The Khwarazm oasis on a satellite image from 2009

Khwarezm, or Chorasmia, is a large oasis region on the Amu Darya river delta in western Central Asia, which borders to the north the (former) Aral Sea, to the east the Kyzylkum desert, to the south the Karakum desert and to the west the Ustyurt Plateau. It was the center of the (indigenous) Khwarezmian civilization and a series of kingdoms, whose capitals were (among others) Kath, Gurganj (the modern Köneürgenç) and, from the 16th century on, Khiva. Today Khwarezm belongs partly to Uzbekistan and partly to Turkmenistan.


Names and etymology

Khwarezm has been known also as Chorasmia, Khwarezmia, Khwarizm, Khwarazm, Khorezm, Khoresm, Khorasam, Harezm, Horezm, and Chorezm.[1]

In Avestan the name is Xvairizem, in Old Persian Huwarazmish, in Persian خوارزم Khvārazm, in Arabic خوارزم Khwārizm, in Chinese 花剌子模 Huālázǐmó, in Uzbek Xorazm.

The Arab geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi in his Muʿǧam al-buldan wrote that the name was a compound (in Persian) of khwar (خور), and razm (زم), referring to the abundance of cooked fish as a main diet of the peoples of this area.[2]

C.E. Bosworth however, believes the Persian name to be made up of (خور) meaning "the sun" and (زم) meaning "Earth", designating "the land from which the sun rises".[3] Another view is that the Iranic compound stands for "lowland" from kh(w)ar "low" and zam "earth, land.".[1] Khwarezm is indeed the lowest region in Central Asia (except for the Caspian Sea to the far west), located on the delta of the Amu Darya on the southern shores of the Aral Sea. Various forms of khwar/khar/khor/hor are commonly used also in the Persian Gulf to stand for tidal flats, marshland, or tidal bays (e.g., Khor Musa, Khor Abdallah, Hor al-Azim, Hor al-Himar, etc.)

The name also appears in Achaemenid inscriptions as Huvarazmish, which is declared to be part of the Persian Empire.

Some of the early scholars believed Khwarezm to be what ancient Avestic texts refer to as Airyanem Vaejah ("Ariyaneh Waeje"; later Middle Persian Iran vij).[4] These sources claim that Old Urgench, which was the capital of ancient Khwarezm for many years, was actually Ourva, the eighth land of Ahura Mazda mentioned in the Pahlavi text of Vendidad.[5] However, Michael Witzel, a researcher in early Indo-European history, believes that Airyanem Vaejah was located in what is now Afghanistan, the northern areas of which were a part of ancient Khwarezm and Greater Khorasan.[6] Others, however, disagree. University of Hawaii historian Elton L. Daniel believes Khwarezm to be the "most likely locale" corresponding to the original home of the Avestan people , and Dehkhoda calls Khwarezm "مهد قوم آریا" ("the cradle of the Aryan tribe").[7]

Legendary history

The native Chorasmian (an Iranian language)[8][9][10] speaker Biruni says that the land was first colonised 980 years before Alexander the Great, sc. before the Seleucid era, i.e. in 1292 B.C., when the hero of Iranian epic Siyavash came to Khwarezm; his son Kay Khusraw was established on the throne 92 years later, in 1200 B.C. He starts giving names only with the Afrighid line of Khwarazmshahs, having placed the ascension of Afrighids in 616 of the Seleucid era, i.e. in 305 A.D.

Early people

Like Soghdiana, Khwarzem was an expansion of the BMAC culture during the Bronze Age which later fused with indo-Iranians during their migrations around 1000 BCE. Early Iron Age states arose from this cultural exchange. List of Successive cultures in Khwarzem region 3000-500 BCE:[11]

  • Keltiminar Culture c. 3000 BCE
  • Suyargan Culture c 2000 BCE
  • Tazabag’yab Culture c. 1500 BCE
  • Amirabad Culture c 1000 BCE
  • Saka c. 500 BCE

During the final Saka phase, there were about 400 settlements in Khwarzem.[12] Ruled by the native Afighid Dynasty. It was at this point that Khwarzem entered the historical record with the Acheminide expansion(see also: Kyuzeli-gyr).

