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Zoroastrian Heritage

Author: K. E. Eduljee




(Karakalpakstan Region)

Page 1


Location of Khvarizem

Landscape of Khairizem / Khvarizem / Khorezm

Disappearing Amu Darya and Aral Seas - Ecological Disaster

Geopolitics of Khairizem / Khvarizem

Khvarizem and Zoroastrianism

Khvarizem in Zoroastrian Texts

People of the Region

Saka: Settled and Nomadic

Khvarizem: Settled Agriculturalists

Arrival of the Turkic Peoples


Arrival of the Turkic Uzbeks

Page 2

Shilpiq / Chilpik Dakhma

Mizdakan & Gyaur Kala

Tragic Destruction of Mizdakan

Site, Layout & Location

Gyaur Kala


Other Features

Kyuzeli Gyr

Gyaur Kala

Page 3

Ayaz Kala

Ayaz Kala 1

Ayaz Kala 2

Ayaz Kala 3

Toprak Kala

City-Citadel & High Palace Complex

Palace-Temple Complex & Attached Enclosure

Tamga Signs

Construction Techniques


Excavation & Poor Site Management

Page 4

Kazakl'i-yatkan / Akcha Khan Kala

The Mausoleum / Fire Temple


Wall paintings


Tash-K'irman-Tepe / Fire Temple

Koykrylgan Kala

Page 1 - Zoroastrianism in the Karakalpakstan Region

» Additional reading: Uzbekistan

Location of Khairizem / Khvarizem / Khorezm

Map of Karakalpakstan & Khorezm
Map of Khvarizem region. Uzbekistan & Turkmenistan
Amu Darya River Delta
Karakalpakstan (Uzb.), Khorezm (Uzb.), Dashhowuz (Turkm.)
Base map courtesy Google maps

The region around the lower half or northern reaches and the delta of the Amu Darya region - where the Amu Darya flows into the Aral Sea was called Khairizem in the Avesta's Meher Yasht and Khvarizem in the Middle Persian Pahlavi text, the Bundahishn.

Khairizem / Khvarizem (also spelt Khwarezm) are associated with Chorasmia mentioned by Greek authors and the Old Persian name, Uvarazmiya or Uvarazmish found in the Achaemenian inscriptions of Darius I the Great (522- 486 BCE) and Xerxes. The major cities of Khvarizem are today called Old Urgench (Persian: Kuhna Gurganj), Toprak-Kala and Dzanbas-Kala.

Today, the Khvarizem consists of the provinces of:
- Karakalpakstan province (Uzbekistan) with its capital as Nukus (also spelt No'kis),
- Khorezm province (Uzbekistan) with its capital of Urgarich, and the adjacent province of
- Dashhowuz / Dashoguz province (Turkmenistan).

Khorezm Province, which contains the ancient city of Khiva, while bearing the name of the relatively large country of ancient Khairizem, has been reduced to a fairly small province tucked between the west bank of the Amu Darya and Turkmenistan.

To the north of Khairizem / Khvarizem stretched the steppes of what is now Kazakhstan, the Aral sea, and the delta of the Syr Darya or Jaxartes (Greek). To the west lay the cliffs of the inhospitable Ustiurt Plateau beyond which was the Caspian Sea. To the east and southeast was the Qyzylqum of Kyzyl Kum desert and Sughdha / Sugd (Gk. Sogdiana) respectively. To the south lay Bakhdhi / Balkh (Gk. Bactria), and to the west, the Garagum or Kara Kum desert separated Khairizem / Khvarizem from Mouru (Gk. Margiana).

Landscape of Khairizem / Khvarizem / Khorezm

We need to exercise caution in picturing the landscape of ancient Khairizem based on what it looks like today. While the main features, such as the principle rivers, topography and presence of deserts approximate what we see today, the local geography of the area was quite different. For instance, the green areas that supported agriculture were much larger since the rivers carried far more water down from the hills and were wide enough to be called a darya - a sea.

The Disappearing Amu Darya and Aral Seas

An Ecological Disaster

Nowadays, a great quantity of the upstream waters of the Amu Darya river and its tributaries have been diverted to support industrial crops such as cotton and as a consequence the once mighty seas of water are barely streams. Some of the Amu Darya river tributaries simply disappear into an expanding desert.

