Sultan Palace Merv

Ancient Oasis of Khorezm

Ancient Khorezm was the oasis formed by the great Amu- Darya river (known in ancient times as Oxus, or Jeihun in medieval period). It was one of the largest oasis of Central Asia, encircled by Kara-kum desert to the west and Kizil-kum desert to the east. A long line of stark white cliffs marking the edge of the Ustiurt plateau, at the north, between the Aral and Caspian seas was the border between the lands of the northern steppe nomads and the settled farmers of the oasis towns and villages.Today, the main part of ancient Korezm falls in Uzbekistan Karakalpakstan with a major city of Nukus. The modern administrative region that still bears the ancient name of Khorezm, with main city in Urgench, while a few kilometers away to the south-west lies its medieval capital of Khiva. In Turkmeistan, the ancient Khoresm enclosed around Dashoguz town and Khorezm ancient capital of Kunya Urgench.

All the history of Khorezm oasis is formed around Amu Darya River. It was and is the lifeblood of the region. Over the years, the river changed its courses many times , the ancient river beds can be traced by lines of archeological sites. The earliest settlements are Neolithic and Bronze Age encampments of hunter-fishermen who lived along the riverbanks. The first Neolithic sites date from around six thousand years BC, but this life development continued almost unchanged until the seventh century BC. The 6th- 4th century BC period, the region starts to be known as Khorezm and become the part of Achaemenid Empire (a satrapy of Persians).

The 4th to 1st centuries BC, probably it lived as independent state, out of direct control of main powers. When Alexander the Great marched his armies into Central Asia, he made no effort to control Khorezm. It was during this period that the Greek historian Arrian records the visit of a Khorezmian king, Pharasmenes, to Alexander the Great in Markanda (Samarkand). He offered the conqueror assistance in subjugating the lands he claimed bordered Khorezm. Despite the fact that these included the fabled homeland of the Amazons, Alexander declined and went on to India, leaving Khorezm untouched by the Hellenistic influence that changed so much of southern Central Asia.

Early Antique periods, the time of floruit of Khorezmian independence By the beginning of the 4th century BC, ancient Khorezm had reached a high level of cultural development, being strong and prosperous our of Persian control. This period attests the major achievements in military architecture with construction of a series of imposing frontier fortresses on the boundaries of the settled lands. Most of these are in the south-east of the region but in the north the frontier towns of Bolshoi Aibuiir- kala and Devkesen faced the Ustiurt plateau, winter grazing grounds of the nomads. The material culture experienced a period of conservatism lasting until the 1st century CE.

Later, the nomadic tribes displaced by wars along the Chinese frontier began to move westwards into the region around Samarkand . Out of these tribes grew a new and powerful empire of Kushans, who became fully established in northern Afghanistan by about the 1st century CE. The Kushan kings eventually ruled over lands from Central Asia to northern India. To the north and west, their influence was felt in Khorezm, although it is not clear as to whether the region became a formal part of the empire. Khorezm was under the cultural influence of the expanding Kushan empire, most clearly manifest in the construction of the magnificent fortified citadel and township of Toprak –kala.

This is a new pattern of construction in this period with appearance of smaller fortresses within the settled lands. A good example of this is the site of Kzil-kala which lies among fields within sight of Toprak-kala. This new pattern may be indicative of a different political structure. Kushan time was that of prosperity, when trade flourished and merchants traveled across Central Asia, trading goods from China to Rome, and from the Baltic Sea to India.

Following the decline of the Kushan Empire and it was absorbed by the rising power of the Sasanians in Persia. The Khorezmians adopted religious practices which had their origins in Iran and are linked to the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster.

Acheological remains reflecting these religious beliefs include fire temples and funerary monuments. The Zoroastrian doctrine is based on the duality of good and evil represented by Ahura Mazda, the Wise Lord, and Ahriman, who embodies the principles of evil. For practitioners of the faith, the four elements of the univers, fire, water, earth, and air, were sacred. This notion of purity is reflected in funerary rituals. The bones of the corpse were deemed to have been created by Ahura Mazda and were therefore pure. While the soft tissue was believed to have been created by Ahriman and was impure. After death, it was necessary to purify the body by removing the flesh. To achieve this, the body would be placed in a special building open to the sky known as dachma, where the birds could come and clean the flesh from bones. The bones were then gathered up and placed in an ossuary, usually made of baked clay, and then buried. A very fine example of an early dachma can be seen at the site of Chilpyk, overlooking the east bank of the Amu Darya River.

Central Asia suffered another of numerous invasions from the northern steppes, this time by the Huns in the 4th century. The Turks tribes have followed the Huns in the 6th century. From Hunnish period up until the 10th century, Horezm was ruled by the Afrighids. A long period punctuated by the turmoil of the Arab conquest in the 7th century, when Muslim armies brought a new and powerful faith to the region. Finally, in the 13th century, when Khorezm was part of the kingdom of the Khwareezmshahs, the whole region was ravaged and destroyed by the Mongols under Genghiz Khan. The population was slaughtered, the cities were burned to the ground, the canals broken, villages and fields devastated, and the whole region reverted to desert.

However, the lands on the west bank of the river recovered and under the Golden Horde became important nodes for international trade. This renewed prosperity lasted until the end of the 14th century when Tamerlane once again laid waste to the oasis.

In 1924 the Karakalpak Autonomous region was created within the Kazakh Republic and in 1932 it was converted to the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic within the structure of the Russian Federation. In 1936 the Karakalpak Autonomous Republic was reassigned to the Republic of Uzbekistan and retains this status today. It was not until the middle of 20th century that the canals were rebuilt and the land became settled again.

Khorezmian Time Chart

  • Neolithic Period 6,000-4,000 BCE
  • Bronze Age 4,000-900 BCE
  • Early Iron Age 8th-7th centuries BCE
  • Archaic Period 7th-5th centuries BCE
  • Early Antique Period 4th century BCE – 1st century CE
  • Late Antique period 1st- 5th centuries CE
  • Early Middle Ages
  • Afrighid, Early Kerder 6th-8th centuries
  • Arabic Muslim Conquest 9th century
  • Middle Ages
  • Afrighid- Samanid, Late Kerder 9th-11th centuries
  • Khorezmshah 12th-early 13th centuries
  • Golden Horde 13th-14th centuries