Khwarezmian language and culture

An East Iranian language, known as Khwarezmian language, was spoken in Khwarezm proper (i.e., the lower Amu Darya region) until soon after the Mongol invasion, when it was replaced by Turkic languages.[13][14][15][16] It was closely related to Sogdian. Other than the astronomical terms used by the native Iranian Chorasmian speaker Biruni,[10] our other sources of Khwarezmian include Zamakhshari's Arabic-Persian–Khwarezmian dictionary and several legal texts that use Khwarezmian terms to explain certain legal concepts.

In the very early part of its history, the inhabitants of the area were from Iranian[17][18] stock and they spoke an Eastern Iranian language called Khwarezmian. The famous scientist Biruni, a Khwarezm native, in his Athar ul-Baqiyah (الآثار الباقية عن القرون الخالية) (p. 47), specifically verifies the Iranian origins of Khwarezmians when he wrote (in Arabic):

"أهل خوارزم [...] کانوا غصناً من دوحة الفرس"


"The people of the Khwarezm were a branch from Persian tree."

The area of Khwarezm was under Afrighid and then Samanid control until the 10th century before it was conquered by the Ghaznavids. The Iranian Chorasmian language and culture felt the pressure of Turkic infiltration from northern Khwarezm southwards, leading to the disappearance of the original Iranian character[10] of the province and its complete turkicisation today, but Khwarezmian speech[10] probably lasted in upper Khwarezm, the region round Hazārasp, till the end of the 8th/14th century.[10]

The Iranian Chorasmian language survived for several centuries after Islam until the Turkification of the region, and so must some at least of the culture and lore of ancient Khwarezm, for it is hard to see the commanding figure of Biruni, a repository of so much knowledge, appearing in a cultural vacuum.[10]

Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid era

During the Achaemenid period, Khwarezm was governed by Smerdis/Bardiya along with Bactriana, Carmania, and the other eastern provinces of the empire.[19] And the Persian poet Ferdowsi mentions Persian cities like Afrasiab and Chach in abundance in his epic Shahnama.

Silver tetradrachm of the Khwarezm king Artav (Artabanos), 1st-2nd century CE.
Obv: Bust of king, with Nike behind crowning him.
Rev: King on horseback. Blundered Greek legend IUIUEWIE MELUI EILUILU. Tamgha to the left.

When the king of Khwarezm offered friendship to Alexander the Great in 328 BC, Alexander's Greek and Roman biographers imagined the nomad king of a desert waste, but 20th century Russian archeologists revealed the region as a stable and centralized kingdom, a land of agriculture to the east of the Aral Sea, surrounded by the nomads of Central Asia, protected by its army of mailed horsemen, in the most powerful kingdom northwest of the Amu Darya (the Oxus River of antiquity). The king's emissary offered to lead Alexander's armies against his own enemies, west over the Caspian towards the Black Sea (e.g. Kingdom of Iberia and Colchis). Alexander politely refused.

Although largely independent during the Arsacid and Seleucid dynasties, it is known that Khwarezm and neighboring Bactriana were part of the Sassanid empire during the time of Bahram II. Yaqut al-Hamawi verifies that Khwarezm was a regional capital of the Sassanid empire. When speaking of the pre-Islamic "Khosrau of Khwarezm" (خسرو خوارزم), or post-Islamic "Amir of Khwarezm" (امیر خوارزم), or even the Khwarezmid Empire, sources such as Biruni and Ibn Khordadbeh and others clearly refer to Khwarezm as being part of the Iranian (Persian) empire.[20] The fact that Pahlavi script which was used by the Persian bureaucracy alongside Old Persian, passed into use in Khwarezmia where it served as the first local alphabet about the AD 2nd century, as well as evidence that Khwarezm-Shahs such as ʿAlā al-Dīn Tekish (1172–1200) issued all their orders (both administrative and public) in Persian language (see A. A. Simonov), corroborates Biruni's claims.


