Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan – desert fortress of Khorezm 2

It’s stifling in the back of the troop carrier. The windows in the front of the car are down, as are those in the second row of seats, but we are travelling so slowly that those of us crammed in the rear – there are four of us – are not receiving any air flow. It must be forty degrees Celsius today. And still climbing. The two Germans in the car are faring poorly in the heat, both are flushed and bright red in the face. One is already refusing to exit the troop carrier; the other is dousing her hand towel in her drinking water, draping the towel over her neck. The two Nederlanders we have with us are managing the heat a little better, though their pale, soft, European skin shows signs of being punched a few times by the sun. The lone Irishman has gone atypically quiet; his complaints about the heat stopped an hour ago. Now he is just sitting still, sweating profusely. He keeps his head down, face hidden from view by the brim of his cap. Ami and I, thanks to a lifetime of Aussie summers, are less troubled by the dry, desiccating, desert air. It’s still hot though. Still stinking hot. I’ll be glad to get out of the car.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

The rear door of the troop carrier is kicked open, the collection of weekender NGO workers and myself – I’m the only tourist here – exit the vehicle. Before us, rising from the otherwise flat desert plains, are the remains of a mud brick fortress, a kala, as they are called hereabouts. Kurgashin-kala has been here for millennia, it’s walls are crumbling, have already crumbled, now barely more than dust. The bits that continue to defy the elements stick untowardly into the air, like broken fingers, or the roots of an upturned tree. A long, arrow-slit lined defensive wall juts out of the ground to our left; an eroded corner tower rises from the soil to our right.

Beneath my feet the ground is glinting, as if made of glass. I scuff the soil with my feet, prise a piece of the lustrous substance free, pick it up for inspection. It’s a crumbly, semi-translucent rock. Gypsum perhaps?

I’m tempted to show the others, but they’ve all moved on, most already half way up the decomposing fortress walls. I drop the rock in the dirt and follow them. I keep my head down as I climb, studying the washed out decaying walls, peering into the cracks of the dried-out mud crust.

It does not take long to find an animal skull. A few more steps and there’s another. And there’s a lower jaw. All from small mammals, most likely that of bats, and spermophiles (a ground mammal akin to a gopher). I’ve found similar skeletal remains in the other kalas I’ve been to. I don’t know why there are so many small mammals skulls in these places, but I seem to find them wherever I look.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I crest the wall, expecting to find the others at the top, but they’ve all gone their separate ways. I guess it’s too hot to talk, too hot to communicate, too much of an effort to coordinate our movements. This is how the NGO workers of Nukus (capital of Qaraqalpaqstan – an autonomous republic of Uzbekistan) spend their weekends. Consumed by their own thoughts, they amble quietly away, traipsing across the hard-baked, dusty floor, moving towards distant archaeological features, searching out viewpoints from which to admire Kurgashin-kala. Even Ami has left me. She’s walked back down the decomposing wall, her DSLR in hand.


Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I pull out my smart phone. I’ve saved a document on it – produced by UNESCO, the only information source we could find on these long neglected monuments. According to this document Kurgashin-kala was constructed between the 3rd and 4th Centuries BCE, and was occupied until the 4th Century CE.

Beyond that there is little known about Kurgashin-kala. Very little archaeology has been undertaken in this part of the globe. The empire of Khorezm as a whole is poorly understood.

We know they were a vassal state to the Persian/Achaemenid Empire – they offered Alexander the Great their assistance in 329 BCE when he was sacking Markanda (Samarkand) in Central Asia. Then, in the 1st Century CE, they were ruled by the Kushan kings, of northern Afghanistan. This was followed by their becoming part of the Sasanian Empire, then the Hephthalite Empire, then the Göktürk Khaganate, then the Umayyad Caliphate, and then the Samanid Dynasty. Then Genghis Khan arrived and sacked the place.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In terms of archaeological investigations, I know the Russians came through in the early 1900s and dug up as many sites as they could. I don’t think much has been done since.

