Khorezm can only exist because it's an oasis, a fortunate strip of fertile land in the Amu Darya delta that is sandwiched between the Karakum and Kyzylkum deserts. The Amu-Darya delta, stretching from southeast of Urgench to the Aral Sea, has been inhabited for millennia and was an important oasis long before Urgench or even Khiva were important. The region has at least 5-7 000 years of known human history, starting with the Mesolithic Keltiminar (5500-3500bc) and moving through Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures to the Scythians, Achaemenids, Sassanids and then, in ad712, the Arab Ummayads. Such fascinating history has left rich pickings for visiting culture vultures: desert fortresses, some 2,500 years old; ancient palaces; royal citadels; and the remains of fire-worship temples.
The historical name of the delta area, which includes parts of modern-day northern Turkmenistan, was Khorezm. The ruins of many Khorezmian towns and forts, some well over 2000 years old, still stand east and north of Urgench in southern Karakalpakstan. With help from UNESCO, local tourism officials have dubbed this area the ‘Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm’. The area’s traditional name is Elliq-Qala (Fifty Fortresses).
Khiva, the caravan stop turned religious centre turned UNESCO World Heritage Site supposedly founded by Shem, son of Noah. This museum city, frozen in time behind its crenellated, mud-brick walls, seems to contain more historical sites per square metre even than mighty Bukhara. Ignore the distances to get there: it is absolutely not to be missed.
Outdoor and nature enthusiasts will also find plenty to do here, from scrambling among the qala ruins, to camel rekking near Ayaz-Qala, to hiking in Badai-Tugai Nature Reserve, a tugai (trees, shrubs and salt-resistant plants unique to Central Asia) forest just off the main road about 60km north of Urgench.
Unesco produced a brochure containing a map of the area and historical synopses of the most prominent qalas, but these days it’s hard to find; ask the Khiva tourist information office.