Fortress Koy Krylgan Kala is located on a natural hill 100.6 metres above sea level, in the northern part of the Kyzylkum desert, 17.7 kilometres southeast of the village of Ellikala, 17.4 kilometres southwest of the village of Jumbaskala, 31.3 kilometres east and slightly north of the town of Beruni in the Ellikala district of the Republic of Karakalpakstan.
Thousands of forts are scattered across the endless expanses of the Khorezm steppe. The ruins of the Dead Sheep Fortress of Koy-Krylgan-Kala are truly unique. The fortress was found by chance in 1938 by archaeologists from the Choresm expedition.
In 1950, a new stage of excavations began on the ruins of the fortress. This revealed that the fortress had gone through two stages of development. The earlier stage belonged to the IV-III centuries B.C. The second stage of its life was in the first centuries after Christ.
It was discovered that in the early stage of development, the central part of the fortress was destroyed by fire. To this day it remains a mystery whether it was an accident or intentional. Koy-Krylgan-kala (the Fortress of the Perished Sheep), a remarkable monument of Khorezmian antiquity, is characterised by high mastery of the ancient craftsmen.
The temple of the burial and astral cults Koy-Krylgan-kala existed for several centuries from the IV century BC to the III-IV century AD. The central building of Koy-Krylgan-kala is round in plan, a monumental structure crowned by a gallery with a series of small weapon embrasures.
The diameter of the building at the base was 44.5 metres, and the thickness of the walls ranged from 7 to 6 metres. The walls are built of pakhsa and mud bricks. The premises form the cruciform figure in the plan. All eight rooms on the lower floor were blocked by double vaults.
They were probably for special cultic purposes, while the upper rooms contained food or sacrificial offerings and temple utensils as well as terracotta images of deities and were probably used for cultic ceremonies.
Small cult terracottas, miniature vessels, rhytons and pottery decorated with mythological motifs were found here, which were typical of the burial inventory. The building itself was surrounded by a double ring of fortified walls, and towers were built between the walls.
Two of the towers had interior chambers facing each other, separated from the corridor by rough walls made of 1-metre-thick mud bricks, which meant that the towers could only be entered by a short flight of stairs.
Loopholes opened into the towers from the courtyard. As a result of the excavations of the Koy Krylgan Kala, two main periods of its existence were identified, separated by significant intervals of time.
The purpose of the monument was different in each period, as reflected in the type of finds, the use of the premises, etc. At the beginning of the new era, this towering palace was an observatory, a kind of astronomical centre of Khorezm.
An astrolabe, an angular instrument, was found here, which was also used to observe the sun and other celestial bodies. The findings of terracotta representations of deities and statuary ossuaries (an ossuary is a clay box, a bone store in which the bones of the dead were cleaned of outer wrappings according to Zoroastrian rites and crowned with a human figure) and the analysis of the ground plan of the central building led to the conclusion that Anahita and Siyavush – the most popular deities of ancient Khorezm – were worshipped here.
Researchers believe that the equal worship of the sun and the water element, which the ancient Choresmians embodied, is the reason for the design of the Koy-Krylgan-kala, which is based on solar symbols – a circle and a cross.
Statuary ossuaries depicting figures of female and male deities embodying people’s reverence for their deceased ancestors are remarkable monuments of ancient Khorezmian art.
The figures, sometimes executed almost life-size, are a realistic representation of the anthropological type of people, their clothing and headgear. The appearance of ossuaries in the form of ancient statues in Khorezm testifies to the persistence of the tradition.
Fragments of about 10 ceramic funerary statues were excavated at Koy-Krylgan Qala. The figures, which differ in size, reproduce the image of the same type. For example, all the female images show a young woman sitting in a static, solemn pose.
Sometimes the legs of thrones are depicted on the ossuaries, and adjustments are made to fit small canopies. The funerary sculptures are stylistically similar to statuettes, which are thought to represent deities.
Scholars believe that the statuary ossuaries represent the dead in the form of a chthonic deity – most likely Ardvisura Anahita, they convey an image that belongs to the concept of the great goddess, the mother of all living beings and the mistress of the realm of the dead.
Statuary ossuaries depicting a seated man were also found. They probably conveyed the image of Siyavush – the god of dying and resurrecting nature, who was closely associated with the cult of the dead.
There were ossuaries that reproduced monumental structures. In the ruins of Koy-Krylgan-kala 2 (a few dozen metres from the main monument), an ossuary was found that resembles a rectangular structure with slightly rounded walls that diverge upwards, imitating a tent.
This ossuary may have replicated the appearance of a tent erected during burial ceremonies in earlier times. The immediate prototype of this form may have been the crypt structures.
Such was the prevalence of this Zoroastrian burial rite with the belief system of the Zoroastrian circle, the worship of ancestor worship, that the remains of statuary ossuaries have been found in the ruins of many rural dwellings of the period under consideration.
Almost every one of these dwellings had a room that looked like a domestic prayer room and was intended for the performance of rites of ancestor worship in front of the statuary ossuaries standing there. The terracotta figures of gods and goddesses worshipped by the ancient Choresmians were executed with no less skill than the ossuaries.
Among them is the aforementioned Anahita, the Great Mother Goddess, usually depicted in a wide robe with many folds. Horse figures symbolised the sun deity Mitra or Siyavush.
Finds of the image of the god Dionysus as a naked man with a bunch of grapes in one hand and a curved vine knife in the other are reminiscent of another cult – the Bacchic, which also took place at this time.
Finds of magnificent ceramic vessels with relief depictions of hunting scenes, courtly life, figures from ancient Khorezm mythology or the epic “Tree of Life” with fallow deer complete the picture of the state of art development in Khorezm in the 4th to 3rd centuries BC and somewhat later.
The motifs on the clay and stone seals are reminiscent of motifs in Scythian art from the same or a somewhat earlier period. These include depictions of a vulture, a bird or a deer in a flying gallop and so on.
The high level of culture of Khorezm in the middle of the 1st millennium BC is evidenced by the development of writing with Aramaic script. The earliest written documents in the ancient Khorezm language were found during excavations of the Koy-Krylgan Kala and dated to the 3rd-2nd centuries BC.
The inscriptions were made with ink or a sharp instrument on vessels and terracotta. One of them, carved into the wall of a hum, reads “Aspabarak” or “Aspabadak” (“Riding a horse”).