Khorezm fortresses: Uzbekistan’s ancient desert castles

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

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. They were built to protect people from nomadic raids in the Karakalpak desert. While some only had this function others also included temples, pottery factories or even small cities.

The Khorezm fortressess protected its people for years against invaders, 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 they still stand like sand castles in the desert.

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 simply 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

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.

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 2 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 you might need some imagination, you still get a sense of the immense scale of them.

It’s just you, the ruins and the desert and 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

The best Khorezm fortresses

Most tours take you to 5 or 10 fortresses, also called kala’s. We 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

This is probably the most famous and oldest kala that is actually a network of three fortresses. Construction already started in the 4th century BC. The biggest fort 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 some residential ruins below.

It is even possible to stay here in the Ayaz kala yurt camp or arrange a camel ride through them. They have mixed reviews though and our taxi driver warned us that they were a bit over priced.

Ayaz Kala is the oldest desert castle of the Khorezm fortresses

Toprak Kala

Toprak Kala was not only a fortress, but also the palace of the Khorezm kings. It is one of the best preserved ruins and recently renovated. In our opinion this took a bit of charm away, but it is certainly worth a visit.

Toprak kala with the palace of the Khorezm kings

Kizil Kala

Nearby Toprak Kala you will find Kizil Kala or the red fortress that has also been renovated recently. Nobody really knows what the purpose of this fortress was. However, 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.

Kyzyl Kala

Janbas Kala

This fortress impressed us 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.

Archeologists found arrow heads inside the fortress and they believe that a large battle took place here around the first century after which the fortress was left abandoned.

Janbas Kala

Guldursun Kala

This fortress near the town of Tortkul was relatively new. It was only built in the 12th century and occupioed till the Mongol invasions. Archeologicval findings include coins and bronze items and indicate that this was also a place for religious ceremonies.

Guldursun Kala

Kirkkiz Kala

This was probably one of our favourite kala’s and made us feel like archeologists 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 we could have spent hours here looking for pottery shards with beautiful reliefs that are clearly manmade.

Kirkkiz Kala

Koi Kirilgan Kala

After all the large kala’s Koi Kirilgan looks small. Nevertheless, this is one of the more interesting ruins. The shape actually resembles the shape of the sun and archeologists believe this was an ancient Zoroastrian fire temple.

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

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

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 months are April, May and June and then again in September and October.

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.

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