Khorezm Fortresses: Uzbekistan’s beautiful desert castles

This post is about the ancient Khorezm fortresses that are located in the midst of the Karalpak dessert of Uzbekistan. They are also known as Elliq Qala (50 fortresses) or the golden ring of Khorezm, indicating a rich and mysterious history.

Looking at the pictures of the crumbled ruins at our hostel in Khiva I did not expect much of the Khorezm fortresses. Who could have known that this was going to be a highlight of our Uzbekistan itinerary?

We had too many days planned in Khiva and our hostel convinced us to take a full day tour to see the Khorezm fortresses. We were so glad we did.

Pictures can’t do justice to the ancient Khorezm fortresses. They can’t capture the large scale of them and their spectacular locations in the Karakalpak desert. If you consider how old they are, it only makes them more impressive. It’s simply a place you need to see for yourself.

The Khorezm fortresses
The Khorezm fortresses

A history of the Khorezm fortresses

Karakalpakstan is mostly known for the Aral sea distaster, but it is also scattered with ancient desert castles. There are about 400 of them and some of the Khorezm fortresses are more than 2000 years old. Khorezm wasn’t always a desolate desert landscape. People already settled in the area in the Paleolithic era when there were lush marshes and fertile agricultural lands.

The Khorezm region, situated along the Amu Darya River, developed into an important cultural center on the ancient Silk Road. It was part of the Persian empire when Zoroastrianism was the state religion. Some even believe that Khorezm was the motherland of its prophet Zarathrusta.

The Khorezm fortresses were strategically built on elevated positions. Their commanding views over the Karakalpak dessert allowed the Khorezm rulers to protect the region from invasions and control trade routes. They had a clear military purpose, but also included ancient fire temples, pottery factories or even small cities

The Khorezm fortressess protected its people for years, but even the thick mud brick walls couldn’t stop the hordes of Genghis Khan. After the Mongol conquest the desert castles were abandoned. Erosion took its toll, but the mysterious ruins of these long lost desert castles are still wirth a visit.

Despite their long and rich history, archeological interest has been little. During the Soviet times some fortresses were excavated, but even the Soviets left them alone again. Some were even destroyed during the agricultural developments in that time. With tourism increasing they have gained renewed interest that hopefully leads to their preservation.

The Khorezm fortresses
One of the remains of the Khorezm fortresses

Why visit the Khorezm fortresses?

If you love history, you will love the Khorezm fortresses. And if you don’t love history, I am sure the fortresses will spark an interest in you. Walking around the ruins you feel like an archeologist that just stumbled upon something ancient that is ready to be explored.

The Khorezm Fortresses have been recognized and inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2005. They provide a glimpse into the ancient Khorezm civilization and their unique architecture. Construction workers used sun-dried mud bricks, a prevalent building technique in the region. The massive walls, towers, and intricate layouts reflect the defensive strategies and urban planning of the time.

The fortresses are located in the Karakalpak Desert, a vast and arid region that adds to their unique appeal. The combination of ancient ruins set against the backdrop of the desert creates a picturesque and otherworldly atmosphere.

Even though there are tours available to the Khorezm fortresses, it is still not a tourist hotspot. At most desert castles you will be the only person around. There are only 3 fortresses that are renovated and where they even ask a small entrance fee. They were in our opinion also the least interesting.

The other Khorezm fortresses were left the way they were. Even though these ruins need some imagination, you still get a sense of the immense scale of them.

It’s just you, the ruins and the desert. It has something special to walk around on your own, unrestricted, in such old places. At one fort we could find hundreds of ancient pottery shards with reliefs. They were just lying around.

At last, if you think the desert is boring and without life. Think twice. There is actually quite some wildlife around. We spotted gerbils, lizards and camels.

Pottery shards in one of the Khorezm fortresses
Old pottery shards around the Khorezm fortresses

The best Khorezm fortresses

Most tours take you to 5 or 10 fortresses, also called kala’s in the Uzbek language. The traditional name of Elliq qaka suggests there are 50, but in reality there are even more. That said, only a few are really worth a visit.

