• Aaron

Searching for Sand Castles - Ancient Desert Fortresses of Uzbekistan

Early morning on the first day of our search for 2,000 year old fortresses of ancient Khorezm and Karakalpakstan


Photo above: One of my 'crack of dawn' photos - I like to take these while the family slumbers on. I'm always the first up, and early. It's when I make myself a coffee and get to work sorting photos and writing material for this blog. I can imagine some readers thinking how awful it must be to camp in the cold - it was around minus 10 degrees Celsius when this photo was taken! In all honesty it's not an issue for any of us, but only because the tent heater has worked reliably since we descended from Tajikistan's high Pamirs and resumed our adventures nearer to sea level. Fingers temporarily frozen whilst outside making coffee quickly thaw in time for me to begin typing, once back inside the cosy 20+ degree tent.

In this Blog Post:

  1. We venture out into Uzbekistan's deserts in search of ancient fortresses

  2. We explore the fortified desert city of Khiva, located on a silk road side branch

  3. Route update - I present a GPS track map showing our route across Uzbekistan's desert regions and out into Kazakhstan

  4. Could we be mistaken for a military 'Special Ops' unit?!

Ancient Desert Fortresses of Khorezm and Karakalpakstan

Nella poses for a photo before we head in to explore a fortress known as Jambas Qala

Across the region of Uzbekistan known as Khorezm, and also the autonomous Uzbek republic of Karakalpakstan, many ancient fortresses still stand amidst isolated desert landscapes. Some of these are more than 2,000 years old!! Uzbekistan's inhospitable deserts swelter in the summer sun and freeze in the winters. As you saw in the opening photo above, our visit in late November was in freezing conditions. In times long since gone by cities and civilisations existed out here and today more than 400 fortresses or ancient monuments are to be found scattered around these deserts. One could easily think this area must surely have captured a sizeable amount of archaeological interest, but in fact there has been relatively little. For a time the Soviets paid some attention, but even their interest dwindled and again these ancient fortresses were forgotten of and left alone. There are no restrictions on visiting these largely unexcavated sites and anyone able to research their GPS coordinates can freely do as we did and navigate between key sites. As usual, we found our 4wd the right tool for this purpose.

One should consider why people who lived in these ancient times needed to live in such heavily fortified citadels. Although the answer is fairly obvious - it was for their protection - simply knowing this doesn't quite drive home just how severe and brutal the constant threat they lived under really was. Of course, even the thick mud brick walls weren't enough to keep the Mongol hords out in the 13th century. But even more than a thousand years before they arrived some of the fortresses had already fallen victim to other powerful and violent nomads that existed long before Ghengis Khan's time.

I tracked down coordinates for quite a few ancient sites for us to visit. I won't try to show you images of them all here, rather I'll just present a small collection of the best of the images I captured at my two favourite sites.

Jambas Qala

Jambas (or Janbas) means 'side' or 'flank' and qala (or kala) means 'fort' or 'castle'. So Jambas Qala broadly translates to 'fortress on the side of a hill'. Built around the 4th century B.C, this is believed to be one of the earliest frontier fortresses of Khorezm; it was built soon after this region gained its independence from the first Persian Empire . Think about that for a moment... 4th century B.C... this fortress is more than 2,000 years old! Jambas Qala is believed to have once been home to a population of 2,000 people and may have been defended by both men and women. Historians believe that nomadic societies of the time militarily trained both sexes.

Parking the car outside Jambas Qala

This site is believed to have been inhabited only up until the 1st century A.D. There are a couple of competing theories as to what occurred here. One theory, based on the large number of metal arrow heads found inside the fortress, contends that a nomadic force breached a wall and the citadel within was destroyed in the ensuing fight.

Beany and Micky explore outside the fortress...
... and inside.
Here Sylwia and Nella are walking inside the defensive walls

In this image above the ground to the right is inside the fortress, which was once a citadel filled with residential buildings. Note the defensive slits in the well preserved outer walls. The elevated corridor formed between the inner and outer walls can still be walked almost right the way around the perimeter of this fortress. I didn't walk it all - it's a big site and I was too busy taking photos! - but Beany and Micky walked right around.