The Disappearing Aral Sea 1951 - 2000
The Disappearing Aral Sea 1951 - 2000
Photo credit: M.H. Glantz at fragilecologies

Since rainfall is scarce in Uzbekistan's northern plains, its fields had relied on waters of the Amu and Syr Darya rivers in order to sustain plant life. When Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were part of the Soviet Union, the Soviets embarked on a scheme to grow industrial and cash crops such as cotton in the upper valleys of the two ancient rivers. This short-sighted policy produced a demand for water to raise these crops, water the ecology of the lower regions of the river needed in to survive and hold back the desert. Nowadays, the water in the rivers down-stream has been reduced to a trickle, fast turning the northern steppes into a desert and the Aral Sea into marshland.

Map of Karakalpakstan & Khorezm
Parched fields and trees turn to desert

The once mighty Aral Sea, which together with the Caspian Sea was one of the largest inland seas in the world, is now but a few ponds of water, marshes and a graveyard for stranded and rusting ships and dead fish. Its dried bed of salt is carried by the wind contributing to the further desertification of the surrounding steppes. The region's climate too has changed with average temperatures increasing by 100C since Khvarizem's days of glory.

Geopolitics of Khairizem / Khvarizem

In ancient times, the lower reaches of the Amu Darya river had numerous branches, some that ended in lakes. One branch of the Amu Darya was known to have flowed into the Caspian Sea. The numerous branches of the Amu Darya and the resulting connection between the Aral and Caspian seas would have enabled transportation and trade by boat up and down the Amu Darya river, its branches, between the two seas, and then up the rivers that drained into these seas.

The network of rivers and canals that straddled the Silk Roads positioned Khvarizem to trade extensively with its neighbours and the known world, trade that extended from India in the east, to the Black Sea in the west, and to Persia and Mesopotamia in the south west.

The main Amu Darya rivers and its branches did change course frequently. As a result, settlements on its banks had to be abandoned and new ones constructed. These changes in the geographical landscape probably resulted in changes to the political landscape.

The settlements, cities and fortresses (kalas) that had been built on high ground, have today yielded an abundance of archaeological sites associated with Zoroastrianism and the Zoroastrian era.

Khairizem / Khvarizem and the Origins of Zoroastrianism

Some of the people in the region as well as some authors claim that Zoroastrianism originated in Khvarizem. If we keep in mind that through history, the size of Khvarizem changed considerably, and that at one time Greater Khvarizem or Chorasmia had grown to include the lands surrounding the Amu Darya river along its entire length from south to north - then that assertion is plausible. Greater Khvarizem or Chorasmia could have been a large country, a kingdom of kingdoms that included Sugd and possibly ancient Airyana Vaeja, Zarathushtra's native land. The common error made in making the statement that Zoroastrianism originated in Khvarizem, is to assume that the region meant by the claim is the lower northern reaches of the Amu Darya rather than the upper southern reaches of the river.

The present-day Uzbeki province that is heir to the modern derivative of Khairizem's name, Khorezm, is a small bulge of land sandwiched between the Amu Darya river and Turkmenistan.

Khairizem / Khvarizem in Zoroastrian Texts

Urvam / Urva. Eight Vendidad Nation

Khvarizem / Chorasmia is not mentioned directly in the Vendidad's list of sixteen nations. It shares this characteristic with Parsa (Persia) and Mada (Mada). Both Khvarizem (Chorasmia), Parsa (Persia) and Mada (Media) likely came into existence after the related chapter in the Vendidad was written.

However, unlike Parsa (Persia) and Mada (Media), Khvarizem (Chorasmia) is mentioned elsewhere in the Avesta. Verse 10.14 of the Avesta's Mehr Yasht, states that the rivers which originate in Airyo shayanem, the Aryan abode, flow swiftly into the countries of Mourum, Haroyum, Sughdhem and Khairizem i.e. Margush (in modern day Turkmenistan), Aria (in modern Afghanistan), Sugd (in Takijistan and Uzbekistan) and Khvarizem (in Uzbekistan).

Some of the Vendidad lands could very well have evolved into Khvarizem. The eighth Vendidad nation Urvam is the primary candidate. The name Urvam is close to Uvarazmiya or Uvarazmish, the name given to Khvarizem / Chorasmia region during Achaemenian Persian times (c. 500 BCE).