I did the full day tour along ten fortresses. We had the time and the price difference was very little. I was afraid that ten was a bit much and that after a while they would feel the same. However, they were all very different.

Ayaz Kala

Ayaz kala is probably the most famous and oldest kala. It is actually a network of three fortresses. Construction already started in the 4th century BC and continued up till the 7th century. Being at the edge of the Kyzyl Kum dessert the fortresses probably served as border posts and lookout towers.

The biggest fort, Ayaz Qala 1, is on top of the hill. It’s a bit of a climb in the hot desert weather, but there is a beautiful view over the Kyzyl Kum desert and the smaller Ayaz Qala 2 below. The walls of Ayaz Kala are still largely intact and some still measure 10 metres high.

It is even possible to stay the nbight at Topraq qala in the Ayaz kala yurt camp. the location is absolutely spectacular, but they have mixed reviews.

Ayaz Kala is the oldest desert castle of the Khorezm fortresses
Ayaz khala

Toprak Kala

The Toprak Kala, meaning “clay fortress,” dates back to the 2th century. It was a massive walled city covering an area of approximately 32 hectares (79 acres) and was the administrative center of ancient Khorezm. The ruins of the fortress reveal a complex urban layout, including palaces, temples, houses, and streets.

Toprak Kala was the palace of the Khorezm kings. Archeologists believe it was king Artav that built Toprak qala and even made it his capital. At that time it was part of the Kushan empire that stretched all the way from what is now Uzbekistan to Northern India.

Toprak Kala is one of the best preserved ruins and recently renovated. In my opinion this took a bit of charm away, but it is certainly worth a visit.

Toprak kala with the palace of the Khorezm kings
Toprak Kala

Kizil Kala (Kyzyl Qala)

Not far from Toprak Kala you will find Kizil Kala (Kyzyl Kala) or the red fortress. This castle has also been renovated recently as you can see at the outer walls.

Nobody really knows what the purpose of Kizil Kala was. There is a local legend that the basement is full of gold, but that nobody can retrieve it, because it is protected by a snake demon. Another legend goes that Kizil Kala has an underghround passage that connects it with Toprak Kala.

Traces of watchtowers suggest it was a military outpost, but there was also a Zoroastrian temple for fireworshippers. Zoroastrian fire temples, also known as Atash Behrams or Atashkadehs, are places of worship for followers of the Zoroastrian religion.

Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest religions, originating in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) and founded by the prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) around the 6th century BCE.

Fire has a significant symbolic role in Zoroastrianism, representing purity, light, and divine energy. Fire temples are specially designated spaces where sacred fires are kept burning continuously. These fires are believed to be a direct connection to Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity in Zoroastrianism.

Kyzyl Kala
Kizil kala

Janbas Kala

Janbas Kala impressed me by its tall and thick mud brick walls that still stand strong as well as its immense size. Construction already started in the 4th century BC making it one of the oldest of the Khorezm fortresses.

Archeologists found arrow heads inside the fortress. They believe that a large battle took place at Janbas Kala around the first century after which the fortress was left abandoned.

Janbas Kala actually has a rather unique design that made it more vulnerable to invasions. It is the only Khorezm fortress that had no defensive towers.

Janbas Kala
Janbas Kala

Guldursun Kala

Guldursan Kala, near the town of Tortkul, was relatively new compared to the other Khorezm fortresses. It was only built in the 12th century and only served its purpose for a short time. Soon Guldursun Kala and many of the other Khorezm fortresses were occupied by Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

Guldursan Kala is one of the largest Khorezm fortresses. Only the walls remain, but you nevertheless get a good feel of its large size. Archeological findings inside Guldursun Kala include coins and bronze items and indicate that this was also a place for religious ceremonies.

Guldursun Kala
Guldursun Kala

Kirkkiz Kala (Qirq Qiz Qala)

This was probably one of my favorite castles of the Khorezm fortresses as it made me feel like an archeologist in action. In the 7th and 8th century this was a pottery production centre and there are still pottery shards everywhere.

The inside of the fortress is pretty big and I could have spent hours here looking for pottery shards with beautiful reliefs that are clearly manmade.

