Ayaz Kala, a mud-brick fortress on the fringe of the Qyzylqum Desert in Qaraqalpaqstan, isn’t a particularly easy place to reach.
The first time I visited I was accompanying a troop of NGO workers from Nukus, and I along with several others became so ill with food poisoning – undercooked shashlik to blame – that the trip was cancelled and we all went home early; we saw Ayaz Kala from a distance, but didn’t manage to reach the site on foot.
My second trip, however, proceeded without a glitch.
Ayaz Kala is not one but three fortresses, making it, in my opinion, the most impressive of all of the desert fortresses of Khorezm (and there are plenty of the them).
Ayaz Kala was a defensive fortress, one of many built along the edge of the Qyzylqum Desert.
The kalas, or desert fortresses, were built to protect Khorezm from attacks from nomadic raiders.
Who/where/what is Khorezm?
Khorezm is a geographic region in Central Asia bound 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. Despite its desert-like appearance, Khorezm is actually an enormous fertile river delta, formed by the mighty Amu Darya River.
Various empire have ruled Khorezm over the millennia. The region is currently split between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
Ayaz Kala I
The oldest fortress – known as Ayaz Kala I – sits atop a prominent ridge and was built in the 4th Century BCE. At the time Khorezm was a vassal state to the Achaemenid Empire of Persia (whose capital was Persepolis). This enormous fortress had walls 10 metres high with double storey archer towers.
It was used as a fortress until the 1st Century CE, at which time the Achaemenids were out and the Kushan kings of Afghanistan were in.
Ayaz Kala II
Ayaz Kala II, a small oval fort built atop a natural hillock below Ayaz Kala I, was constructed in the 7th – 8th Centuries CE. In the intervening centuries Khorezm had been invaded by the Huns, and the Turks, and it was now part of the Afrighid Empire.
The remains of a palace can be seen alongside Ayaz Kala II (seen on the righthand side of Ayaz Kala II in the photo above). The Afrighid palace was said, at the completion of its construction, to have been the most beautiful building in Central Asia.
The third fortress, built in the 1st Century CE, is the largest of the three, but also the least visible. It is located on the plains below Ayaz Kala I.
The fortresses might not look like much, but don’t forget they are made of mud-brick, not stone, and the oldest, Ayaz Kala I, has spent almost 2,500 years exposed to the elements. That anything remains at all is remarkable.
Efforts to protect and preserve the kalas are being implemented (see the restoration works at Qyzyl Kala), but the work required to restore severely eroded mud-brick structures, such as the kalas, is harsh and jarring to the eye.
Better to travel to Qaraqalpaqstan and see them now, while they still show their true age, and while there is enough of them left to appreciate.
Practical information and how to reach Ayaz Kala:
Ayaz Kala is located in Ellikala province, approximately 23 kilometres from the town of Bo’ston, in the autonomous Republic of Qaraqalpaqstan (located within western Uzbekistan). There is a yurt camp set up at the site for tourist accommodation. Staying here is highly recommended.
There is no public transport available to reach Ayaz Kala. A private transfer is the best option. This can be organised from Hotel Jipek Joli in Nukus, or Meros B&B in Khiva. More transport info here.
UNESCO has produced a useful and informative handbook on the kalas of Khorezm, called The Golden Ring of Khorezm. It can be downloaded here.
Ayaz Kala is on the tentative list for UNESCO World Heritage listing.