Page 4 - Zoroastrianism in the Karakalpakstan Region
Zoroastrian Era Historical Sites Continued
Kazakl'i-yatkan / Akcha Khan Kala
[Earlier Karakalpak name: Akcha Khan Kala also spelt Axsha Xan Qala
The site lies just outside the north-western corner of the Tash-k'irman oasis, a former farming region that has now turned into a desert called the Aq Qum Sands. At one time the area was watered by northern arm of a branch of the Amu Darya river - the Akcha Darya river. The flow of water from the Akcha Darya river appears to have been erratic. It could have ceased to flow in the early centuries of the 1st millennium CE only to reform later. A network of canals, the earliest of which date back to the 5th century BCE, were dug to provide a continuous supply of water to the area and were in use until the 8th century CE. However, according to the account of some 10th century CE writers, despite the drying of the Akcha Darya river, the area was flooded by an overflow from the ancient Istemes Lake. At some point, the dried bed of the Akcha Darya formed the Aq Qum Sands desert which today extend for about 30 kilometres northeast Beruni. The northern part of the desert, called the Daganioldi Sands, is where Kazakl'i-yatkan is located. These sands, which are up to 15 metres deep in places, cover all but the excavated parts of the site up to the top of its outer walls. Consequently from a distance the kala looks like a part of the desert. In many ways, the drying up of the region is a blessing. The sands buried and preserved the ruins in a remarkable condition, and in a manner that could not have been possible with the destructive influences of water, agriculture and human carelessness. A portion of the Akcha Darya river survives as Akcha Ko'l lake north of the Aq Qum Sands.
The roof was supported by wooden columns that rested on stone column bases. The fortifications enclosed what a number buildings including possibly a mausoleum at the centre of the complex, a palace, temple and a temenos, located in the western corner. The temenos was an open rectangular area measuring about 90 by 120 metres, located to the left of the southern entrance. It was bounded on two sides by the outer walls of the citadel and on the other two sides by solid pakhsa walls. The temenos was a sanctuary or sacred space reserved for the political or religious aristocracy. There were also a series of outworks, or proteichisma, along the outer wall. These consisted of a raised and paved covered way and double ditches.
The Mausoleum / Fire Temple
The building thought to be a mausoleum or fire temple, was an imposing structure built at the centre of the upper enclosure on an elevated area, forming as it were, the focal point of the older fortress. The visible ruins consist of two 10 metre square towers, made from mud brick that had been linked by a central vault. A ramp leads up to the western side of the building which was reinforced by a buttress and mud brick fill. There are indications of a columned hall on the upper storey.
The temple-palace is located in the northwest corner (upper left in the site plan above-left) of the old enclosure. The design of the building shares common features with the grand hall in the Apadana at Persepolis, since the ceiling is supported by a forest of columns standing on carved stone bases. The presence of three fire altars within the building have led archaeologists to suggest that the space may have also been used as a Zoroastrian religious centre.
While the site has been extensively looted, the painted plaster was of no interest to the looters. Mural art and plaster reliefs have been found across the excavated areas of the building, and is perhaps the best preserved early mural art in Central Asia. Dating methods place a date of the late 1st century BCE for the paintings. Where walls are still standing, there are murals up to two metres in height, and where the walls have collapsed, some decorated plaster still lies where it fell on the floor. Some of the scenes show processions of humans and animals, while others are portraits. Some of the artwork are figurative and ornamental designs with vegetal motifs.
The excavation of the site has been a project of the Karakalpak-Australian Expedition, the result of a collaborative agreement between the Institute of History, Archaeology and Ethnography, Nukus (Karakalpak branch of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences) and the University of Sydney Central Asian Programme to investigate the Tash-k'irman Oasis and two sites: the massive fortified settlement of Kazakl'i-yatkan / Akcha Khan Kala and the fire temple complex at Tash-k'irman-tepe (see below). The lead individuals were Professor Vadim Yagodin from Nukus and Dr Alison Betts from Sydney. Hopefully, this expedition is using more care to preserve their findings than have previous Soviet-era expeditions. There are reports that the expedition has reburied some of the ruins in order to protect them from erosion. Archaeological expeditions in the area are sometimes more a curse than a blessing. While they uncover secrets from the past, when they leave, the ruins face the destruction caused by erosion and priceless treasures that the desert sands have protected for thousands of years are being lost within a decade or two.
Tash-K'irman-Tepe / Fire Temple
Six kilometres east-southeast of Kazakl'i-yatkan is a site that has been identified as a large fire temple complex. The complex features a central platform over 100 metres long, surrounded by pakhsa (compacted clay) walls and filled with sterile sand and mud bricks, the top level of which formed a pavement.
The structures constructed on top of the pavement included an intricate system of corridors and rooms, some of which contained altars. An unusual amount of ashes was found at the site. Most of the altars and chambers were open to the sky.
The altar was located in the centre of the east wall and faced a niche in the west wall. This room was deliberately deconsecrated and sealed in antiquity, after which the corridors surrounding the chamber were used as storage areas for ash.
Southern Fire Chamber. To the south of the main fire chamber was a far more elaborate set of rooms, which had originally been one large room with a formal altar. In the original plan, there was a single large room with an altar set in the south wall opposite an alcove in the north wall. The north wall had several recessed blind windows set about the central alcove. At some point, the north wall was remodelled to contain an alcove and two blind windows. In the next remodelling phase, the room was was divided by a narrow mud wall. The wall had a doorway in the centre, flanked by two engaged pakhsa (compacted clay) columns set on stone bases. The wall itself is pierced by circular ventilation holes. The altar consisted of a rectangular mud platform set on a low plinth. There is a decorative niche behind the altar with a series of recesses. A second recessed chamber was constructed to the east of the altar.
On the southern part of the platform are a series of open courts and rooms with a variety of storage areas. Some were found to contain ashes. To the north of the platform was yet another set of rooms with subsidiary altars and ash-filled corridors.
Koykrylgan Kala (also spelt Qoy Qirilq'an Qala) is an amazing and enigmatic site. Its circular shape is unique. Koykrylgan Kala is a 4th century BCE fortress, but what lay within the fortifications is a mystery. Today, the site lies in a remote part of the surrounding desert. In the 2nd century BCE, the complex was destroyed by fire, was rebuilt and remained in use until the 4th century CE.
At the centre of the circular complex lies a 10 m high two-storey circular building, with a diameter of 45 m, and a 7 m thick outer wall. 15m away from the central building were the outer fortifications. The entire building was surrounded by a moat.
Information sources and suggested reading:
» Archaeology in Soviet Central Asia by Grégoire Frumkin