Sultan Palace Merv

History Sites of the Oasis for Travel Interest in Uzbekistan. Part I

Khiva

The history of Khiva dates back to the 5th century BC. Excavations revealed double brick walls with rectangular towers, complete with outer defensive works such as ditches and cover walls. The ancient walls essentially followed the same plan as the later medieval walls of the Ichon-Qala of Khiva and encompassed an area of 26 hectares.

Ancient Khiva is considered to have been one of a system of border fortresses defending the southern boundaries of ancient Khorezm. This early fort is now deeply buried at the site that today visitor sees is the much later medieval settlement. The Khanate of Khiva was established in 1511 by nomadic Uzbeks. At the end of 16th century, Khiva became the capital of the Khanate. The city contains a rich array of late medieval minarets, madrasahs, mosques and palaces. In 1887, it became a Russian protectorate but largely survived until 1920.

The old city of Ichon-Qala has been extensively restored to provide a rich impression of a medieval city tucked within huge mud walls. Near the main gate is the Kalta Minar, a wide blue-tiled remains of an unfinished 18th century minaret which, if ever completed, would have been one of the largest in Central Asia.

The Kunya Ark is the fortress and the residence of the Khans of Khiva, much of which dates from the 17th century onwards. The building include the beautiful Summer Mosque and the Khan's audience chamber with an elaborately painted roof. In front stands a circular platform that housed the Khan's yurt. The Tosh-Khovli palace was built as a replacement to the Kunya Ark.

Inside is a series of courtyards decorated with tiled recesses. Perhaps the most beautiful of these is the harem, decorated with ornate wooden columns, a bewildering array of geometric tiles and elaborate painted and gilded wooden ceilings.

One of the most unusual buildings is the Juma Mosque. The first mosque was built on the site in the 10th century but the present building dates from 18th century. It consists of a vast hall with a timber roof supported by over two hundred carved wooden columns. Some date back to the original 10th century building and one or two of the stone column bases may have been taken from even earlier structures. An open space in the centre allows light to filter in, while the cool shady interior provides a wonderful sense of calm away from the heat and bustle of the street.

The Islam Khodja madrassah and minaret date to the early 20th century. The miaret is decorated with a graceful banding of baked brick and glazed tiles and visitors can climb to the top for a view of the city. Khiva's most revered mausoleum is that of Pahlavon Mahmud, a poet and man of great strength, reknown for his protection of the poor. His tomb rests among those of later rulers and adjacent to the tomb is a lovely little garden courtyard with a well containing water with miraculous properties.

Toprak – Kala

Toprak-Kala lies a few kilometers south of the Sultan-uiz-dagh range of hills just beside the main road from Nukus to Turtkul. It is a vast ruin, still standing over twenty meters above the surrounding farmland. Ancient canal system led water to the site from a now dry branch of the Oxus. The site is dated in the Kushan period, around 2nd – 3rd centuries CE and was the royal residence of the kings of Khorezm. The site consists of five parts:

  • A domestic sector laid out in regular streets within the fortifications
  • A temenos
  • A large monumental building identified as a palace or temple area
  • An external palace complex
  • A large enclosure, possible meant to be a palace garden

The principal fortified enclosure is rectangular with the walls still preserved to 8-9 meters in height. The fortifications consist of straight walls with archer's galleries, regularly spaced rectangular towers along the flanks and a large tower at the northeast corner. A central street some 9 meters wide ran up the long axis of the city with smaller side streets delineating blocks of domestic quarters on either side. These have been dated from the 2nd to 6th centuries CE. Part of these was used for workshops and manufacturing areas. One quarter was given over to a temple complex that, by the volume of ash in and around the buildings, was identified as a Fire Temple. In an adjacent building, a great number of precious objects were found including bracelets with rams horn finials, glass vessels, beads and rings. There were also fragments of plaster statues and slivers of gold leaf. Both buildings were dated to 4th- 6th centuries CE.

The palace at the northwest corner of the settlement is one of the largest and best-preserved monumental buildings of Kushan era in Central Asia. The entire complex is built on a manmade platform 14 meters high on which rested a central square building with a series of formal chambers protected by towers. The walls are now quite heavily eroded but they may have originally stood at 9 meters high.

Many of the chambers in the central structure contained niches with remains of almost life sized sculptures in clay which are thought to represent kings. Others were painted with ornate frescoes of various subjects including humans, mythological themes and animals. The largest chamber had a roof supported by wooden columns on ornate stone pedestals. An inner courtyard was decorated with rounded niches and was surrounded by four two-roomed sanctuaries with altars and niches, indicating a cultic area.

One aspect of the cultic practice within the palace may have been a royal cult. One room – Hall of Kings- had a fire altar in the center while the walls were lined with statues which has been interpreted as the Rulers of Khorezm. Another – the Hall of Victories – had images in low relief of seated rulers with Goddesses above. The themes of the decoration in the palace rooms reflected military prowess and royal power.

