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The Desert sites

The desert fortresses of ancient Khorezm lie mostly in Karakalpakstan. However, as the majority of visitors will access them from Urgench and Khiva rather than from Nukus, so it is a better starting point to explore them.

The Kyzylkum Desert was not always so dry: as recently as the early centuries ad this was fertile agricultural land, supporting the stable and centralised 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, traversed by boats and inhabited by Messagetae Scythians. The Messagetae, Great Scythian nomads, held sway by the sixth century BC. These horseback archers practised a form of group marriage and killed off elders to de-burden the tribe. Their finest victory came in 529 BC with the death of Persian emperor Cyrus the Great.

As the Amu Darya forced its way into the Aral Sea, 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, stranded cities withered and died, leaving skeletons of past glory strewn in the desert like the water marks of a high tide.

The areas traditional name, Elliq Qala (the 50 fortresses), gives a stark indication of what lies beneath the desert sands, and UNESCO and local tour companies have worked closely to promote the itinerary they call "The Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm'. A detailed, illustrated guide to the main sites has been produced by UNESCO and can be downloaded free from Ellik means 'fifty' - each time the capricious Amu Darya changed course, the Khoreznrians had to relocate.

As tour companies explore the desert's potential, these sites at the edge of the Kyzyl Kum grow more accessible than for centuries, but clamber with care, or battlements weathered by history will disappear forever. Once in the region do try some desert tours to fortresses, such as Ayaz Kala and the 20 other fortresses scattered in the Ellik-Kala region.

There are about 20 forts that you can explore here today, and who knows how many that have yet to be discovered (the ‘Fifty Fortresses’ moniker is an approximation). Eight major forts remain sufficiently intact to be of interest to the casual visitor.

 First on the alphabetical list is Anka Qala, a 5th century fort that later became a 12th-century fortified caravanserai built around a courtyard with a well at its centre. The fort is built on a square with double adobe walls, a narrow corridor running between the two. The outer wall, the most important for defence, would originally have been 7-8m high. Angka Qala is around four kilometres from Koi Krylgan Kala. A 4WD is useful here. Drivers will be reluctant to take you here via the poor road from Beruni; instead, drive south towards Turtkul and turn north on a paved road towards the mammoth Guldursun Qala, built as early as the 1st century but in use until the Middle Ages. Koy Krylgan Qala is 18km east of Guldursun Qala.

Ayaz qala, UzbekistanThe most well-known qala is impressive, mud-walled Ayaz-Qala, which is actually a complex of three forts about 23km north of Boston (Bustan). Ayaz Qala is a 'must-see' on every Kyzylkum Desert itinerary. It is a spectacular base for exploring ancient Khorezm, it offers desert fortresses, nomadic yurts, starry campfires, and sweeping views from which to conjure up the fertile past. The external walls, built upon a flat hilltop, have survived since at least the 4th century bc, and you can clearly see the scale of the site: the fort's footprint was a remarkable 182m by 152m, and even today sections of wall survive that are 10m high. The Ayaz Qala would once have been a very wealthy place with sophisticated inhabitants. At least ten major structures have been identified within the complex, and archaeologists have unearthed everything from early wine presses to golden statues.

Bring your own wine to this dusty corner of the world that once supported one of its earliest vinicultures, say archaeologists who dug up three grape presses in the oldest of the three structures here. Twelve golden statues were also discovered in the ruins of local ruler Ayaz Khan's residence, built in the 4th to 3rd centuries BC, and removed to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. A ramp leads up from the residence to a citadel, while a second double-walled fort watches over from a nearby hilltop.

Its heyday was the 6th and 7th centuries. In its shadow is Ayaz-Qala Yurt Camp, with several yurts big enough to hold five to eight people, and camel trekking available. The owner of the yurts permanently camped on an adjacent rise can rustle up camels or horses to reach nearby tiny Ayaz Kul lake. The campsite lies 7 kilometres from Ayaz village, mostly inhabited by Kazakhs, hence the numerous yurts. Beyond the village crumble the ruins of Kul Kala, which is ringed by salt and appears to be evaporating; and, 12 kilometres from the campsite, the 4th century BC Big Kirkiz Kala, or '40 women', from a recurring Central Asian legend about a strong band of warrior maidens. Their corner turrets now decay like rotten teeth.

Call ahead to reserve yurts and camels, and to discuss transport options. Tour groups often book out Ayaz-Qala, especially for lunch. At other times you’re practically at one with the desert.

Guldursun qalaFortress three is Big Guldursun, a 7th- to 8th-century ad fort built atop an earlier (1st- to 4th-century) structure. It lie between Turtkul and Ayaz Kala, 20 km south of Bustan. With walls 15m high, this was a purely defensive fort: there was a garrison rather than a town inside. Ultimately the fort's strength was not enough to protect it, however, as legend has it that Princess Guldursun fell in love with a Kalmyk warrior and opened the gates of her father's fortress to him. Once inside he cast her aside, his troops killed everyone they could find, and they reduced the buildings to ruins. A more likely demise was the Mongol tour of destruction in 1221. Note to romantics: if you're going on a first date, pick somewhere public just in case that tall, dark, handsome stranger turns out to have homicidal tendencies.

