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Smaller Ayaz Kala ruins. (bbsferrari /Adobe Stock)

The Ayaz Kala Desert Fortresses: Spectacular Silk Road Ruins

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Ayaz Kala in is most famous for its mudbrick fortresses; desert ruins echoing tales of the Silk Road. Today, three sets of ruins still stand in remembrance of the days when they served as a defense from nomadic raiders looking to plunder the riches of merchants and provided refuge for local populations.

Where is Ayaz Kala?

Ayaz Kala is an archaeological site located in the district of Ellikqala in Karakalpakstan. The latter is an autonomous republic in Uzbekistan that occupies the country’s entire northwestern end, and is part of the historical region of Khwarezm. Since this region is located along the renowned Silk Road that connected the East and West, it was an extremely strategic spot in ancient times. It is, therefore, unsurprising that settlements and / or fortresses would have been built to take control of the region.

The site of Ayaz Kala is located on the eastern side of the Sultan-Uizdag mountain range and along the southern edge of the Kyzylkum (meaning ‘Red Sand’) Desert, the 15th largest desert in the world. The fortresses of Ayaz Kala rise from the surrounding plains, making them highly visible in the landscape. At the same time, this height enabled the occupants of the fortresses to spot enemies while they were still far away. Indeed, the fortresses are believed to have been used for defense against nomadic marauders from the desert.

Yurt camp in Kyzylkum desert, Uzbekistan. (Francesco Bonino /Adobe Stock)

Yurt camp in Kyzylkum desert, Uzbekistan . ( Francesco Bonino /Adobe Stock)

Legends of a Fortress and a False Promise

According to local legend, Ayaz Kala was named in honor of a folk hero by the name of Ayaz. In one version of the story, Ayaz is said to have been a shepherd, while in another, a slave warrior . In any case, in the legend, the ruler of Khwarezm was having problems with the desert nomads, who were constantly raiding the northern border of his kingdom. Therefore, he wanted to build a fortress to defend this border.

The king promised that the man who was able to accomplish this task would be given the hand of his daughter in marriage. Inspired by this promise, Ayaz began building a fortress. When the king saw that Ayaz would soon complete the fortress, he reneged on his promise. The king did not like the idea of having a lowly shepherd / slave as his son-in-law, and gave his princess to another man. When Ayaz heard of the king’s treachery, he stopped building the fortress.

The largest castle ruins of ancient Khorezm – Ayaz - Kala, Uzbekistan. (Zaneta /Adobe Stock)

The largest castle ruins of ancient Khorezm – Ayaz - Kala, Uzbekistan. ( Zaneta /Adobe Stock)

The Real History of Ayaz Kala

The real history of Ayaz Kala, however, does not match the folklore around the site. For instance, there is not one, but three fortresses at the site. In addition, these fortresses were not constructed at the same time, or by the same dynasty. Instead, they were built over a long period of time, i.e. between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD.

The three structures were constructed by the different powers that controlled the region. Considering that the region was part of the Silk Road, it is unsurprising that the various powers that ruled the region were interested in protecting it. As a matter of fact, it has been speculated that the fortresses of Ayaz Kala were part of a series of defensive structures that lined the edge of the Kyzylkum Desert. There are several other fortresses in the Khwarezm region, and the government of Uzbekistan is currently seeking to have them (including the fortresses of Ayaz Kala) inscribed as a World Heritage Site .

Fortresses of Ayaz Kala 1 and 2 in the republic of Karakalpakstan and the Kyzyl Kum desert in Uzbekistan. Ayaz Kala 1 at the top and Ayaz Kala 2 is beneath. (Public Domain) Ayaz Kala 3 is behind.

Fortresses of Ayaz Kala 1 and 2 in the republic of Karakalpakstan and the Kyzyl Kum desert in Uzbekistan. Ayaz Kala 1 at the top and Ayaz Kala 2 is beneath. ( Public Domain ) Ayaz Kala 3 is behind.

Located in the east and south of the Aral Sea, and along the Amu Darya, i.e. the ancient Oxus River, the region of Khwarezm lies at the crossroads of East and West and has long benefited from the trade that passed through it. Between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, Khwarezm was part of the Achaemenid Empire . Subsequently, the region passed from the hands of one empire to another.

