Day 16: Kyr Kyz Fortress

Supposed fortress of 40 virgins, or thousand year old Samanid era palace, the Kyr Kyz fortress is legendary regardless.

Across the Turkic world the legend of the kirk-kiz is associated with any number of places.  The Kyr Kyz fortress in Termez is one of these, but the legend is just that… a legend.  The common theme with all of these local legends involve the so-called “forty virgins” depending on the version of the story and who’s telling it, and remember that the number 40 is generally understood to mean “many” of something.

In Termez, the Kyr Kyz fortress was supposedly the stronghold of a beautiful Amazon princess and her 39 warrior maidens.  The fortress was besieged by sex-crazed nomads who were fought off by the 40 fearless virgins for 40 days and 40 nights.  When most of the attackers and most of the maidens were dead in equal numbers, the Amazon princess, mortally wounded, came out and demanded to take on the leader of the nomads one on one.  He agreed, but when laying his eyes upon her he was so overcome by admiration that he refused to fight.  He threw down his sword, ran up to the princess, kissed her hand, and understood the injustice he and his band of nomads had inflicted.  No longer demanding satisfaction, the nomads retreated, and the princess fell dead, the fortress saved.

preserved windows and archways take Greco-Bactrian architectural cues from the nearby Buddhist monastery of Kara-Tepe

Another version includes the sex-crazed nomads, but instead of an Amazon princess, it was the 40 wives of a murdered nobleman.  Still another says that the Emir had a wise Sufi mystic killed, burned, and his ashes scattered in the Amu Darya.  His 40 daughters then went and bathed in the river, and subsequently became impregnated by its waters.  The infuriated Emir then built the fortress for his 40 pregnant daughters for safekeeping until they had given birth, as it turns out, to 40 sons.

The more likely story of course is that the Kyr Kyz fortress was the 9th or 10th century palace of a Samanid era Emir.  Located well outside of the historic core of old-Termiz in a village called Shakhri Saman, literally “The Samans’ Town” giving veracity to the claim of Samanid origin.  The Samanids conquered Termez in the 10th century in their effort to unite Central Asia under a single empire with their capital in Samarkand.  Their efforts paid off with the empire at its greatest extent stretching from the Arabian sea north to the Caspian through Turkmenistan, Khorezm, Bukhara, Western Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Western Pakistan.  The Samanid mausoleum in Bukhara was built at the peak of the Empire’s dominance in Central Asia, but the Kyr Kyz fortress was likely merely a country retreat of a local provincial ruler.

the roof has long since collapsed, but a few of the interior mud-brick walls have been recently restored

The palace is laid out in four quadrants of 5 rooms each on two levels, making up a total of 40 chambers. assisting in development of the local legend.  A large central gallery or courtyard, historians are unsure which, unite the four quadrants which are protected on each corner by guard-towers.  After the Samanid era the palace was likely used as a caravanserai for travelers along the silk road, but it eventually fell into ruin.  Today only walls remain, the roof long since collapsed, and the upper level mostly weathered away.  Several original arches are preserved, a miraculous accomplishment for a thousand year old mud brick fortress left to decay in the desert between the various rise and decline of successive empires.

Visitors can freely explore the ruins without restrictions as we did on a scorchingly hot day in June 2018.  The fortress walls have been restored with mud stucco, and some of the interior brickwork has been reconstructed, but the majority of the interior has been left in its original state.  Archways and corridors still preserved offer respite from the unrelenting sun, dust highlighting beams of light from windows long since liberated from their frames.  Despite the collapse of the roof and second level, the corner watch towers are still preserved, and for those brave enough to clamber over the ruins, this vantage point offers a great overview of the entire complex.

preserved corner watchtowers now overgrown with desert scrub provide an ideal vantage point for a comprehensive overview of the entire complex



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