Devkesken qala and Vazir
LocationThe remains of Devkesken qala and the old city of Vazir lie 101km west of No'kis and 62km west of Kunya Urgench in the Dashoguz welayat of northern Turkmenistan. They are situated at the south-western corner of a 30 or 40km-long finger-shaped peninsula of the Ustyurt plateau that projects out into the Qara Qum desert, almost reaching the dried-out channel of the old western arm of the Amu Darya that used to run into the Sarykamysh Lake. Today the course of the Darya Lyk flows 13km to the south of Devkesken qala. The qala, a medieval mosque and two mausoleums are dramatically located on the edge of the cliff edge or tchink of the Ustyurt plateau. The elevated square-shaped fort can be seen from a distance of 20km. Part of the excitement of visiting Devkesken is the journey through the bleak and empty desert wilderness that surrounds it.
Devkesken qala overlooking the barren Qara Qum.
ExcavationsSergey Tolstov and his Khorezm Archaeological-Ethnographical Expedition first investigated Devkesken in September 1946, identifying the surrounding ruins as the ancient town of Vazir. In October 1947 Tolstov used the Qara Qum at Devkesken as a base for conducting an aerial survey of the surrounding region and the Uzboy valley.
One of Tolstov's bi-planes overflying Devkesken in 1947.
Devkesken qala and VazirThe archaeological complex of Vazir extends for about 1 kilometre from east to west and for about 1¼ kilometre from north to south. It contains a number of separate parts but is probably best understood in terms of an upper town and a lower town.
Poor quality satellite image of Devkesken and Vazir. Image courtesy of Google Earth.
The upper town is situated on the cliff tops, some 30 metres above the surrounding plain, at a triangular cape of the Ustyurt plateau. It has a narrow trapezoidal shape, 850 metres long and 300 metres wide, with its south and west sides protected by the abrupt cliff face of the Ustyurt, known as the tchink, and with its north and east sides defended by massive walls, the ends of which reached close to the cliff edge. The walls, which even today reach some 5 to 8 metres in height, were reinforced by regularly spaced rectangular towers and one unusual large semicircular tower. Additional protection was provided by an outer ditch some 10 metres wide and 3 metres deep. The entrance to the town was in the middle of the eastern wall, defended by two flanking towers.
The partial remains of a southern defensive wall have also been discovered along the top edge of the tchink, along with a rounded tower and a second gate. The cliff edge is very unstable at this point and most of the wall has probably subsided. An inclined ramp, which appears to be based upon a natural feature, runs along the face of the tchink up to the location of the southern gateway. Within the upper town there was a fan-shaped system of roads, at least three wells and one underground dwelling.
In the far south-west corner of the upper town there is a rectangular citadel, roughly 100 by 75 metres in size, with an entrance in the middle of its eastern wall. Within this citadel, positioned right on the corner of the tchink, is a small fortified "palace", built of unfired mud brick with the upper parts of its windowless walls decorated with fluted pilasters. It almost looks like a natural part of the landscape. This is Devkesken or Dev Kesken qala, a local name that means the "castle carved out by demons", a very appropriate description.
To the north of the upper town is a second similarly shaped trapezoidal enclosure, the rabad or new town, with the tchink forming its western boundary and another defensive wall protecting its northern and eastern sides. The upper town and rabad are then enclosed to the north and east by a second, presumably later L-shaped rabad or suburb. Just outside the eastern wall of this suburb, close to the edge of the tchink, are the town necropolis and the remains of an iron foundry.
The lower town is situated just below and to the south of the upper town, at the foot of the tchink. Again roughly rectangular in shape and with rounded corners it is roughly 780 metres long and 480 metres from north to south. To the south west of the lower town on the opposite side of the river channel is the rectangular grid of a sizeable former park or formal garden.
We know little about Vazir's early history, although the town must have developed fast. The mosque and mausoleums seem to date from the late 15th or early 16th century. By now the whole region watered by the Darya Lyk seems to have become a thriving agricultural area. There were also two other large urban settlements in the vicinity of and under the control of Vazir according to the 17th century authors – Adaq or Yangi-Shah and Tersek. Tolstov speculated whether Adaq might correspond to the site of Aq qala, located below the south-eastern edge of the tchink, while Tersek might be Shemakha qala the ruins of a large medieval city some 10km away on the eastern flank of the Ustyurt, which like Vazir existed up to the 17th century. Nearby is Shirvan qala, the site of yet another ruined centre.