During the 11th century, the region reached its height of power when the Khwarezmid Empire was established. The empire was founded by Anushtegin Gharchai, a former Turkic slave of the Seljuqs who was appointed as the governor of Khwarezm. Therefore, the rulers of the Khwarezmid Empire were initially vassals of the Seljuqs.

Later on, however, they became independent rulers. At the height of its power, the Khwarezmid Empire controlled not only Central Asia, but Iran as well. During the 13th century, however, the Khwarezmid Empire collapsed, after it was invaded by the Mongols.

It is likely that the king in the local legend was a ruler of the Khwarezmid Empire, since this was arguably the most famous state that was based in the Khwarezm region. As mentioned earlier, however, the desert fortresses were built between the 4th century BC and the 7th century AD, long before the rise of the Khwarezmid Empire.

Ayaz Kala III Fortress Architecture

The oldest of the three fortresses of Ayaz Kala is the one known as Ayaz Kala III, though not the entire structure, but only part of it. This part, which has been dubbed Ayaz Kala III (a), is believed to have been built between the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Ayaz Kala III (a) is a monumental building divided into four main parts, each of which contains many rooms. Ayaz Kala III (a) is located in the northeast corner of a later structure.

Occupying an area of 5 hectares (50000 m 2), Ayaz Kala III is one of the largest fortresses in Karakalpakstan. The enclosure walls, which were built during the 1st/2nd century AD, i.e. the Kushan period, form a parallelogram, and contain circular watchtowers. Based on the archaeological evidence, the interior of the fortress was largely empty. It has been suggested that Ayaz Kala III may have served as a garrison. Alternatively, it may have been used as the residence of a local ruler, or even a place of refuge for the local farming population in times of trouble. Unfortunately, only the outline of this fortress has survived.

Ruins of Ayaz-Kala Fortress in Uzbekistan. (YuliaB /Adobe Stock)

Ruins of Ayaz-Kala Fortress in Uzbekistan. ( YuliaB /Adobe Stock)

Arrow Slits and Watchtowers: Ayaz Kala I

In comparison, the other two fortresses, Ayaz Kala I and Ayaz Kala II, have been much better preserved. Ayaz Kala I is located on the top of a flat-topped hill, which would have given the fortress a commanding view over the surrounding landscape. According to archaeologists, Ayaz Kala I was built around the 4th/3rd century BC.

Compared to Ayaz Kala III, this fortress is smaller in size, covering only an area of 2.7 hectares (27000 m 2). Ayaz Kala I has a rectangular plan, and was built along a north-south axis. On the southern end of the fortress is an extra square structure, which was accessed from the eastern side. This structure was meant to increase the defensive capabilities of the fortress, as anyone attempting to take the fortress would be forced to breach two gates. During this time, they would have been left extremely vulnerable to the attacks of the defending archers.

Ayaz Kala I has not one, but two circuits of walls. These walls reach a height of 10 meters (32.8 ft.), and their thickness gradually reduces as they rise. In between the two walls is a vaulted corridor, the top of which is covered by a continuation of the walls.

Gateway to Ayaz Kala fortress. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/CC BY 2.0)

Gateway to Ayaz Kala fortress. (Jean-Pierre Dalbéra/ CC BY 2.0 )

Inside the external wall are numerous arrow slits, which enabled the defenders to safely fire arrows at enemies. These slits also serve as rainwater channels. For added protection, a total of 45 watch towers, which are half-elliptical in form, were built. These watchtowers, however, were not built as part of the fortress’ external walls. Instead, the towers were constructed by filling them with layers of mudbrick.

Ayaz Kala I is thought to have lost its defensive function by the time Ayaz Kala III was built. During the Kushan period, the fortress may have functioned merely as a lookout post. Nevertheless, the locals probably continued using Ayaz Kala I as a refuge up until the early Medieval period.

Arrow slits at Ayaz Kala fortress. (AnyaNewrcha /Adobe Stock)

Arrow slits at Ayaz Kala fortress. ( AnyaNewrcha /Adobe Stock)

Ayaz Kala II, The Youngest Fortress

Ayaz Kala II is the youngest of the three fortresses, and was built during the 7th/8th century AD. At this point of time, the region of Khwarezm was ruled by a native dynasty called the Afrighids. Most of what we know about this dynasty comes from the writings of the famed 10th/11th century polymath Abu Rayhan al-Biruni.

