LocationShılpıq is one of the most easily accessible monuments in Qaraqalpaqstan. It is situated on the right bank of the Amu Darya tuman, some 44km south east of No'kis and just 6km downstream from the pontoon bridge at Qipchaq (or Kipchak). As you drive west on the A380 from Biruniy towards No'kis, you first pass the Sultan Uvays Dag mountain range to your north. As the road descends from the mountains, about 88km from Biruniy, it turns to the right revealing a panorama of the Amu Darya valley and the plain of the Qizil Qum. The distinct hat-shape of Shılpıq stands out as the one prominent feature on the left hand side of the road.
The Shılpıq mount stands out like a beacon from the flood plain of the Amu Darya.
Shılpıq from the Amu Darya.
ExcavationsDuring the 19th century the monument of Shılpıq remained something of a mystery. At that time there was a medresseh adjacent to the mount - it was sketched by the prolific artist Nikolay Nikolayevich Karazin when he visited the region in 1873:
Etching of a sketch of "Chilpik hill and medresseh" by N. N. Karazin.
"North-east of Kiptjak on the eastern bank is a large medresse in a desolate place encircled by ditches near the river where the mullah-aspirants study the Koran withdrawn from the noise of the world. Close by the medresse on a high bank is a small fortress, only consisting of a high circular mud wall. This is the Kafir-Kala (Infidels' Castle) probably built by the Kalmuks who in the 12th century overran these regions under the command of Jenghis Khan."Shılpıq was first scientifically surveyed by Sergey Tolstov and members of his early Khorezm Archaeological Expedition in 1940.
Sergey Tolstov's survey of Shılpıq published in "Ancient Khorezm" in 1948.
ShılpıqAlthough Shılpıq looks like a small fortress or qala it was most probably a royal dakhma, or tower of silence, where the Zoroastrian priesthood exposed the corpses of Khorezm's ruling dynasty to the elements.
The sandy track leading to Shılpıq mount.
The emblem of Qaraqalpaqstan with the sun rising over Shılpıq.
A painted sign in No'kis declaring "Assalam Nawrıs", a peaceful Nawrıs holiday.
With the exception of Shılpıq , the right bank region of the Amu Darya to the north of the Sultan Uvays Dag is devoid of Bronze and Iron
Age archaeological sites. Because of the absence of any signs of human settlement, archaeologists have surmised that the whole region surrounding
Shılpıq may have had a long history as a sacred and restricted region.
Aerial view of the Shılpıq mount. Image courtesy of Google Earth.
Schematic plan of Shılpıq.
Shılpıq seems to have been used up to the time of the Arab invasion in the early 7th century. There are signs of a phase of rebuilding in the 7th to 8th centuries and later in the 9th to 10th centuries.
The official state religion of pre-Islamic Khorezm was Zoroastrianism, a religion that had developed from a much earlier cult of fire worship among the steppe nomads. Zoroastrians believed that a human corpse was both physically and spiritually polluting, defiling the sacred elements of fire, water and earth. The body of a deceased person was therefore placed in a raised location, known as a dakhma or "tower of silence", where it was exposed to the birds and to the sun until the bones had been completely cleansed. The practise was briefly referred to by Herodotus in the 5th century BC.
In Khorezm the skeletal remains were then placed in ceramic ossuary containers and buried so that they could not pollute the earth and vegetation. Ossuary burial was a special feature of Khorezmian Zoroastrianism. It also occurred in other parts of Central Asia such as Sogdiana and the Semirechye area, but it surprisingly never reached neighbouring Iran.
It was normal for the corpse to be left in the open for a period of a full year. It was thought that the west – the direction of the setting sun - was connected to death and this may be why the staircase and its associated pylon were built on the western side.
Only a limited number of ossuarys were buried at Shılpıq itself. Many more have been found at burial sites in the nearby foothills of the Sultan Uvays Dag, especially close to the once inhabited regions. Archaeologists have inferred that Shipiq may have therefore been reserved as a dakhma for the ruling dynasty. After all, the royal summer residence – Topraq qala – had been constructed during the 1st or 2nd centuries AD just 72km to the south-east. If so, the region would have been out of bounds to the ordinary populace, with access limited to the Zoroastrian priesthood.
What ritual ceremonies were conducted following the death of a Khorezmshah? Was the king brought down river by royal barge to the landing ramp at Shılpıq? What was the scene as his body was ceremonially carried up the staircase for the final ritual - the exposure of the corpse to the sun and the sky. Whatever occurred was concealed within the privacy of the enclosure crowning the top of the mount, well away from the prying eyes of the masses.
|Google Earth Coordinates|
|Place||Latitude North||Longitude East|
|Shılpıq||42º 15.840||60º 4.180|
This page was first published on 3 September 2008. It was last updated on 31 January 2012.
© David and Sue Richardson 2005 - 2018. Unless stated otherwise, all of the material on this website is the copyright of David and Sue Richardson.