In 1510 the Persian Safavid army defeated and killed Shaybani Khan at Merv, proceeding onwards to attack Khorezm. Persian governors were briefly installed in the four major cities: Khiva, Hazarasp, Urgench, and Vazir. However the Sunni Khorezmian aristocracy greatly resented Persian Shi'ite rule and two Arabshahid Sultans, Balbars and Ilbars, organised a rebellion in Vazir. The local nobles closed the gates of the city, massacring the Persian rulers within. The following day Ilbars was proclaimed Khan. Three months later Ilbars Khan captured Urgench and then rallied the other royal princes for an attack on Khiva and Hazarasp.
Ilbars Khan ruled Khorezm from Vazir until his death in 1517, which sparked what would become a long-running feud between the two families of Ilbars and Balbars in Vazir and the rest of the Arabshahid family in Urgench. Initially one Khan was raised in Vazir and another in Urgench, although Urgench soon won out and resumed its role as the capital for the next two decades. Nevertheless the feud continued and thanks to interference from Bukhara, Qal Khan was enthroned in 1539 and reinstated Vazir as the capital. He was succeeded by his younger brother Aqatay Khan who also ruled from Vazir. Aqatay was finally killed in 1556 during an attempt to put down a family rebellion at Urgench. His death brought to an end Vazir's brief claim to fame as the capital of Khorezm.
The princely dispute was resolved with the appointment of Dost Muhammad as Khan, the first leader of Khorezm to choose to rule from Khiva.
It was during Dost Muhammad's brief reign, in 1558, that Vazir was visited by an Elizabethan Englishman and sea captain named Anthony Jenkinson. Jenkinson had been financed by English entrepreneurs to explore an overland route to China, and was extremely well prepared for his trip with good knowledge of the route he intended to follow. After arriving on the coast of Mangishlaq he spent three weeks crossing the Ustyurt plateau to reach Vazir, which he referred to as "Sellizure", a corruption of Shahr-i Vazir (meaning the town of the Vizier). Here he was summoned to meet the "king" called Azim Khan, a reference to Hajjim Muhammad Khan, one of Dost Muhammad's cousins. The "king" entertained Jenkinson in his castle at the top of the hill, which Jenkinson describes as very basic, built of earth and not strong, and fed him on wild horsemeat and mares' milk.
Jenkinson recorded that the local people were poor and had little trade or merchandise, although the agricultural lowland to the south of the castle seemed to be very productive and was being used to grow succulent fruits, including melons (which he refers to as dinie) and sweet watermelons (karbus). He also astutely observed that the only water available was drawn from the Oxus, [the Amu Darya, now the Darya Lyk], which was in the process of drying up:
" ... in short time all that land is like to be destroyed, and to become a wilderness for want of water, when the river of Oxus shall fail."The Amu Darya was in the process of changing its direction of flow – away from Vazir and the Sarykamysh and back towards the Aral Sea. According to the ruler and writer Abu'l Ghazi Khan, this change took place 30 years before his birth, in other words in 1573, while the 19th century writer Munis says it happened in 1578.
" ... he is little obeyed saving in his own dominion, and where he dwelleth: for every one will be king of his own portion, and one brother will seeketh always to destroy another, having no natural love among them, by reason that they are begotten of divers women, and commonly they are the children of slaves, either Christian or Gentiles, which the father doeth keep as concubines, and every Khan and Sultan hath at least 4 or 5 wives, besides young maidens and boys, living most viciously: ... ."Jenkinson never visited Dost Muhammad in Khiva, but shortly after his departure for Bukhara, the latter was overthrown by the governor of Vazir, Hajjim Muhammad, who chose to rule Khorezm from Urgench.
|Google Earth Coordinates|
|Place||Latitude North||Longitude East|
|Devkesken qala||42º 17.230||58º 23.750|
|Vazir Upper Town||42º 17.325||58º 23.990|
|Vazir Rabad||42º 17.482||58º 24.035|
|Vazir Outer Rabad||42º 17.581||58º 23.230|
|Vazir Lower Town||42º 17.163||58º 24.030|
This page was first published on 3 September 2008. It was last updated on 30 January 2012.
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