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Khwarazm (khwärăzˈəm) or Khorezm (khərĕzˈəm), ancient and medieval state of central Asia, situated in and around the basin of the lower Amu Darya River; now a region, NW Uzbekistan. Khwarazm is one of the oldest centers of civilization in central Asia. It was a part of the Achaemenid empire of Cyrus the Great in the 6th cent. B.C. and became independent in the 4th cent. B.C. It was later inhabited by Indians who adhered to Zoroastrianism and used Aramaic script. Khwarazm was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th cent. and was converted to Islam. In 995 the country was united under the emirs of N Khwarazm, whose capital Urgench became a major seat of Arabic learning. The capital was a center of agriculture and trade and the residence of the ruling shahs. In the late 12th cent., Khwarazm gained independence from the Seljuk Turks. With independence it expanded its rule, and at the height of its power in the early 13th cent. ruled from the Caspian Sea to Bukhara and Samarkand. It was conquered in 1221 by Jenghiz Khan and was included in the Golden Horde. The development of caravan trade by the Mongols was profitable to Khwarazm. In the late 14th cent., Khwarazm, along with its vast irrigation system, was destroyed by Timur (Tamerlane). A century of struggle over Khwarazm between the Timurids, the descendants of Timur, and the Golden Horde was followed by the Uzbek conquest in the early 16th cent. Khwarazm became an independent Uzbek state and was known as the khanate of Khiva after Khiva became the capital. There are ruins of ancient forts, one of which dates back to the 6th cent. B.C.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



(also Khorezm, Khwarizm), a historical region and ancient state in Middle Asia that occupied the area of the lower Amu Darya. Kwarazm is first mentioned in the Behistun inscription of Darius I and in the Avesta; in addition, many scholars have identified Khwarazm with Aryamen Vaejo, referred to in the Avesta as the first Zoroastrian country. Major contributions to the study of the history of Khwarazm have been made by V. V. Bartol’d and N. I. Veselovskii, who were Russian Orientalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and by the Soviet historian A. Iu. Iakubovskii. A new phase in the study of the history of Khwarazm began in the 1930’s with the work of the Khorezm Archaeological and Ethnographic Expedition of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, which was headed by S. P. Tolstov.

The oldest archaeological remains of Khwarazm date from the Neolithic. Habitation sites of hunters and fishers of the Kel’teminar culture (fourth and third millennia B.C.) have been discovered in the Akcha Darya delta of the Amu Darya. By the Copper Age (early second millennium B.C.) the inhabitants were evidently familiar with primitive irrigation farming and the rudiments of stock raising—a level of development that marks the early stage of the Suiargan culture. When the culture of the local population came into contact with the Timber-Frame and Andronovo cultures, which were brought from the steppes of the southern Ural Region, the result was the Taza-Bag-iab culture, one of the various Bronze Age cultures of the steppe. In the mid-second millennium B.C. the farmers and stock raisers who were the bearers of the Taza-Bag-iab culture left in the Akcha Darya delta numerous settlements and the Kokcha-3 burial ground. Preserved in the settlements are remains of semisubterranean dwellings and traces of fields and a well-developed irrigation network; finds include grain mortars, bronze sickles, and knives.

The end of the second millennium B.C. saw the development of the Amirabad culture (ninth and eighth centuries B.C.). Irrigation farming was improved, and transhumant stock raising developed; the permanent settlements grew into large villages of up to 20 dwellings. In this period a culture based primarily on stock raising developed in the steppes northeast of the oasis, in the region of the lower Syr Darya; the bearers of the culture were closely linked with the oases, where land cultivation was carried on. This late Bronze Age culture gave rise to the culture of the Sako-Mas-sagetae tribes of the Aral steppes, which for many centuries maintained cultural ties with Khwarazm (seeTAGISKEN and UIGARAK). It has been suggested that the Khwarazmians, classified by Strabo as a Sako-Massagetae people, headed a tribal confederation in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. that included all Middle Asia and part of eastern Iran; it is possible, however, that the most highly developed centers of the confederation, called Greater Khwarazm, lay in the Murgab and Harirud river basins.