A native of Khwarezm himself, al-Biruni claims that the Afrighids ruled the area since 305 AD, and that the dynasty had a total of 22 rulers, every one of them being the son of his predecessor. The Afrighids ruled Khwarezm for a total of 690 years, though very little is known about the first four centuries of their rule. Following the arrival of Islam in the region, and the conversion of the Afrighids to the new religion during the 8th and 9th centuries AD, more information about the dynasty became available.

In any case, al-Biruni records that the Afrighid Dynasty was founded by a man named Afrig. More interestingly, al-Biruni reports that Afrig had constructed a great fortress called Fil or Fir near his capital, Kath (renamed in modern times as Beruniy), which is located on the banks of the Amu Darya, and not too far from the site of Ayaz Kala. The foundation of the fortress, according to al-Biruni, was undermined by changes in the flow of the river. As a result, it was swept away by the Amu Darya during the 10th century. During al-Biruni’s time, only traces of the fortress were left. Unlike the fortress of Fil / Fir, Ayaz Kala II was built at a later date, and has survived quite well till this day.

Ayaz Kala II was constructed on top of a smaller, conical hill to the south of the main hill on which Ayaz Kala I was built. Compared to the two other fortresses, Ayaz Kala II is much smaller in size. The fortress consists of two parts – the main building being oval in shape, which is connected to an entry on the southwest.

This entry, in turn, is linked to a 50 meter (164.04 ft.) walkway that goes all the way to the base of the hill. Ayaz Kala II may have been used until the 13th century. Interestingly, part of a film about the life of Genghis Khan was shot at Ayaz Kala II. It seems that the film crew had ‘repaired’ some of the walls, and ‘rebuilt’ the entry gate. Although these works were not documented, these modern modifications can be detected in the structure, due to the fact that the mudbricks that were used are smaller than the original ones.

Ruins of ancient Ayaz-Kala Fortress (Konstantin / Adobe Stock)

Ruins of ancient Ayaz-Kala Fortress ( Konstantin / Adobe Stock)

The Palatial Structure

Although the three fortresses are the highlights of the site of Ayaz Kala, it should be pointed out that other structures were built there as well. Some of these have been excavated, while others may still lie buried, waiting to be discovered. The most noteworthy of these structures is the one at the base of the conical hill. This has been dubbed as a ‘palatial structure’, and is connected to Ayaz Kala II via the walkway.

Little remains of this structure today, though it has been speculated that it would have been the most beautiful building in Central Asia during the early Medieval period. Extensive excavations have been carried out in the structure, some of the most significant finds being coins of the Afrighid Dynasty. The structure is believed to have been built around the 4th century AD, destroyed by two successive fires, and it was briefly used as a domestic dwelling during the 6th/7th century AD, before its abandonment.

Recognizing the Value of the Ayaz Kala Site

The fortresses of Ayaz Kala were largely forgotten by the outside world after they fell out of use. During the 1940s, however, they were rediscovered by the Soviet archaeologist Sergey Tolstov, who organized the Chorasmian Expedition.

Since their rediscovery, however, the fortresses have been left unprotected, and exposed to the elements. As the structures are made of mudbrick, they are especially vulnerable to erosion. This may be caused by a variety of factors, including rainwater, the growth of vegetation, and tourists who visit the site .

The largest ruins castles of ancient Khorezm – Ayaz - Kala, Uzbekistan. (Zaneta /Adobe Stock)

The largest ruins castles of ancient Khorezm – Ayaz - Kala, Uzbekistan. ( Zaneta /Adobe Stock)

However, the importance of the fortresses of Ayaz Kala has been recognized, and in more recent times efforts have been made to ensure that they will still be around for future generations. For instance, in 2005, Ayaz Kala was part of CentralAsianEarth, a “practical training workshop on conservation of earthen structures in Central Asia and Afghanistan, and preventive conservation work” organized by UNESCO.

Moreover, in 2008, the government of Uzbekistan submitted an application to UNESCO to have the fortresses of Ayaz Kala inscribed as a World Heritage Site, as part of the ‘Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm’. Nevertheless, there is still much to be done to safeguard these ancient fortresses.

Top Image: Smaller Ayaz Kala ruins. ( bbsferrari /Adobe Stock)

By Wu Mingren

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