Khvarizem (also spelt Khwarezm) is mentioned in the Middle Persian Pahlavi text, the Bundahishn as follows:

Lesser Bund. 17.5 - "In the reign of Yim [Jamsheed]... the fire Adar Farnbag was established by him ... on the Gadman-homand ('glorious') mountain in Khvarizem." Since there are no significant mountains in present-day Khvarizem, mountains here could mean the hills along the lower northern Amu Darya or the mountains of the upper southern Amu Darya.

Lesser Bund. 22.1 & 4 - "Regarding Lake Khvarizem it says that excellent benefit of Arshishang (Ashishwangh) is produced from it, that is, wealth, riches, good fortune, becomingness, and delightfulness." [Perhaps, Lake Khvarizem is the Aral sea. However, in the past when the Amu Darya carried greater quantities of water, there were other lakes in Khvarizem.]

Lesser Bund. 12.12 - "The Airach mountains are in the middle (of the earth or the Persian empire?) and extend from Hamadan to Khvarizem (the Airach appears to be the modern-day Alborz mountains)." 9 - "The Airach are connected to the Aparsen mountains (that extend from Sagastan i.e. Sistan to Khujistan i.e. Khuzestan) which are also the mountains of Pars (the Aparsen appear to be the Zagros mountains)." 13 - "The (Chino) mountains, which are to the east of the Airach, on the frontier of Turkistan, are also connected with Aparsen."

[It is interesting to note that by the time of the Bundahishn's writing, Turkistan had replaced the lands of the Saka as the lands to the east of the Airan or Iranian lands - lands beyond the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River - regions that are part of today's southern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.]

By these accounts, at the time the Bundahishn was written, Khvarizem could have encompassed all of present-day Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan. It should be kept in mind that Zoroastrian history spanned a few thousand years. During this time, old nations disappeared and new nations appeared. Those that survived grew or shrank in size and dominance. In addition, the people in the region appeared to have been constantly on the move, displacing the previous inhabitants of a land in the process.

People of the Region

The Saka

the Persian Achaemenian inscriptions from around 500 BCE, identify the people living in this region as the Saka Tigrakhauda, while Greek authors (Greek name for Saka was Sacae) from Herodotus onwards use the name Massagetae. It would appear that Saka was a group name applied to all the people that occupied lands on the eastern and north-eastern borders of the Persian empire. The Saka Tigrakhauda (Greek name: Massagetae) were a sub-group within the Saka who occupied the north-eastern frontiers lands around the Aral sea. The people of Khvarizem were a further sub-group of the Saka Tigrakhauda (Massagetae) - the people who lived around the northern half of the Amu Darya river. [Please see our page on the Saka for a more detailed discussion.]

The Saka could very well have originated from the Indo-Iranian or Aryan peoples in general and the Avestan people in particular. They do not appear to have been a Turkic group as is sometimes stated in the literature. Rather, the Saka were displaced by Turkic peoples who started to move into the region about two thousand years ago at the turn of the millennium.

The Saka: Settled Agriculturalists and Nomadic Herders

The land immediately surrounding the lower Oxus was fertile and supported agriculture and fruit trees. The people who tilled the soil had to live close by in order to work the land. For protection, they often lived together in settlements that became villages, towns and even cities. For protection from raids, the settlements had surrounding walls.

In the encompassing grasslands and arid regions that did not support agriculture, there is little evidence of settlements such as cities. In contrast to the settled peoples who lived in the fertile lower Oxus region, the people who lived in the grasslands and arid regions, be they in the plains or in the hills, were a nomadic people who frequently launched raids on their more settled neighbours. It is commonly assumed that all Saka were nomadic. The evidence points to the contrary. There were both, a settled and a nomadic Saka. The two groups gradually developed different value system and ways of livings, differences that frequently resulted in clashes.

Khvarizem: Settled Agriculturalists

The people of Khvarizem were the settled Saka who farmed the land and lived in cities. In order to increase the land that could be cultivated, the brought the water from the Amu Darya to a network of fields by digging numerous canals. The older canals were up to ten to fifteen kilometres in length. By 200 BCE, the larger trunk canals to the east of the Amu Darya were some 300 km in length.

The settled Saka of Khvarizem also developed the technology to make mud bricks, as well as the engineering and construction skills needed to build immense structures. They built numerous large forts on hills where local agricultural communities could take shelter and along their borders with the grasslands and deserts. The settled Saka needed to build these fortifications to protect themselves from raids by the nomadic Saka.