The Afrighids (Persian: آفریغیان-آل آفریغ) were a native Chorasmian (i.g. Iranian) [8][21][22] dynasty which ruled over the kingdom of Khwarezm (according to Biruni) from 305 until 995 A.D. The resurgent kingdom was established around Khiva in 410 by Avar tribes possibly under Hephthalites influence. T

In 712 Khwarezm was conquered by the Arab Umayyads. It thus came vaguely under Muslim suzerainty, but it was not until the end of the eight century or the beginning of the 9th century that an Afrighid Shah was first converted to Islam appearing with the popular convert’s name of ʿAbdallah (slave of God). In the course of the 10th century, when some geographers such as Istakhri in his Al-Masalik wa-l-mamalik mention Khwarezm as part of Khorasan and Transoxiania, the local family of the Ma'munids who were based in Gurganj, on the left bank of the Amu Darya grew in economic and political importance due to trade caravans. In 995, they violently overthrew the Afrighids of Kath and themselves assumed the traditional title of Khwarazm-Shah. Briefly, the area was under Samanid suzerainty, before it passed to Mahmud of Ghazna in 1017. From then on, Turco-Mongolian invasions and long rule by Turco-Mongol dynasties supplanted the Iranian character of the region[22] although the title of Khwarezm-Shah was maintained well up to the 13th century.[22]

Khwarezmid Empire

Political map of Asia, Europe and Africa around 1200 AD showing the Khwarezmid Empire in dark green

In the 12th century, the Khwarezmid Empire was founded and, in the early 13th century, ruled over all of Persia under the Shah ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Muhammad II (1200–1220). In 1141, Yelü Dashi won the battle of Qatwan against a Seljuk army commanded by Sanjar, as a result, Khwarezm became a vassal of the Kara-Khitan Khanate.[23] Then from 1218 to 1220 Genghis Khan and his Mongols launched the invasion of Central Asia and destroyed the Kara-Khitan Khanate and the Khwarezmid Empire, including the splendid capital of the latter, Gurganj.

"The Korasmins (i.e. Khwarezmids), a fierce, uncivilized race, thus driven from their homes, spread themselves, in their turn, over the south of Asia with fire and sword, in search of a resting place. In their impetuous course they directed themselves towards Egypt, whose Sultan, unable to withstand the swarm that had cast their longing eyes on the fertile valleys of the Nile... sent emissaries to Barbaquan, their leader, inviting them to settle in Palestine... they came, burning and slaying, and were at the walls of Jerusalem... they tore down every vestige of Christian faith..."[24]

"The Sultans of Syria preferred the Christians to this fierce horde for their neighbours. Even the Sultan of Egypt began to regret the aid he had given to such barbarous foes, and united with those of Emissa and Damascus to root them from the land. The Korasmins amounted to but twenty thousand men, and were unable to resist the determined hostility... The Sultans defeated them in several engagements, and the peasantry rose up in masses to take vengeance upon them. No mercy was shown them in defeat. Barbaquan was slain..."[24]

Modern Age

Khwarezm (Karasm), on a 1734 French map. The Khanate on the map surrounds the Aral Sea (depicted as much smaller than it actually was in those days) and includes much of the today's Kazakhstan's and Turkmenistan's Caspian coast

The region of Khwarezm was split between the White Horde and Jagatai Khanate, and its rebuilt capital Gurganj (by now known as "Urganch") again became one of the largest and most important trading centers in Central Asia. In the mid-14th century Khwarezm gained independence from the Golden Horde under the Sufid dynasty. However, Timur regarded Khwarezm as a rival to Samarkand, and over the course of 5 campaigns, he destroyed Urganch completely in 1388. This together with a shift in the course of the Amu-Darya caused the center of Khwarezm to shift to Khiva, which became in the 16th century the capital of the Khanate of Khiva, ruled over by the dynasty of the Arabshahids.

The discovery of gold on the banks of the Amu Darya during the reign of Russia's Peter the Great, together with the desire of the Russian Empire to open a trade route to the Indus (modern day Pakistan), prompted an armed trade expedition to the region, led by Prince Alexander Bekovich-Cherkassky, which was repelled by Khiva.

It was under Tsars Alexander II and Alexander III that serious efforts to annex the region started. One of the main pretexts to Russian military expeditions to Khiva was to free Russian slaves in the khanate and to prevent future slave capture and trade.

Early in The Great Game, Russian interests in the region collided with those of the British Empire in the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1839.

The Khanate of Khiva was gradually reduced in size from Russian expansion in Turkestan (including Khwarezm) and, in 1873, a peace treaty was signed that established Khiva as a quasi-independent Russian protectorate.

After the Bolshevik seizure of power in the October Revolution, a short lived Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (later the Khorezm SSR) was created out of the territory of the old Khanate of Khiva, before in 1924 it was finally incorporated into the Soviet Union, with the former Khanate divided between the new Turkmen SSR and Uzbek SSR.