The Hall of Stags was decorated with images of deer under a panel of griffins. Other wall decorations depicted plenty in the form of grape vines and pomegranates. There was the Hall of Dancing with images on the walls of men and women dancing. The main niche held an image of the Mother Goddess with a wild animal. It seems likely that these rooms were used for Royal fertility cult practices.

This sanctuary complex was associated with a throne room set in courtyard with a triple arched doorway. To the northwest was a corridor with wall paintings of water and fish, suggesting its connection to a water cult. The most important find from the palace was a set of written documents, the largest collection of only a handful known in the Khorezmian language. Texts were written on parchment and wood, while their content was mostly economic, including receipts and lists of slaves and workers. The palace, having first served as a Royal sanctuary, was briefly abandoned in the early 4th century CE and then after some restoration, was used as the administrative citadel for the city.

Ayaz-Kala

Ayaz-Kala are the spectacular fortresses in Khorezm. The three fortresses clustered together on and around a prominent hill at the eastern end of the Sultan-uiz-dagh range. The earliest is Ayaz-kala I, located on the top of the hill, one of the forts along the edge of the Kizil-kum desert, providing defense against nomad raids and the Saka lands of the Syr Darya delta to the north. The site is best approached from the back. A gravel road leads up to a small cluster of yurts, a tourist rest center overlooking a shallow but picturesque lake. From here visitors can walk across the sand and up the slope to enter over the walls at the north-west corner of the fortress. However, if to follow the track leading eastwards from the rest centre. This curves round to come out at the main gate on the south side. From here there is a spectacular view of the surrounding country, and stretching away to the west can be seen the next links in the chain of frontier defense, the sites of Malii and Bolshoi Kirk-kiz-kala.

Ayaz–Kala I has an area of 2.7 hectares and is rectangular in plan. The walls are well preserved up to 10 metres in height with regularly spaced towers, double storey archer’s galleries and arrow slitsthat can still be seen clearly. The lower gallery was entered at ground level next to the gate. The galleries would have provided cover and ease of movement for the many archers needed to defend the fort. The arched vaults of the lower galleries are still preserved in places and a visitor can walk along inside it.

Construction began in the 4th century BC when the galleried enclosure was built. Later, in the 3rd century BC, rounded towers were added. The complex gaeway is typical of Khorezmian frontier fortresses. The approach lies parallel to the south east wall where invaders would be vulnerable to attack from above. A massive gateway defended by two rectangular towers leads into a small rectangular chamber overlooked on all sides by highwalls from which bowmen could shoot at the enemy should the first gate be breached.

A right angle turn towards the second gate leading directly into the fort would break the force of a charge through the first breach. The fortress is thought to have continued in use up to around the 1st century CE, although it may have provided refuge for local inhabitants well into the early medieval period.

A steep rocky path leads down the scree slope from the south -west corner of Ayaz-kala I to the saddle between the hill and the smaller peak on which sits Ayaz-kala II.

Ayaz-Kala II is a small roughly oval fortress. The steep ramp linked it to an open settlement down on the plain to the west. The site can be entered from the gate on the south west side either by climbing up the ramp or by following a path which leads around the base of the walls from the northern side. The fort dates to the medieval times.

It was probably founded in the Afrighid period, around the late 7th to early 8th centuries CE. The walls are built on mud brick on a pakhsa socle. The tops of the walls protected by battlements with arrow slits in the crenellations. The interior structures are well preserved and the interior surface is the roof of the rooms. Remains of vaulted ceilings can be seen in places where some erosion has occurred. A ramp once extended down from the gateway of the fortress to the entrance of a large palatial building at the base of the hill.

This palace has been described as the most beautiful early medieval building in all of Central Asia, with its large columned halls, elegant bench seating, ceremonial platform, wall murals, and fire sanctuary. Coins of the Afrighid Khorezmian kings were found here, notable those of King Bravik. This palace was built around the 4th century CE and was later destroyed by two successive fires. Briefly reinhabited as a domestic dwelling in the 6th-7th centuries CE.

Ayaz-Kala III is a fortified enclosure in the shape of a parallelogram sited on the open plain below Ayaz-kala I. The enclosure has a double wall defended by rectangular towers around the whole perimeter and an elaborate gateway in the middle of the western wall. The site is about 5 hectares in area. The enclosure walls date to the 1st-2nd centuries CE, while the monumental building in the northeast corner may have an earlier foundation date around 5th-4th centuries BCE. It is likely that Ayaz-kala III was used in Kushan times in the first centuries CE as a garrison, or possibly as a ruler’s residence and refuge for the local farming population, while a small force may still have manned the old Ayaz-kala I fortress on the hilltop as a lookout post. Surrounding the enclosure were found the remains of many farmsteads, with dwellings, fields, field walls and vineyards.