Toprak Kala, like all the kalas (desert fortresses) of ancient Khorezm, is slowly turning to dust. Rain is transforming the fortress walls into shapeless mud. Wind is breaking up the kala, dust particle by dust particle, and dispersing it across the Qyzylqum Desert. Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters dig their nests in what remains of the soft, mud-brick bastions. Goats climb over the decaying palace, searching for grasses and shrubs they might devour. Looters smash their way into buried chambers, looking for gold coins and antiquities. And now there is another destructive force adding to the damage: tourists.
With no tourist infrastructure in place, visitors are left to wander over Toprak Kala as they like. It’s the only way to see any of the kalas, to climb over the defensive walls, to scramble around the crumbling citadels, looking for points of interest. Each person that does so is exacerbating the degradation of the kala.
Photos taken by Russian archaeologists in the early 20th Century show significant deterioration has occurred to the kalas in the last one hundred years. Unless something is done these ancient monuments will soon be gone for good.
But what can be done?
Toprak Kala was built in the 2nd to 3rd Century CE and served as the royal residence for the kings of Khorezm (Khorezm, in case you are unaware, is an enormous fertile river delta in Central Asia formed by the Amu Darya River; it’s bordered by the Qyzylqum Desert to the east, the Qaralqum Desert to the south, the Ustyurt Plateau to the west, and the Aral Sea to the north). Toprak Kala contained a palace, a temple (probably a fire temple), a temenos (a sacred enclosure), a residential quarter, and what is thought to have been a palace garden.
As you can see in the picture above, precious little of Toprak Kala remains, and it is one of the best-preserved Kushan fortresses in Central Asia.
How do you preserve a mud-brick palace when it is already in such a poor state?
You can protect what’s left by covering it with enormous, unsightly shelters (as UNESCO did at the rock-cut churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia). The shelters should cut out most of the damage caused by rainfall. Then you just have to do deal with the impacts caused by wind and overland stormwater flow. Which will mean additional physical works, and additional costly engineering structures.
Toprak Kala has surely deteriorated beyond the point where damaged mud-bricks can be removed and replaced with robust, heritage-sensitive replicas. Replacing any of the mud bricks at this late stage won’t be a restoration project, it’ll be a rebuild.
And rebuilding these sites isn’t the same as preserving them. Or is it?
Qyzyl Kala, built sometime between the 1st Century CE and the 4th Century CE (the ambiguity of this date indicates how little is known about the early cultures of Khorezm, be they Kushans, or Hepthalites, or Afrighids), has square foundations and 15 metre high walls. No one is quite sure of it’s purpose. It might have been a military barracks, or a private compound for a wealthy family, or something else entirely.
Qyzyl Kala was abandoned at some point in the first millennium, then re-populated, or at least rebuilt, in the 12th to 13th Century CE, around the time of or shortly preceding the invasion by Genghis Khan’s rampaging armies. Perhaps its rebuilding was part of a last ditch effort to hold off the invading armies. In any case, the Mongol armies came, they conquered, the kingdoms of Khorezm were crushed.
Perhaps we should be blaming Genghis Khan, the much lauded empire-builder who destroyed all he came upon (except for the Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara), for the ruined state of the kalas?
Qyzyl Kala is unique amongst the desert fortresses of Khorezm, as it is currently being rebuilt (works are probably complete now; I visited the site in October 2015).
Is rebuilding Qyzyl Kala, or any kala, the right thing to do?
I don’t think there is a definitive answer to this question. On one hand, I feel that rebuilding the kalas is a heavy-handed approach to heritage preservation. I worry that the historic integrity of the kala will be compromised, and that the physical work involved will cause irreparable damage to the original structure.
On the other hand, I understand why the authorities want to rebuild the kalas and thus save them from oblivion.
Perhaps rebuilding some kalas, and leaving others to their fate, is the answer? That way you get to see kalas both fully-restored and time-defeated.
Perhaps tourists can help? Tourists may be a destructive force, and they are certainly adding to the degradation of the kalas by scampering over the decaying battlements in their Birkenstocks and Crocs, but they are also a powerful international influence, and a source of immense capital. Tourists have been the saviour of many a fragile archaeological site in the past.
How do they do it?
By drawing attention to these overlooked archaeological ruins, outlining their plight, and garnering support for their protection.
Practical information and how to reach Toprak Kala:
Toprak Kala is located in Ellikala province, approximately 12 kilometres from the town of Bo’ston, in the autonomous Republic of Qaraqalpaqstan (located within western Uzbekistan). There are no signposts or markings of any kind to guide you to Toprak Kala or Qyzyl Kala, so you really need a good map, or a local guide, if you are planning a visit.
There is no public transport available to reach either of these kalas. A private transfer is the best option, and can easily be organised from Hotel Jipek Joli in Nukus, or Meros B&B in Khiva.
UNESCO has produced a useful and informative handbook on the kalas of Khorezm, called The Golden Ring of Khorezm. It can be downloaded here.