An archaeological expedition of 1938 investigated Jambas Qala and concluded that the fortress was once surrounded by many small agricultural settlements, complete with fields and irrigation systems. Whilst at the time of our visit it was distinctly desert terrain that we ventured through to reach all these fascinating sites, this wasn't always only arid desert. Indeed, this region was long ago considered fertile land - even subject at times to flooding. In the first millennium B.C. a lush desert oasis is believed to have existed across much of the area. Consequently, the views seen in my photos are likely very different from what inhabitants of ancient Khorezm and Karakalpakstan's fortified citadels would have woken up to 2,000 years ago.

Ayaz Qala I

This site features three fortresses in very close proximity, known as Ayaz Qala I, II and III. We explored them all, but here I will just present images just from my personal favourite of these - Ayaz Qala I, which we spent a night at!

Approaching Ayaz Qala I, with its great views of the surrounding desert from atop a hill

Ayaz Qala I was a defensive refuge built atop a large flat topped hill. The hill is only 100 metres high, but that's high enough to see far across the flat surrounding desert. This fortress was built amidst a desert oasis around the same time as Jambas Qala, in the 4th to 3rd century B.C. Similarly, it was part of a chain of fortresses built to defend agricultural settlements from nomad raids.

Long shadows in the above photo give away the fact that we arrived at this site late in the day. We decided to set up camp within the fortress walls so that we could resume our exploration of this site in the morning light of the following day. The setting sun produced truly amazing colours on the horizon, which I did my best to capture. In the second photo below you have to look closely to see the Pajero and our campsite.

And finally, the ice cold but stunning morning we awoke to:

Our campsite within the ancient citadel in the morning

I recognise that in a more developed country it could be frowned upon to make camp inside a site like this. As mentioned earlier, these fortresses have been left alone in the desert, without any protections/restrictions, indeed still largely unknown. We follow as environmentally sensitive and responsible practices as possible, taking only photos and leaving only footprints... maybe a puff of diesel particulate matter too... please, no one tell Greta Thunberg!

On this day, with a clear blue sky overhead, I was able to capture some great images of the many still impressive features to be found around this large fortress.

Corridors filled with more than a thousand years of sand drifts.

And finally, the best view of nearby Ayaz Qala II is as seen from Ayaz Qala I.

The impressive Ayaz Qala II overlooks the Kyzylkum Desert. This fortress is thought to have been built between the 6th to 8th centuries

On our way to Khiva we stopped to inspect Kizil Qala, a fortress from the 1st to 6th centuries A.D. that has been the subject of some restoration works - see below.


After a day and a half of exploring desert fortresses, and three nights spent camped in various locations out in the desert, we were ready for a dose of civilisation - this time in Khiva. I tend to think of Khiva as another silk road city along with Samarkand and Bukhara, though in fact it is smaller, not as old, and was located on a side branch of the silk road more so than along a major trading route. Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva are all sufficiently different that all three are of interest to visit.

Today tourists wander the passageways of Khiva's old town, set within its impressive high defensive walls, marvelling at some truly interesting architecture. But In the not too distant past it certainly wasn't such a pleasant experience here for foreigners, most of whom would have found themselves brought here to be sold in Khiva's bustling slave market! Bukhara also conducted a lucrative trade in slaves, but Khiva was at the forefront, operating the biggest slave trading market in all of Central Asia for three centuries. Khiva's slave trade thrived between the 16th and 19th centuries and I was surprised by just how recently it was active. Most of the slaves were Persians or Kurds, but as time went on Russians increasingly venturing near the region, or sailing on the Caspian Sea, became prized slaves who commanded premium prices at market - a Russian male was worth four camels! Most slaves were brought to market by fearsome Turkomen raiders, who made their living in this way. To be clear, this wasn't merely a sideline income for the brutal and merciless Turkomen tribes, but rather their adopted way of life. Shackled and often injured, captives were forcibly marched great distances through the desert towards Khiva. Those who survived the arduous journey, on a diet of little more than chopped straw, were then sold in Khiva's slave market. Even within the context of the brutality that was commonplace at the time in Khiva, the Turkomen raiders were distrusted and only tolerated there for the lucrative trade in slaves that they supplied.

