Palaces and Fortresses of Khorezm - Turkestan Travel
Toprak Kala

Palaces and Fortresses of Khorezm

Located on the lower reaches of the Amu Darya, this land occupied a special place in the ancient history of Central Asia. This land, stretching north to the depths of the steppe, separated from the Achaemenid Empire in the IV century BC, before the campaigns of Alexander the Great. In the winter of 329-328 BC, King Farasman of Khorezmia came to Alexander the Great for negotiations and offered an alliance and friendship. Along with Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and Parthia, Khorezm was one of the most important cultural centres in Central Asia. A distinctive urban culture developed here early on. Separated from Greco-Bactrian Kingdom and Parthia by desert sands, Khorezm lay beyond the reach of their warlike kings. At the same time, the connections of Khorezm to the nomadic tribes in Kazakhstan and southern Siberia were quite close. The richest material on the history of ancient palaces and fortresses of Khorezm was provided by the excavations at Toprak Qal’a, a well-known archaeological site on the right bank of the Amu Darya River. The Toprak Qal’a excavations, begun as early as the late 1930s, were carried out by Soviet scholars over several decades.

In the 2nd half of the 3rd – beginning of the 4th century, Toprak-Qal’a was the residence of the Khorezmian king. Covering an area of 500 x 350 m, the extensive castle was surrounded by a rampart and a ring wall with towers. A wide (up to 10 m) parade route ran through its territory. A clear network of longitudinal and transverse streets divided the city into regular quarters. In the northwest corner was a huge three-towered royal palace built on a 12-metre-high brick platform. It was a construction that had no equivalent at all in Khorezm, or in Central Asia. According to the original plan of the builders, the palace was square in plan, with a side length of 80 metres. A little later, three square towers, each measuring 40 metres by 40 metres, were added to the main building. The result is an extremely majestic and original composition. High and blank outer walls gave the entire palace ensemble the appearance of an inaccessible and impregnable fortress. The central building of the Toprak-Qal’a palace housed a large number of different rooms – residential, ceremonial, economic and auxiliary – some of which were arranged on two floors. All these premises were clearly divided into several independent complexes for specific purposes, separated from each other by massive walls. Among the ruins, archaeologists found more than a hundred economic documents, written in Aramaic in the Khorezm language. Many rooms of the palace were decorated with murals and clay sculptures, but the central ceremonial hall, the Hall of Kings (280 sq m), stood out for its decoration. Along its brightly painted walls were clay statues of the Khorezm rulers, each twice their natural size.

Unfortunately, only fragments of these sculptures have survived. Not a single face among the fragments of torsos, arms, legs, heads has survived. The fact that these statues represented kings is confirmed by the discovery of two sculptural crowns known from images on coins. Each seated king was surrounded by standing figures of women-queens and princesses, men-princes and nearby nobles and children. A veritable “portrait gallery”! Of these sculptural portraits, however, only two badly damaged heads have survived – the head of a woman (“the wife of King Vasamar”) and of a young prince. Despite the damage, the sculptor’s desire to portray the individuality of the faces depicted is evident in their appearance. No less interesting and rich was the decoration of the Hall of Warriors. This large (about 60 square metres) room was also decorated with clay sculptures. However, the layout and structure of the Hall of Warriors completely repeated usual for Toprak-Qal’a palace layout and structure of the living rooms. This led scholars to suspect that the Hall of Warriors served as the royal bedchamber. Near one of the walls of the “Hall of Soldiers” was a fireplace. In niches along the walls were large clay statues of kings, and in the spaces between, on special stands, were figures of soldiers with weapons in their hands.

Archaeologists call another antechamber of the Toprak-Qal’a Palace the “Hall of Dancing Masks”. The decoration of this hall was dedicated to the cult of Dionysus – the ancient Greek god of wine and pleasure, who was popular not only in antiquity. The bas-reliefs that decorated the walls of the hall depicted Bacchic dances. Perhaps the dancers wore Dionysian masks – during the excavations archaeologists found the head of one of the figures with a long black beard and goat ears. The relatively small but richly decorated Hall of the Deer got its name because of the clay reliefs with figures of grazing fallow deer, which existed almost in full size. Judging by the preserved remains of the painting, the fallow deer were brown and the background was blue. The pictures of fallow deer were supplemented with trees wrapped with vines, the branches with pomegranate fruit. Smaller rooms – probably living rooms – were decorated with colourful murals. One of these rooms was named the “Harp Hall” – after the picture of the young woman with a harp found there. The other room, the Hall of Black-Hot Ladies, probably belonged to the harem complex and was decorated with pictures of women on a light background covered with red hearts.

While the Toprak-Qal’a palace can be confidently regarded as a royal residence, the purpose of the ancient Khorezmian complex at Qoy Qırılg’an Qala is not yet fully understood. This extensive settlement on the right bank of the Amu Darya, 22 km northeast of the Karakalpak town of Turtkul, attracted the attention of archaeologists in 1938. The first excavations at Qoy-Qırılg’an-Qala were carried out by the expedition to Khorezm. After the Second World War, excavations of the palaces and fortresses of Khorezm continued and in 1951-1957 the monument was completely excavated. The enigmatic structure in Qoy Qırılg’an Qala was built in the IV-III century BC. The first phase of existence and functioning was followed by a long period of desolation until the turn of the century. Then the structure “revived” and existed until the IVth century A.D. In the first phase, the ensemble of Qoy Qırılg’an Qala was a circular two-storey building 44.4 m in diameter. It was surrounded by a defensive wall with nine towers that were equally spaced. One of the towers had an entrance with a complex system of corridors leading to the second floor of the central building with the circular open area. On the ground floor were two isolated groups of rooms, each with four rooms. It is likely that the complex at Qoy Qırılg’an Qala was associated with funerary rites: the ground floor rooms were for the burial of the remains of the Khorezm king and his wife, and the first floor floor was for the funerary tools, which were destined for cremation. Some researchers believe that the building at Qoy Qırılg’an Qala was not only a tomb but also a temple dedicated to the cult of a deified king. Astronomical observations were probably also made here. The famously remarkable achievements of Central Asian medieval astronomy probably had their remote origins in those observations made in such structures as the Khorezmian Qoy Qırılg’an Qala.

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