So far, over 400 settlements dating before 200 BCE have been uncovered in the region, but only one of them, Kyuzeli Gyr, at the north-western edge of the Khvarizem, was fortified. This might indicate that Kyuzeli Gyr was a frontier town on Khvarizem's border.

Arrival of the Turkic Peoples

After 200 BCE and particularly after the turn of the millennium, there is evidence that large groups of people from the north had started to move into the lower Oxus (Khvarizem) region and as well the eastern banks of the Syr Darya River.

By 1000 CE, Turkic groups originally from the Altai region of Siberia, had established themselves in the old Saka lands east of the Syr Darya or Jaxartes, and by the time it was written (8th and 9th centuries CE), the Bundahishn began to call the region Turkistan. Indeed, at this point in history, the Turkic groups had settled in the lands between the Syr and Amu Darya rivers. Since they came to occupy land that was once called Turan by the Persians, the Turk of the region were incorrectly called Turanians by medieval Persians including Ferdowsi. The Turk freely intermingled with the original inhabitants and adopted some of the regions cultural traits. The migration of the Turk was facilitated by their Mongol cousins. In the Mongol-Turkic armies that invaded Central Asia, the Mongols were the generals while the more numerous Turks were the soldiers who made up the bulk of the army. After the Mongol invasions led by Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227 BCE), the Turkic peoples quickly poured in to the lands conquered by the Mongols. When the Mongols left Central Asia and returned to Mongolia, leaders emerged from among the Turks, leaders who became kings of the region. One such king was Tamerlane.


Tamerlane (1336 - 1405 CE), a member of the Barlas tribe, was born at Kesh near Samarkand. While Turkic in identity and a speaker of the Turkic language, Tamerlane claimed Mongolian ancestry from Genghis Khan. He rose to power and assumed control of Central Asia. During Tamerlane's time, what is today Uzbekistan was still mainly Iranian in character and the Turk turned his anger towards the Indo-Iranian people in the Chorasmia, forcing large groups of them to flee and leave the region. His ruthless actions began the process that would change of the ethnic composition of the area from one that was primarily Indo-Iranian to one that was mainly Turkic.

Lyazgi dance
Lyazgi dance
Photo Credit: André Elbing at Helene Ericksen

Arrival of the Turkic Uzbeks

The change of the ethnic identity Uzbekistan region of Central Asian to a mainly Turkic identity was completed when the Uzbeks, a confederation of Turkic tribes, moved into Central Asia at the beginning of the 16th century CE. The Uzbeks seized Samarkand in 1512 CE and displaced Timur's successors as rulers. After the Uzbeks had consolidated their control, they divided the area that is now Uzbekistan into three states with Bukhara in the centre, Kokand (Fergana or old Sugd) to the east, and Khiva (old Khvarizem) to the north.

Today, only a narrow strip of land on the west bank of the Amu Darya bears the name Khorezm - a derivative of Khvarizem. The rest of Uzbeki Khvarizem is the province of Karakalpakstan - an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan. Ethnically, the Karakalpak are more closely associated with the northern Turkic Kazakh than they are with the Turkic Uzbek. The ethnic make up of the area of Khvarizem is now firmly Turkic.

Survival of Khvarizem's Indo-Iranian Culture

While the Turks displaced the Indo-Iranians, they adopted much of the region's cultural heritage, celebrating for instance Nowruz as New Year's Day.

Some authors have also pointed to the Khvarizem / Khorezm dance Lyazgi adopted by the Karakalpaks as an example of the embracing of the old Indo-Iranian Khvarizem culture by the Karakalpaks. Some descriptions of the dance call it a ritual dance that had fire at its centre. The dance is characterized by fluttering hand gestures and moves that mimic animal and bird movements.

Information sources and suggested reading:

» Archaeology in Soviet Central Asia by Grégoire Frumkin
» Chorasmia. Archaeology & Pre-Islamic History by Yuri Rapoport
» Chorasmian Expedition of S. P. Tolstov
» David and Sue Richardson's page: www.karakalpak.com
» Explo Guide
» Karakalpak-Australian Expedition
» Orexca (site may currently have a virus)
» Sairam
» Wikipedia

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