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Fortresses in the Sand

Exploring the Remains of the Karakalpak and Khorezm Regions of the Wild West of Uzbekistan.


At the dawn of globalization, when the vast trade routes were establiblished between China and Europe, the endless desert plateaus of Central Asia experienced rapid growth and wealth. One region blessed in particular was ancient Khorezm, located in today’s autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan in western Uzbekistan, saw the birthplace of faiths, the rising of fortresses and an unprecedented influx of wealth. Watered by the flowing Amu Darya River, carrying fresh water from high in the Pamir Mountains to the east, a distinct culture formed in what is now the western portion of Uzbekistan. At the crossroads of empires, Khorezm absorbed influences from across Asia. Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s first monotheistic faiths, is thought to have originated here. Khorezm later became a prosperous kingdom controlling Silk Road trade passing through the Amu Darya delta flowing into the Aral Sea.

Today, after a grueling 33 hour train ride through seemingly endless barren desert, the isolated city of Nukus in Karakalpakstan still stands as the gateway to Khorezm’s past glories, lying mysteriously in the desolate sands. 

Pamir Mountains.jpg


In Nukus, before searching for remannts of past civilizations, we paid homage to the premier destination in town - the Savitsky Museum with thousands of avant-garde Russian artworks secretly collected during Soviet rule. While most of the collection features experimental techniques and styles banned by Stalinist censorship, one room offers haunting lament to environmental disaster - the disappearance of the Aral Sea. Painting after painting depicts the once thriving lakeside port, bustling with fishermen and sailors. This inland body of water, one of the four largest lakes in the world, was the lifeblood of the region.

That is until Soviet central planners diverted its source rivers to irrigate cotton fields across Central Asia. The Aral Sea rapidly evaporated, exposing a toxic seabed laced with pesticides. Today, the former port of Muynak is more than 60 miles from the water’s edge – with abandoned ships haunting the now endless desert. Gazing upon these images, the human role in altering landscapes unfolds through brushstrokes frozen in time. They serve as omens from the past, reminding us to take care of the blessings that God has granted us.

With this perspective in mind, we will now journey back through the centuries to Khorezm’s storied past, venturing toward the strictly controlled border of Turkmenistan.


West of Nukus and across the Amu Darya River lies one of the regions most ancient and mysterious of sites. Sitting on a hill overlooking fertile plains, the ancient city, and now necropolis, of Mizdakhan appears. As we approach from afar, hundreds of structures rise out of nowhere with the impression of a living, fortified city. When walking amongst it though, we realize it quite the opposite - a cemetery for the dead, from the ancients to the recents. A far cry to the city’s height as capital of Khorezm and one of the largest cities in the region. Several magnificent mausoleums are constructed among graves, where I can only imagine the legacy of these people have left behind. Several groups of pilgrims are making their way up the to top of the necropolis, passing all until reaching one long structure constructed on simple tan brick.

“Adam’s tomb.” One of them said as I asked.

As in the Adam, Adam and Eve. How Adam, or his body, made it all the way to this region of Uzbekistan still remains a mystery, but for these people, it is a holy pilgrimage, a special moment to pay respect to the forefather of humanity.

Sifting through windswept ruins like ancient Mizdakhan and Toprak Kala, glimpses emerge of this once mighty Silk Road kingdom now vanished into the sands of time.


Bartering with a taxi driver in Nukus to venture far beyond his normal routes, we set off eastwards, following the Amu Darya River through seas of barren sands and brush. In the distance, an anomalous artificial mountain appeared – a large earthen mound with a flattened summit, oddly out of place in the desert. This was the Chilpik Dhakma, the Tower of Silence, constructed eons ago for macabre funerary purposes nearly lost to the sands of time.

Clambering out of the taxi, we paid a small fee to climb the hundreds of steps leading to the top. Zion made it a race, choosing fantastical names for our adventure. And so "Fire Dragon", "Lightning Racer" and "Super Baby Crasher" raced to the pinnacle (or something along those lines), momentarily transported into a child’s imagination upon this landscape heavy with history. The windswept summit revealed a platform of stacked rocks and a string of weathered flags, marking the remnants of Zoroastrian burials from two thousand years ago, where bodies were ritually exposed to vultures who picked the bones clean.

Considering this ancient tower and then gazing west across the river where closed off Turkmenistan lies, it is interesting to consider the pages of history and how it has shaped the landscape.


Our taxi continued following the ancient course of the Amu Darya River east towards Khiva. On the outskirts of Khiva lies a collection of hundreds of castles of ancient Khorezm, nearly 2,000 year old remnants of a lost empire. Khorezm was an oasis region centered on the flowing river, stretching for hundreds of years. To the south of the road the first castle rose from the sand - Kizil Kala. First built in the 1st century, Kizil Kala was once part of the “Fifty fortresses oasis” of modern day Uzbekistan. The initial impression hints at a recent reconstruction, with the adobe walls still standing along all sides. It sure gave a better impression of what the castle may have looked like long ago.

Clambering up the dusty steps, the details emerged of the wooden poles and ropes holding parts of the ancient walls together. Up close, we could see where modern restorations blended with original sections that had astonishingly endured over two millennia. The harsh environment here is a real, where once a stronghold at the center of an empire now stands lonely in the desert sands.

I couldn't help but wonder what other stories of the past are waiting to be unearthed beneath this land - if anything ensures.

Late afternoon, we arrived at our final stop - haunting ruins of Toprak Kala, once a thriving Silk Road port, now just windswept mounds of clay.

Built nearly 2,000 years ago, the grand size and maze-like passages of Toprak Kala amazed us - and especially our Zion has he loved scampering through the corridors, his laughter echoing off the mud brick walls. 45 minutes after exploring every square inch, and consciously aware of our driver waiting patiently below, we headed back, grateful for the glimpse we had been given into Khorezm's storied past. This desert land was once fertile and flush with water, nourishing a powerful empire now turned to dust. Our journey through the Khorezm and Karakalpakstan enriched our understanding of the cultures that came before. As the sun set, we left Toprak Kala tired but inspired by the ingenuity and artistry of the ancient people who once called this oasis their home. Zion and Joy River slept soundly in the final hour towards Khiva - a city that feels as much alive as the imaginations of a thousand years ago echoed off the mud-brick walls.

Thank you for reading "Fortresses in the Sands"

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