The larger historical area of Khwarezm is further divided. Northern Khwarezm became the Uzbek SSR, and in 1925 the western part became the Turkmen SSR.Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, these became Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan respectively. Southern Khwarezmia is today a part of Iran. Many of the ancient Khwarezmian towns are situated currently in Xorazm Province, Uzbekistan.

Today, the area that was Khwarezm has a mixed population of Uzbeks, Karakalpaks, Turkmens, Persians, Tatars, and Kazakhs.

Khwarezm in Persian literature

Khwarezm and her cities appear in Persian literature in abundance, in both prose and poetry. Dehkhoda for example defines the name Bukhara itself as "full of knowledge", referring to the fact that in antiquity, Bukhara was a scientific and scholarship powerhouse. Rumi verifies this when he praises the city as such:

Other examples illustrate the eminent status of Khwarezmid and Transoxianian cities in Persian literature in the past 1500 years:

ای بخارا شاد باش و دیر زی
"Oh Bukhara! Joy to you and live long!
شاه زی تو میهمان آید همی
Your King comes to you in ceremony."

عالم جانها بر او هست مقرر چنانک
"The world of hearts is under his power in the same manner that
دولت خوارزمشاه داد جهان را قرار
The Khwarazmshahs have brought peace to the world."
---Khaqani Shirvani

یکی پر طمع پیش خوارزمشاه
"A greedy one went to Khwarezm-shah"
شنیدم که شد بامدادی پگاه
"early one morning, so I have heard

Yaqut al-Hamawi, who visited Khwarezm and its capital in 1219, wrote: "I have never seen a city more wealthy and beautiful than Gurganj". The city, however, was destroyed during several invasions, in particular when the Mongol army broke the dams of the Amu Darya which flooded the city. He reports that for every Mongol soldier, four inhabitants of Gurganj were killed. Najmeddin Kubra, the great Sufi master, was among the casualties. The Mongol army that devastated Gurganj was estimated to have been near 80,000 soldiers. The verse below refers to an early previous calamity that fell upon the region:

آخر ای خاک خراسان داد یزدانت نجات
"Oh land of Khorasan! God has saved you,
از بلای غیرت خاک ره گرگانج و کات
from the disaster that befell the land of Gurganj and Kath
---Divan of Anvari

Nevertheless the beauty and fame of Bukhara and Samarqand are well known in Persian literature. The following famous cosmopolitan ode perhaps best provides a notable example of this:

اگر آن ترک شیرازی به دست آرد دل ما را
"If that Shirazi Turk can win my heart,
به خال هندویش بخشم سمرقند و بخارا را
I would sell even the jewel cities of Samarqand and Bukhara for the Indian mole on her cheek."

Legend has it that Tamerlane sent for Hafiz regarding this verse and asked angrily: "Are you he who was so bold as to offer my two great cities Samarkand and Bukhara for the mole on thy mistress's cheek?" Hafiz then replied, "Yes, sire, and it is by such acts of generosity that I have brought myself to such a state of destitution that I have now to solicit your bounty." Tamerlane is written to have been so pleased at his ready wit that he dismissed the poet with a handsome present.

Notables of Khwarezm

Faravahar background
History of Greater Iran
until the rise of modern nation-states

The following either hail from Khwarezm, or lived and are buried there:

See also


  1. ^ a b Encyclopedia Iranica, Chorasmia, Yuri Aleksandrovich Rapoport
  2. ^ Yaqut al-Hamawi, Mu'jem al-baladan, Vol2, p395
  3. ^ C. E. Bosworth, The Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol IV, 1978. p. 1061
  4. ^ Bahram Farahvoshi. Iranovich, Tehran University Press. 1991. p. 8
  5. ^ Musa Javan. Tarikh-i Ijtima'i Iran-i Bastan (The social history of ancient Iran), 1961. p. 24
  6. ^ Michael Witzel. "The Home of the Aryans." (.pdf)
  7. ^ Elton L. Daniel, The History of Iran. 2001. ISBN 0-313-30731-8. p.28
  8. ^ a b ” ĀL-E AFRĪḠ” IN Encyclopedia Iranica by C.E.Bosworth
  9. ^ L. Massignon, "Al-Biruni et la valuer internationale de la science arabe" in Al-Biruni Commemoration Volume (Calcutta, 1951), pp. 217–219. excerpt: In a celebrated preface to the book of Drugs, Biruni says: "It is through the Arabic language that the sciences have been transmitted by means of translations from all parts of the world. They have been enhanced by the translation into the Arabic language and have as a result insinuated themselves into men's hearts, and the beauty of this language has commingled with these sciences in our veins and arteries. And if it is true that in all nations one likes to adorn oneself by using the language to which one has remained loyal, having become accustomed to using it with friends and companions according to need, I must judge for myself that in my native Chorasmian, science has as much as chance of becoming perpetuated as a camel has of facing Kaaba."
  10. ^ a b c d e f Bosworth, C.E. "Ḵh̲ W Ārazm." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2007. Brill Online. Accessed at 10 November 2007 <>
  11. ^ MacKenzie, D.N. (1996). "Encyclopedia Iranica". CHORASMIA. Encyclopedia Iranica. Retrieved 2009. 
  12. ^ MacKenzie, 1996
  13. ^ Encyclopedia Iranica, "The Chorasmian Language", D.N.Mackenzie
  14. ^ Andrew Dalby, Dictionary of Languages: The definitive reference to more than 400 languages, Columbia University Press, 2004, pg 278
  15. ^ MacKenzie, D. N. "Khwarazmian Language and Literature," in E. Yarshater ed. Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. III, Part 2, Cambridge 1983, pp. 1244–1249
  16. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, "Iranian languages" (Retrieved on 29 December 2008)
  17. ^ Encyclopædia Iranica, "CENTRAL ASIA: The Islamic period up to the mongols", C. Edmund Bosworth: "In early Islamic times Persians tended to identify all the lands to the northeast of Khorasan and lying beyond the Oxus with the region of Turan, which in the Shahnama of Ferdowsi is regarded as the land allotted to Fereydun's son Tur. The denizens of Turan were held to include the Turks, in the first four centuries of Islam essentially those nomadizing beyond the Jaxartes, and behind them the Chinese (see Kowalski; Minorsky, "Turan"). Turan thus became both an ethnic and a geographical term, but always containing ambiguities and contradictions, arising from the fact that all through Islamic times the lands immediately beyond the Oxus and along its lower reaches were the homes not of Turks but of Iranian peoples, such as the Sogdians and Khwarezmians."
  18. ^ C.E. Bosworth, "The Appearance of the Arabs in Central Asia under the Umayyads and the establishment of Islam", in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. IV: The Age of Achievement: AD 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century, Part One: The Historical, Social and Economic Setting, edited by M. S. Asimov and C. E. Bosworth. Multiple History Series. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1998. excerpt from page 23: "Central Asia in the early seventh century, was ethnically, still largely an Iranian land whose people used various Middle Iranian languages.
  19. ^ Huart, Clement. Ancient Persia and Iranian Civilization. 1972. ISBN 0-7100-7242-2. p. 46
  20. ^ Nasser Takmil Homayoun. Kharazm: What do I know about Iran?. 2004. ISBN 964-379-023-1. p.35
  21. ^ C.E. Bosworth, “The Ghaznavids” in History of Civilization: Central Asia in History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Volume IV: The Age of Achievement : A.D. 750 to the End of the Fifteenth Century : Part One : The Historical Social and Economic Setting/edited by M.S. Asimov and C.E. Bosworth. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1999, 485 pages. (Vol. IV, Pt. I). ISBN 81-208-1595-5. Excerpt from page 101: “The ancient Iranian kingdom of Khwarazm had been ruled until 995 by the old established line of Afrighids of Kath, but control subsequently passed to the new line of Khwarazm Shahs, the Ma'munids of Gurganj”
  22. ^ a b c Clifford Edmund Bosworth, The New Islamic Dynasties: A Chronological and Genealogical Manual, Columbia University, 1996.
  23. ^ Biran, Michel, The empire of the Qara Khitai in Eurasian history, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), 44.
  24. ^ a b Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay, p221
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, pp 308ff etc.
  • Shir Muhammad Mirab Munis & Muhammad Reza Mirab Agahi Firdaws al-Iqbal. History of Khorezm (Leiden: Brill) 1999 Trans & Ed. Yuri Bregel
  • Yuri Bregel "The Sarts in the Khanate of Khiva" Journal of Asian History Vol.12 1978 pp121–151

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