The Kyzylkum Desert was not always so dry: as recently as 1500 years ago, this was fertile agricultural land, supporting the stable and powerful kingdom of Khorezm. It is still hard to believe that the arid and baked plains of Khorezm were once a densely populated marshland stalked by tigers and traversed by boats.
The region slowly drained and dried. Irrigation canals became fragile desert lifelines controlled by feudal lords, vulnerable to nomadic incursions and tribal war. Whenever irrigation canals were destroyed, or the fickle Amu Darya changed course, stranded cities withered and died, leaving skeletons of past glory strewn in the desert like the water marks of a high tide.
The area’s traditional name, Elliq Qala (the 50 fortresses), gives an indication of the population density at the time. 8 major forts remain sufficiently intact to be of interest to the casual visitor. Clamber with care: this is fragile history.
How to visit
The easiest way to visit is to go on a tour with a local tour operator starting from Khiva. You can easily book this the night before if you prefer a loose trip planning style.
For independent travelers with their own vehicles: a 4WD is not necessary, but some approaches might be a bit scary in a simple converted van, so getting out and walking the last stretch of desert is sometimes the best way.
Most impressive are the 3 forts known as Ayaz Qala (OSM / Gmaps), with walls that still measure 10 metres high, vividly showcasing the dangers of nomadic tribes for their settled neighbours. The oldest of the 3 fortresses goes back to the 4th century BCE. Archaeologists found 3 grape presses for wine-making and 12 golden statues here (now in the Hermitage), testament to the high sophistication and different climate 2000 years ago.
In its shadow is Ayaz-Qala Yurt Camp, popular with tour groups, where you can stay over and do camel trekking to nearby destinations similar to the yurt camps near Nurata. Beyond the village of Ayaz crumble the ruins of Kul Qala, which is ringed by salt and appears to be evaporating; and, 12 kilometres from the campsite, the 4th century BC Big Kirkiz Qala.
Toprak Qala (OSM / Gmaps), a settlement of around 2500 people, grew up around the first century BCE to peak around the third century under Kushan patronage. The later collapse of Kushan and White Hephtalite rule left the region open to devastating Turkic raids, which destroyed irrigation canals and led to the depopulation of the town in the sixth century.
3 main halls have been identified by archaeologists: the state Hall of Kings, decorated with royal portraits; the Hall of Victories, whose seated pantheon included the Hellenistic god Nike; and the Hall of Black Guards, named alter the portraits of Indian guardsmen recruited into the Khorezmian army. Other images refer to Zoroastrian deities Ahura Mazda and Anahita.
Leather parchments carrying Khorezmian script, wall paintings depicting river reeds, tigers, stylized red hearts, fantastic griffins and dancing couples were all recovered by the 1938 excavations and are now also in the Hermitage .
Five minutes drive to the west, Kyzyl Kala, a fortified dwelling on two floors, has seen some renovation to stop further erosion.
Janbas Qala (OSM / Gmaps), the earliest fortress here discussed (4th century BCE) is still in a very good state. Unlike contemporary Ayaz Qala, Janbas has no towers to defend its flanks. This meant that the fort was potentially vulnerable from an attack on the lower sections of its walls.
The military architects had attempted to overcome this design weakness by including some steeply inclined loopholes so that some archers could fire down along the face of the walls. Tolstov believed that this design of loophole could be traced back to the time of the Assyrians. Certainly the design never caught on in Khorezm – all of the other frontier fortresses were constructed with defensive towers instead.
Koi Krylgan, Angka, Guldursun qalas
Koi Krylgan Kala (OSM / Gmaps) is a circular citadel, sadly heavily eroded since excavation. It is still interesting for its unusual shape and sophisticated model. The site is now best appreciated with a drone.
The fort (4th century BC to 1st AD) forms two perfectly concentric circles of 42 metres and 87 metres in diameter. The inner citadel, originally used as a burial ground for Khorezmian rulers, cult rites and even astronomical observations, forms a ten-metre high drum covering a central courtyard and six side rooms.
Nearby Angka Qala (OSM / Gmaps) was a stronghold in a big circle of fortresses, but it has seriously deteriorated since its excavation in the 1940’s, and the other fortresses have disappeared in the agricultural expansion of the sixties and seventies.
Gyaur qala (OSM / Gmaps) was a big fort with an unusual trapezoidal layout. It measured roughly 450 metres from north to south. Today only the northern wall and part of the north-west corner remains. Even so, the northern wall is preserved in parts up to 15 metres high.
The fort appears to have been constructed during the 4th century BC. Its objective was to guard and control the important Amu Darya trade route at it crossed the southern frontier of Khorezm. It must have been an impressive site when viewed by vessels sailing down the Amu Darya.
There is ample evidence to show that Khorezm was at that time an important stage on a trade route that extended from India in the east, to the Black Sea in the west, and to Persia and Mesopotamia in the south-west. The fort continued in use until the late Kushan period, around the 3rd century AD.
It is sometimes reported that there are 400 qalas in Karakalpakstan. We have never seen a complete inventory, but the No’kis-based archaeologist G’ayratdiyin Xojaniyazov published a list of 76 of some of the most important monuments in 2006. Certainly wherever you look on the large-scale map of the region you can find qalas – so many in fact that the majority are unnamed.
There must therefore be hundreds. Indeed in the past there were even more. Many of the small forts were destroyed and ploughed over during the agricultural development of the 1960s and 1970s.
For a very detailed look at the history and architecture of the qalas, including many unmentioned here, see Karakalpak.com.