Newly independent from the Achaemenid Empire, the Ayaz Qala fortress was built by ancient Khwarazmian kings in the 3rd or 4th century BC to protect the fertile frontier from raiders on the edge of the vast expanse of the inhospitable Karakum Desert. It was during this time that the Khwarazmians formed an alliance with Alexander the Great, setting the stage for his conquests of Central Asia.
Between the 4th century BC and the 1st Century AD Khorezm was a powerful state in Central Asia, with many fortified cities and fortresses protecting the fertile territory from the surrounding deserts. Ayaz Qala was one of these, but Toprak Qala was the seat of power. As the main temple complex of the kings of Khorezm between the 1st century BC and 4th century AD, the excavations of Toprak Qala tell us much of what we know today about the ancient Khwarazmian civilization.
Ayaz Qala, as far as anyone can tell, was part of a chain of fortresses protecting Khwarazmian agriculture from nomads attacking from the endless dessert steppes. Today that chain of fortresses which all trace their origins to the same time period are known as the Golden Ring of Ancient Khorezm.
Approaching on local roads from Toprak Qala, 20km to the south west, Ayaz Qala rises 100 meters above the surrounding desert plains on a hilltop with views in all directions. The fortress itself is in a state of total ruin, but still remarkably well preserved considering the material of construction was primarily mud brick. The rectangular fortress is about 200 by 150 meters with massive walls up to 10 meters (30 feet) high and 2.5 meters (8 feet) thick. Some of the walls and watchtowers are still standing, and with unrestricted access to the entire complex, visitors are able to look across the steppe just as Khwarazmian warriors did over 2,000 years ago.
Estimates by archeologists indicate the fortress was abandoned for military purposes after the 1st century AD, but was likely still used by locals as a refuge through the medieval period. During the Afrighid period, a new fortress was built beneath the much larger original Ayaz Qala between the 6th and 8th centuries. It was during the Afrighid dynasty that Khorezm finally converted from its ancient Zorastrian roots to Islam in the 8th century.
No one knows for sure why these fortresses were abandoned by the 8th century AD. It was another 500 years before Genghis Khan invaded Khorezm with an army of 200,000 men, but by that time the Ayaz Qala fortresses were long since abandoned. By the 10th century life in Khorezm was flourishing in the great cities of the region such as the ancient city of Kos, or Kath, today the city of Beruniy, not too far from modern day Urgench. However as the flow of the mighty Oxus shifted south and away from the fortresses, their importance faded, as life and irrigation also shifted closer to the cities.
The site today is easily accessed by car from Khiva as part of a tour, or as a standalone destination. The nearby Ayaz-kala yurt camp is popular with tour groups who don’t mind roughing it, but the site can also be reached as a day trip. The ruins are totally open for clambering. No fences, no interpretive signs or markers, just the open desert steppe extending as far as the eye can see. The uppermost fortress, Ayaz Qala 1, affords the best views over the better preserved Ayaz Qala 2 below.
Remains of ancient watchtowers that look over an expansive fortress interior with no signs of civilization in any direction are as close to a post-apocalyptic landscape as anyone can imagine. During our visit on a bitterly cold March day in 2016 we were literally the only people there. The only sound was the howling wind, and the only signs of life were desert scrub. We could have been on the set of a Mad-Max movie with long straight roads stretching out to the horizon, but totally devoid of life.