The interior of Kurgashin-kala is enormous, over 1.4 hectares in size. Scattered all over, winking in the sun, are shards of broken clay pottery and earthenware. Some of it is likely to be as old as the building itself. All the kalas we’ve visited have had broken clay objects strewn about, though the kalas that have been closer to the main roads, and thus easier to find, have had far fewer artefacts than those sites that lie further afield. Here we are a long way off the beaten path – and, in Qaraqalpaqstan, that’s really saying something. Here there is so much broken earthenware there is hardly any bare ground to step on.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I strike forward, crossing the vast, barren space diagonally, heading for one of the elevated corner towers. I clamber to the top, making my way to what must originally have been a second storey of the building, perhaps third. Arrow slits – the forts were built to fend off rampaging nomadic tribes – decorate the walls. An opening in the ground, not far from my feet, makes me suspicious that the room or corridor below has not yet completely caved in. I peer into the aperture but can see nothing in the gloom.

Several bits of moulded, broken earthenware are sticking out of the sides of the opening, one of which catches my eye. It looks unusual. Made of stone, rather than clay. I work it out with my hand, brush it free of dust. It’s a figurine, of a small kneeling humanoid, minus its head. I hold it up to the sun. Could I be mistaken? Is it just a rock? Are the curves I’ve identified as knees and shoulders just naturally sculpted rock?

No. There’s a line struck into the stone, a line that has been put there by a human hand, a line that is intended to connote a crease in the folded garment the figure is wearing. It’s definitely a statue.

Okay, I’ve found a statue.

What do I do with it?

If I leave it here it might be collected by a treasure hunter or a souvenir taker. And that doesn’t seem right. But what would I do with it if I took it? Hand it in to a museum? It’s a possibility; there is, I’m told, a small local museum in Bo’ston (the largest town in the province). But what would the good people at the Bo’ston Museum do with the statue? Would they even want it, to begin with? Probably not.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

I look at the figurine again, taking in the smooth, bent knees, taking in the sculpted torso, taking in the abrupt severance of stone where it has cracked.

How old is the statue, I wonder? And what sort of face would it have? Would it have Mongolian features? East Asian? Turkic? Persian? Greek? Depends what era it’s from, and what empire was ruling at the time.

I look around for the others, wanting advice.

But they’re gone, already on their way back to the car, forsaking Kurgashin-kala, their forms morphing and distending in the heat distorted air.

I’ve got to make a decision on my own. Do I keep it, and take it to the museum? I think I’ve decided against that option. So I leave it here. But where? Where will it be safe from the treasure hunters and souvenir takers?

My eyes complete a circuit of the outer walls of Kurgashin-kala, before finally returning to the opening by my feet. The hole is just big enough to accommodate the figure. I fall to my knees, momentarily mimicking the form of the carved figure. The statue is held over the hole in the ground. I let it drop.

Kurgashin-kala, Qaraqalpaqstan

Photo credit: Benjamin White

More on Qaraqalpaqstan:

Chilpik – Zoroastrian Tower of the Dead

Nukus – Cultural wasteland? I think not.

Toprak Kala & Qyzyl Kala

Ayaz Kala – desert fortress times three

Posts on Uzbekistan:

Samarkand – turquoise-tiled capital of the Timurid Empire

Gur-e-Amir, Samarkand – Tomb of Timur

The Registan, Samarkand – place of sand

Khiva – silk road city, desert oasis, hub for slave traders

Kalyan Minaret, Bukhara – the magnificent Tower of Death

Sarmish-say – 4,000 petroglyphs in dramatic gorge setting

My favourite fortresses:

Punakha Dzong, Bhutan – a masterpiece of architecture

Suomenlinna, Finland – brutally cold sea fortress

Takht-e Soleyman, Iran – royal Zoroastrian sanctuary and fire temple

Mombasa, Kenya – historic East African sea port

Bahla Fort, Oman – labyrinthine 13th Century mud-brick castle

Portobelo, Panama – pirates, pirates, and more pirates

Yamchun Fortress and Bibi Fatima Hot Springs, Tajikistan

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