Kirkkiz Kala
Kirkkiz kala

Koi Kirilgan Kala (Koi Krylgan Qala)

After all the large Khorezm fortresses, Koi Kirilgan Kala looks small and in a bad state. Nevertheless, this is one of the more interesting ruins. Its design is unique in that it is a rounded citadel.

The shape actually resembles the sun and archeologists believe this was an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple. Archeologosts found many statues of gods and goddeses, such as Anahita. The temple complex was probably connected with Toprak Kala as it was built in the same time.

Koi Kirilgan Kala
Koi Kirilgan Kala

Khorezm fortresses travel tips

How to book a Khorezm fortresses Tour

Tours are best arranged in Khiva. We booked our tour through Islambek travel. We were very happy about Islambek and can certainly recommend this agency. Although I am sure other hotels in Khiva can arrange similar tours.

You have half day tours that include 5 kala’s ($29 per car with private driver) or a full day tour that includes ten kala’s ($39 per car with private driver). As the price difference is only 10 dollar I can recommend to take the full day tour.

It is also possible to visit them on your way from Khiva to Bukhara.

Where to sleep at the Khorezm fortresses

Islambek Khiva: Because Khiva is the best place to base yourself I can recommend Islambek Khiva. It is a good budget option in the old town of Khiva. They have nice and clean rooms with a delicious breakfast buffet. The owner is very helpful in giving information about things to do in Khiva and your onwards travel and can arrange your Khorezm fortresses tour.

Ayaz Kala Yurt camp: If you really want to sleep near one of the fortresses your only option is the Ayaz Kala Yurt camp.

Camel at the Ayaz Kala Yurt camp in Uzbekistan
The Khorezm fortresses are located in the remote Karakalpak dessert

Where to eat at the Khorezm fortresses

There are not a lot of restaurants and facilities along your way when you travel around the Khorezm fortresses. However, our driver knew a good restaurant for lunch and despite the somewhat remote location it was indeed very delicious.

That said, it is best to bring enough snacks and water with you. Especially in summer it will be hot and you will drink a lot

What to bring to the Khorezm fortresses

Besides some snacks and enough water it is important to protect yourself from the sun. You will walk a lot and often there is not a lot of shade. You will burn easily so bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.

The Khorezm fortresses
The Khorezm fortresses in the Karalpak dessert

When to visit the Khorezm fortresses

The Karakalpakstan desert has a rather extreme climate. Summers are sizzling hot and winters icy cold with temperatures below zero. 

The best time to visit the Khorezm fortresses is during the spring (April to May) and autumn (September to October) seasons. During these months, the weather is generally pleasant with mild temperatures and less rainfall, making it ideal for outdoor activities and exploration.

Online Resources about the Khorezm fortrtesses

Archeological research about the Khorezm fortresses is rare, but if you want to know more about its history I can recommend this UNESCO paper about the Golden ring of Khorezm.

Sustainable travel to the Khorezm fortresses

The Khorezm fortresses are in a remote part of Uzbekistan. While Tourism is a welcome source of income it can also have negative consequences. Traveling sustainably, involves conscious choices that minimize your environmental impact and support the local community.

Leave no trace principle: The Khorezm fortresses are in a fragile desert landscape. When hiking, stick to designated trails when they are there, avoid disturbing wildlife or picking plants, and leave no trace of your presence. Ensure you take all your trash back with you and dispose of it responsibly. Even better is when you take something to pick up the trash that others left behind.

To avoid single-use plastics, invest in reusable items. For example, you can bring your own water bottle with a filter that you can refill at your accomodation. At last, use biodegradable and eco-friendly personal care products to minimize pollution of water sources.

Respect the culture: Besides environmental concerns it is also important to respect the culture. Uzbekistan is an Islamic country that is just opening up to tourism. Therefore, learn about the local customs and traditions beforehand and be mindful of your behavior.

People will appreciate it, if you dress modestly, especially at religious sites. Learning a few basic phrases in Uzbek or Russian, can go a long way in building meaningful connections and to learn more about the local culture. Not everybody is happy to have their picture taken. When in doubt, ask permission.

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