Occupying the whole northwestern end of Uzbekistan, the semi-autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan is the Uzbek version of the Wild West. From what little is left of the Aral Sea in the northwest to the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm in the southeast, this region is, for the most part, a sparsely populated and arid wasteland.
In the far southeastern corner of this region along the fertile and over-irrigated land of the mighty Amu Darya River is the ancient city of Kos, or Kath, today the city of Beruniy, not too far from Urgench. The extreme conditions here make it hard to believe this area was once the center of a series of ancient and culturally significant civilizations known collectively as Khwarezm, or Khorezm, traced as far back as 3,000 BC.
The Khorezm civilization at its pre-Moghul peak stretched from the Aral Sea to the Amu Darya. The civilization practiced the oldest monotheistic religion in the world, Zoroastrianism. Even after a series of devastating Arab invasions in the 8th century the inhabitants continued to practice their ancestral faith until the Afrighid dynasty finally converted to Islam during the 9th century.
The Afrighid territories of Khorezm came under the control of various regional powers until it eventually fell under the influence of the Khwarezmid Empire which stretched from modern Uzbekistan to the Persian Gulf. In the 13th century, the Khwarezmid Empire was conquered by Genghis Khan, ushering the in the era of the Khans until 1873, when a peace treaty was signed establishing the Khanate of Khiva as a Russian protectorate.
Following the Bolshevik Revolution, in 1920 the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic replaced the Khanate of Khiva, before finally being absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1924. After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the area of Karakalpakstan became incorporated as a part of Uzbekistan.
Although it seems ridiculous to summarize 4,000 years of history into four paragraphs, the same can be said of our barely 40 minute visit to Toprak Qala, which in our defence was absolutely necessary due to brutally cold weather conditions we were not properly dressed for. Where whole libraries could be filled with the rich history of Khorezm, so could legions of archaeologists spend an entire career excavating the massive complex of Toprak Qala.
Toprak Qala occupies at least 17 hectares (42 acres) of territory on the extreme northern edge of the floodplain of the Amu Darya. The ruins mark the dividing line between uninhabited arid wasteland to the north, and rich irrigated farmland. The remnants of the city citadel can be easily explored, and is assessable from the road. The advanced state of decay has reduced the structure to what appears to be no more than a heap of dirt from a distance, but on closer inspection still contains more than 100 well preserved rooms on many different levels.
Extensively excavated, Toprak Qala was supposedly the main temple complex of the kings of Khorezm between the 1st century BC and 4th century AD, and supported a population of at least 2,500 people. Archaeologists have discovered remains of a palace, its archives, warehouses full of weapons, sanctuaries, altars, and funeral chambers. Inscriptions and clay bas-reliefs decorated the walls which detailed the life of the imperial cult, although none of these treasures remain at the site.
The most valuable discoveries at Toprak Qala were the three main halls of the royal residence which were decorated with murals of both Greek and Zoroastrian deities, kings, and soldiers. According to UNESCO, the main sanctuary contained an altar with representations of the 23 Kings of Khorezm seated on thrones. The palace also included a Hall of Victories with spectacular murals, and a Hall of Soldiers with images of the kings and black soldiers, a hall decorated with figures of animals, and a hall decorated with dancing couples. According to the guidebooks, these wall paintings are now preserved in the Hermitage collection in St Petersburg.
Not much remains to be seen at the site of Toprak Qala itself, but it is still worth the bumpy drive from Urgench to experience first hand one of the Desert Castles of Ancient Khorezm. There are no interpretative displays, or signs telling visitors what they’re seeing. At its peak, Toprak Qala was a thriving cultural capital and existed at the same time as ancient Rome, yet guidebooks only give a short blurb about the complex that is about the same age and acreage as the Roman Form. Two thousands years removed from its heyday, a visitor can appreciate how quickly an advanced civilization can almost completely disappear.