “Avesta”. The architectural complex is located on a vast territory of 200 hectares in the Khodzheili district of Karakalpakstan and dates from the 4th century A.D. to 14th centuries of our era.

The main parts of the complex are located on the hills in the southwestern suburbs of Khojeili district. The top of the western hill is crowned with the ruins of the ancient settlement of Gyaur Kala (4th century B.C.). On the eastern hill is an ancient necropolis. Within its territory are the mausoleums Kırık Shopan, Shamun Nabi, Nazlımkhan Sulu (12th-14th centuries), Erezhep Halifa, which is called the World Clock (11th-14th centuries), the mound above the tomb of Zhumart Kassaba and others. Unique finds have been found in of Mizdakhan, including a rich burial in a ceramic sarcophagus, ritual articles of gold, ancient religious symbols and inscriptions.

The complex is shrouded in mysticism and magic of numbers, history and folk legends are intertwined here. There is a legend that the grave of Adam is located here. Scientists identify this hypothesis with the tomb of Gayomard — the first man on Earth according to the version of Zoroastrian mythology. The whole complex is covered with small columns of 7 stones built by pilgrims. Legend has it that each folded column extends the life of the earth by seven years. According to another version, the columns are folded with faith in the fulfillment of desire.

Natural Sites in Karakalpakistan

Eastern Chink of the Ustyurt Plateau (in the Aral sea region of Karakalpakstan) is a a result of the destruction of water and large reservoirs. Various “sculptural compositions” have formed, creating a unique, unworldly landscapes. According to scientists, the Ustyurt plateau sits on the bottom of the dried sea that existed in the beginning and middle of the Cenozoic era (21 million years ago). This is evidenced by the inclusions of shells in limestone. The flat desert landscape is periodically interrupted by chalk deposits in the form of rocks and cracks. Very often Ustyurt plateau is called the border separating Asia and Europe. It occupies a huge space between the Aral and Caspian seas and has a characteristic feature: the chink is a steep hard-to-reach cliff with a height of about 150 meters. East cliff, facing the Aral sea, reaches 190 meters!

Stone Forest in Djarkuduk Tract (Mingbulak basin near the Uchkuduk-Nukus motorway) is a place with fossilized remains of vegetation and petrified trees that existed about 65 million years ago, during the dinosaur age.

Lake Sudochye (in Muynak district on the left bank of the Amu Darya delta for years was fed through the channel of the Amu Darya River and connected to the Aral Sea. In 1972, its covered area was 96 square kilometers. Like Aral Sea, it has shrunk significantly. Now instead of one lare lake there are four much smaller, shallower and saltier lakes: Akushpa, Great Sudochye, Karateren and Begdulla-Aydin. In the last couple decades the lake has gained popularity due to the nesting of flamingos, which is not typical for the region. As of 2014, a colony of 7,000 pink flamingos lived here.

Urga Village lies on the shores of Lake Sudochie. In the middle of the 20th century it was thriving fishing centers a population of several hundred people. It was one of the first Russian villages in the territory of the Republic of Karakalpakstan. The last resident left safely in 1971, but the village continues to “live. ” The place has become a popular tourist attraction. People come here to fish and also to admire the flamingos.

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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