The long shadows of Gyaur Qala that it casts late in the day are both dramatic and slightly eerie. One of the so-called Hellenic fortresses on account of the Greek influence at the time of its construction (3rd to 2nd century bc), it continues to cut an imposing figure on the horizon long before you reach it.

Similar in age to the Djanbas Qala (see below) is the Koy-Kirilgan Qala, the tastefully named Fort of Dead Rams. It's probably a reference to pre-Islamic sacrifices that took place here. This was a round fortress with a 90m diameter. The inner citadel (the oldest part of the site) was a royal burial ground; beyond this were rooms for servants and artisans; and lastly you reached the outer wall with its nine imposing towers. The Koy-Kirilgan Qala was inhabited as late as the 4th century ad. This fascinating skeleton of antique sophistication, lies approximately 30 kilometres southeast of Toprak Kala, and best approached from the city of Turt Kul.

The fort (4th century BC to 1st AD) forms two astonishing and perfectly concentric circles of 42 metres and 87 metres in diameter. The inner citadel, originally used as a burial ground for Khorezmian rulers, for cult riles and even astronomical observations, forms a ten-metre high drum covering a central courtyard and six side rooms. Between the inner and outer walls servants' and artisan rooms spread out radially towards the nine towers of the city defences. The site is best appreciated from the air.

Excavations from the site have revealed ossuaries, ivory rhytons (drinking horns), Scythian headdresses and Khorezmian inscriptions in an Aramaic script and indicate that the site was inhabited from the fourth century BC to the fourth century AD as a dynastic centre.

Toprak KalaTwo other not-to-be-missed qalas are Toprak Qala and Kyzyl Qala, on opposite sides of the road about 10km west of Boston. The former was the main temple complex of Khorezm kings that ruled this area in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Near the latter you’ll see students working the cotton fields in the autumn.

Toprak Qala, 2,000-year-old ruined city fortress and royal religious centre, 350 metres by 500 metres, framed by the brooding Sultan Vais Dag Mountains, is the best explored in the region. The settlement of around 2500 people grew up around the first century BC to peak around the third century under Kushan patronage, until superseded by Kath in 305 AD. The later collapse of Kushan and White Hephalite 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.

The huge royal citadel dominates the rectangular city and, together with the still- strong city walls, provides an eloquent testament to the fragility of medieval life. Although the three-acre citadel is clearly etched by a series of internal courtyards, rooms and decorative niches and is surrounded by three, three-storeyed, 25-metre high towers, the strength of the site lies in its general impact rather than line details. Three main halls have, however, 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 Ahuramazda and Anahita. Southern rooms formed the inner quarters of the royal family. An armoury manufacturing bows stood to the southeast. Leather parchments carrying Khorezmian script, wall paintings depicting river reeds, tigers, stylized red hearts, fantastic griffins and dancing couples were all recovered by Professor Tolstov's 1938 desert excavations and have since been sent to St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.

The area to the south of the citadel provided an elite home lo twelve large extended clan houses, each holding hundreds of people and linked by a narrow grid of streets. Today only the central mound of a dynastic fire-worshipping temple can be made out.

Five minutes drive to the west, Kyzyl Kala, a fortified dwelling on two floors, is accessed by a blind side gatehouse.

Other sites: One of the earlier forts is the Djanbas Qala, construction of which was started in the 4th century bc. Unlike Khorezm's other fortresses, Djanabs never had any towers; with a thick double wall the garrison of 2,000 soldiers was obviously felt sufficient to keep invaders at bay. Within the fort's walls were organised blocks of housing, wide streets and a fire temple.

Other examples of the region's Elliq Qala (fifty forts) include the feudal residence of Yakke Parsan and ruined walls of Jampik Kala, a medieval fortress at the western fringes of the Badai Tugai reserve near Qoratov, which an Uzbek sculptor hopes to restore.

The walls of the Pil Qala were more than 6m thick and sloped to make it hard for invaders to attack. It was roughly built on a square and was designed with double walls with a narrow space so that archers could stand between them shooting out at the advancing enemy. It dates from the 4th to 2nd century bc.

One of the more unusual sites is the imposing fourth-century Zoroastrian dakhma (tower of silence), at Chilpak (Shilpik) that looms over the Amu-Darya plain just west of the highway about 30km south of Nukus. The 'Tower of Silence' was a royal burial ground, where local Khozemian kings had their bodies entombed in clay ossuaries. Fire-worshiping Zoroastrians would deposit their dead here to have their bones picked clean by vultures. The long slog up to the tower is worth it for the views.