In the Khwarazm oasis, further improvements in irrigation farming, which was already based on large trunk canals, proved crucial to the subsequent development of the state of Khwarazm. In the mid-sixth century B.C., probably during the reign of Cyrus II, the Achaemenids annexed Khwarazm. At the turn of the fifth century B.C. the Greek author Hecataeus of Miletus became the first to write about the “city of Chorasmia” and about the land of the Khwarazmians; the fortified town of Kiuzeli-gyr and several other settlements date from this period.

According to Herodotus, Khwarazm, together with Parthia, Sogdiana, and Areia, made up the 16th satrapy of the Achaemenid state. An analysis of classical works suggests that under Artaxerxes II (404–358), Khwarazm became a separate satrapy, whose capital was probably the large fortress of Kalaly-gyr. By the time of Alexander the Great’s eastern campaign, Khwarazm was independent: in the spring of 328 its king, Farasman (also Fratafern), arrived at Alexander’s headquarters to conduct talks.

In the fourth and third centuries B.C., Khwarazm experienced an economic and cultural upsurge. Irrigation systems were expanded and improved, and handicrafts and art developed; in addition, new cities, such as the fortresses of Bazar-Kala and Dzhanbas-Kala, and religous centers, such as Koi-Krylgan-Kala, were built. At the end of the first millennium B.C., Khwarazmian culture clearly showed the influence of the steppe tribes, apparently as a result of the expansion of the Kangiui state.

The study of numerous coins from Kushana and of the style of certain works of representational art suggests that in the first centuries of the Common Era Khwarazm was a dependency of the Kushana kingdom. Excavations of the sacred palace in the citadel of Toprak-Kala, however, point to the existence of a local dynasty in the third century A.D. Documents inscribed on wood and leather that were found in the palace attest to the existence of slavery in Khwarazm. The dates on these documents refer to the “Khwarazmian Era,” which began in the mid-first century A.D.; archaeologists have traced the use of this method of reckoning up to the eighth century. The dominant religion in Kwarazm was a local form of Zoroastrianism, and fire temples have been found in some settlements.

The art of ancient Khwarazm, which in the Achaemenid period was influenced by Southwest Asian art, always retained some features of the culture of the Saka. In the fourth and third centuries B.C. indigenous and borrowed elements were synthesized to produce a distinctively Khwarazmian art. In the first centuries of the Common Era the representational art was influenced by Hellenistic culture, which was transmitted by the Parthians and Kushan.

The characteristic features of Khwarazmian architecture—its massive scale and sparing use of exterior ornamentation—derive from the general use of building materials made of loess clay, such as pakhsa (unfired puddled clay) and mud bricks. In addition to arches, beamed ceilings on columns were used. Buildings traditionally had a pot-shaped base that rested on a three-stepped square foundation. The cities, which were built on a rectangular plan, had buildings arranged in regular blocks along an axial street and were protected by walls with archers’ galleries and towers; an example is Kiuzeli-gyr. In some blocks and palace complexes there were temples and sanctuaries, with a paved area for the sacred fire.

Such palaces as Kalaly-gyr (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) and Toprak-Kala (second and third centuries AD.) had entrances with iwans (large hall or audience chamber), halls, and numerous rooms connected by corridors. The palace of Toprak-Kala stood on tall socles approximately 15–25 m high. Sepulchral architecture is represented by tower-like structures with a cruciform floor plan in the fortified town of Kiuzeli-gyr (fifth century B.C.) and the cylindrical temple-mausoleum of Koi-Krylgan-Kala (fourth and third centuries B.C.). Rural dwellings, usually built of pakhsa, had residential rooms and dependencies situated along a corridor or small courtyard.

Khwarazmian painting and sculpture, whose development was integrally linked to that of architecture, glorified fertility and deified the power of the king; typical examples of this art are the painted clay statues and bas-reliefs and the multicolored decorative paintings, executed in natural pigments, that were found at Toprak-Kala. A unique form of Khwarazmian art are the ceramic ossuaries in the form of statues (fifth century B.C. to the early Common Era), which present a stylized image of the deceased. Terra-cotta statuettes, fashioned throughout Khwarazm, depict goddesses of fertility in a style that reflects the tradition of the Southwest Asian kore; other terra-cotta statuettes include small figurines of horses and, more rarely, men in “Scythian” dress. Typical of the fourth and third centuries B.C. are ceramic flasks with bas-reliefs depicting mythological subjects.