One foreign visitor to Khiva in 1819 estimated there were 30,000 slaves, including 3,000 Russians. Although the increasing trade in Russians was causing genuine resentment in Russia, the British feared Russia would use this as a pretext to invade Khiva and thereby gain a foothold in Central Asia - much too close to home for the British Empire. It's a much longer story than I'll attempt to tell here, but in brief the British decided to get involved to secure the release of Russian slaves - not out of any compassion, but politically motivated to end any pretext the Russians would have for invading. The strategy worked, though delaying rather than preventing Russia's incursions into Central Asia and Afghanistan. Indian born British-Indian Army officer Richmond Shakespear was sent to negotiate with the brutal and merciless Khan of Khiva. In 1840 he succeeded in his mission when he marched 418 freed Russians into the Russian city of Orenburg, just north of the Kazakh border.

Having witnessed the misery of newly captured slaves first hand, Richmond Shakespear later wrote in his book:

"Well may they shed tears of anguish, for well they know their fate. Never in their surliest moods did they inflict such cruel treatment on their cattle as they themselves are now doomed to undergo from their fellow creatures; and all hopes of home, or wife, children, and kindred, have vanished like the dreams of the previous night. The rest of their life is doomed to be passed in slavery, amongst people indifferent to human suffering, and unacquainted with mercy".

Ref: Richmond Shakespear 1842 - 'A Personal Narrative of a Journey from Herat to Orenburg, on the Caspian, in 1840'.

We stayed in a lovely guest house within Khiva's old city walls. Following is a collection of our photos from around Khiva.

Walking atop the old defensive walls of the citadel

Route Update

Our GPS route across Uzbekistan and out into Kazakhstan, shown here on a satellite map

I usually present our recorded GPS routes overlaid on a terrain map, which better shows our mountain routes. But in Uzbekistan our routes were typically through flat and low altitude desert terrain, which I think is best presented on the satellite image shown above.

Our actual route has diverted from what was shown on my original plan - by this I am specifically referring to the dynamic map embedded on the '2019 Route' page, which depicted us going across Turkmenistan and Iran. As has been noted from the outset, the final route we would take out of Uzbekistan and into Europe was always the least certain section of this expedition and something I intended to work out nearer the time. Earlier on I would have deemed the route we have now taken, across Kazakhstan and Russia, the least likely alternative. The final decision reflects that we are running later than was originally envisaged and that Iran has had a fairly tense year from a security perspective. We still wish to visit Iran in future, when things settle down and when we have more time (perhaps as part of a future route starting in Europe and ending in South East Asia). My next most preferred route to Europe would have been to take a ship over the Caspian Sea, then avoid fighting along the Azerbaijan/Armenia border by venturing through Georgia. But it was too late in the season to take our desired route through now snowbound Georgia and we certainly wouldn't want to rush any of Georgia, Armenia or Turkey. Plenty has been left on the table for a future trip to this world region. I need not elaborate further here in relation to the route we actually took into Europe, as this will be covered in future posts to the blog.

5GoOverland... 'Special Ops' in disguise!?

One of four pickup trucks mounted with machine guns on the Afghan border

Someone responded to a photo I recently posted on Instagram in a way that left me speechless. The photo was this one - a scene we stumbled upon along the Tajikistan/Afghanistan border a few weeks back - it was a heavily armed Afghan police unit consisting of four pickup trucks mounted with machine guns. The Instagram comment that confounded me indicated someone believed we only got through that part of Tajikistan unscathed because we were likely mistaken for a military trained 'special ops' unit. The comment suggested that any nearby 'warlord' or 'terror group' that might have liked to take our 4wd would have deemed us a 'hard target'. I must admit that 6 year old Anastazja has been known to get rather feisty at times, and I can confirm that 4 year old Kornelia favours wearing her jacket in 'superhero cape' mode, but neither has thus far been mistaken for 'special ops'. No, I really don't think we could be mistaken for a 'special ops' unit... but what do you think?

Coming up Next:

We complete our journey across Uzbekistan and enter Kazakhstan at a somewhat confusing border checkpoint. But before we cross into Kazakhstan, and then into Russia, we had one further site of interest to visit in Uzbekistan's remote desert regions. Even if deemed to be one of the planet's worst environmental disasters, our visit to the now largely disappeared Aral Sea proves a fascinating experience.

If you've been enjoying reading this blog could I ask you one small favour - please share this with a friend or colleague whom you think might find this blog an interesting read.

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