According to al-Biruni, King Afriga ascended to the Khwarazmian throne in 305; he founded a new dynasty and built a citadel and residence at Kath, near modern Biruni. Al-Biruni listed the names of 21 Khwarazmian kings. Numismatic data and written sources have confirmed the accuracy of his list for the late seventh and the eighth century. From the fourth to sixth centuries feudalism developed, and a new culture took form. Known as the Afrigid culture, it remained the predominant culture of early Khwarazmian feudalism until the eighth century; its development was influenced considerably by the neighboring steppe tribes. The irrigation network shrank dramatically in this period, during which the main types of settlements were feudal estates, fortified feudal estates, and communal dwellings; all were grouped around relatively large feudal centers. Castles were fortified, with towers and donjons on pyramidal socles and with undulating, or “corrugated,” walls. Representational art from this period includes a series of Khwarazmian silver bowls (sixth to eighth centuries), on which are depicted kings, gods, and ritual scenes.

Khwarazm was conquered by the Arabs in 712. Al-Biruni states that the Arab military commander Qutayba turned over the rule of the state to a surrogate. The Afrigid dynasty, however, continued to rule in Kath until the tenth century. Urgench, the capital of Northern Khwarazm, was assuming increasing importance, and in 995 its ruler, Mamun ibn Mohammed, united Khwarazm. Under his rule and that of his successor, Mamun II ibn Mamun, Kwarazm once again flourished, and such noted scholars as al-Biruni and Avicenna resided in Urgench. Khwarazm was conquered by Sultan Mahmud al-Ghazni in 1017 and by the Seljuks in 1043.

In the late 11th century, a new dynasty—the Khwarazm-Shahs—came to power in Urgench. Atsiz (1127–56), continuing the policy of conquest established by his predecessors, subjugated all of northwestern Middle Asia. His grandson Tekesh ibn il-Arslan (1172–1200) freed Khwarazm from the Seljuks in 1194. During the reign of Tekesh’s son, Muhammad II Ala’-al-Din (1200–20), the state of the Khwarazm-Shahs reached its apogee of power: its boundaries extended from the northern coast of the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf and from the Caucasus to the Hindu Kush.

After the Arab conquest, artistic features common to the countries of the Caliphate gradually came to dominate Khwarazmian art (seeARABIC CULTURE). In the construction of large buildings, fired bricks were used in addition to the traditional pakhsa, mud bricks, and wood (frame structures). Medieval Khwarazmian architects developed original tentlike cupolas, such as those of the mausoleums of Urgench (12th century); in addition, they used patterned brickwork, carved terra cotta, and ganch for architectural decoration. The glazed pottery of this period is noted for its excellence.

The invasions of Genghis Khan led in 1220 to the dissolution of the state of the Khwarazm-Shahs, which initially became part of the Jochi Khanate and later was absorbed by the Golden Horde. In the second half of the 14th century Khwarazm experienced a renaissance. Magnificent structures with glazed ceramic ornamentation (mosaics of cut and inland tiles) were built in the capital city of Urgench; an example is Tiurabek-khanym, the mausoleum of the Sufi dynasty. The rulers of Khwarazm became virtually independent. It was evidently at this time that the turkizing of Khwarazmian was completed.

In 1388, Tamerlane destroyed Urgench and conquered all Khwarazm, for the control of which the Timurids and the Golden Horde fought for nearly a century. In 1505, Khwarazm was conquered by Sheiban Khan. An Uzbek dynasty descended from Jochi came to power in 1512 and ruled until the end of the 17th century; subsequently, the de facto rulers of Khwarazm were military commanders of the Kungrat, an Uzbek clan, who generally placed a Chingizid on the throne.

In the early 17th century Khiva became the capital of Khwarazm. The buildings of Khiva provide the clearest idea of the architecture and monumental decorative art of late feudal Khwarazm. The term “Khiva Khanate” came to be used in Russian and Western European sources; in the official local terminology, Khwarazm continued to be known as the state of Khwarazm, from which the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic, founded in 1920, derived its name.


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Bartol’d, V. V. “Svedeniia ob Aral’skom more i nizov’iakh Amu-Dar’ia s drevneishikh vremen do XVII v.” Ibid., vol. 3. Moscow, 1965.
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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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