The Palace Architecture of Uzbekistan of the Ancient Period

Issue #3 • 91

Shoira Nurmuhamedova,

Throughout the different periods of development of the Central Asian the palace architecture held a special place among various buildings. The beginning of their construction on the site of Kalaly-Gyr and Kuzely-Gyr in Khorezm dates back to the Achaemenid period. In the ancient times, similar structures were erected on the territory of Khorezm (Gaur-Kala, Toprak-Kala), as well as in Bactria (Ay-Khanum, Saksanokhur, Zartepa, Khalchayan), and Sogd (Yerkurgan). In the Middle Ages the number of palaces, “the high rank administrative centers” (1, p. 164) had increased. The most explored of them are the palaces in Panjakent, Budjikat, Kafir-Kala, and Warakhsha.
During the different historical periods the functions of the palaces were changing. Thus, in the ancient period the palaces represented a complex layout of buildings both of residential, administrative and religious purposes. They often had “no room for intimate family life of the ruler” (2, p. 149), but numerous halls that served as the site of the Royal dynastic cult (Toprak-Kala) and cult centers (Kalaly-Gyr (3), Kuzely-Gyr (4)) or isolated house chapels (Bactria). For example, in the shrines and temples of the palaces of ancient Khorezm were found the altars and podiums for the fire worshipping. If, for example, the type of structure like the High Palace of Toprak-Kala was of sacral character, the Northern Palace built next to it served as a residential palace (5, p. 290). The researchers explain such a functional distinction by the traditional division of powers in Khorezm to the sacral/legal and military/administrative ones. In the Yerkurgan Palace there were no living rooms, while “the private life of the Governor of Yerkurgan in III – V centuries was taking place in a vast Palace complex” (6, p. 94), which remains were discovered near the Palace. Among the similar buildings, for example, the administrative Palace at Ay-Khanum, combining in a single complex, in addition to the main premises, also the state treasury, as well as the Fortress Palace in Ayrtam, which mostly served as a defensive outpost (6, p. 94). Later, during the Middle Ages, palaces, which numbers had increased, were serving as the residences of the rulers and even typologically became similar to the fortified dwellings of the aristocracy. That is to say that in comparison with the previous period the household functions of the palaces already prevailed over the function of religious cult.
Excavations of ancient palaces show that they used to be erected not only in the significant giant cities (for example, at Ay-Khanum area of 170 hectares, the palace occupied 1/3 of its square), a vast area of which was predestined by their construction, but also in the urban settlements (Khalchayan and Saksanokhur – 5 ha, Zartepa – 17 ha, Kuzeli-Gyr – 25 ha). Presumably, one of the most ancient structures of this type is the palace at Kuzeli-Gyr (VI – V centuries BC), the former residence of local rulers (7, p. 141). Already fifty years later, at the end of the Achaemenid era, when Khorezm had become a separate satrapy, on the hill of the Left Bank Khorezm the Kalaly-Gyr fortress had been built (V – IV centuries BC) as the satrap residence of nearly 70 hectares, and, accordingly, – the palace, which construction was stopped during the finishing works. Considering that the palaces were primarily intended to serve the kings, in Khorezm itself “the institute of the royal power was developing in the post-Achaemenid era”. In this regard, we can assume that the architecture of the palatial buildings began to develop actively in the so-called Kangui period. The largest palace in the history of ancient Khorezm was built at Toprak-Kala (17.5 ha). It has become a major dynastic centre, where “the city itself had been built to serve two huge palaces” (5, p. 288). In Bactria several palatial buildings are known, one of which was built at Zartepa – the center of Angora irrigation area, which used to be a part of the Kushan State; at Saksanokhur and Khalchayan that “played the role of the large residence of Gheray lineage of Kushan”, as well as at Ay-Khanum, which in the future was supposed to become “the economic, administrative and cultural capital of the North-East Bactria” (8, p. 68). In Sughd, the largest city/community was Yerkurgan – “the mother of the cities of Karshi Oasis” (2, p. 24). If in the Middle Ages “the city palaces, intended for permanent residence of the rulers, used to be erected within the citadel for security purposes” (9, p. 44), in the ancient period the different versions of their arrangement were apparent. For example, the palaces at Kuzeli-Gyr and Toprak-Kala were located inside the citadel, the ones at Khalchayan and in Termez – in urban areas, at Yerkurgan – the palace and the temple were situated in the central part of the settlement.
It should be noted that the citadel, inside which the palaces or houses of the nobility used to be located, were built with respect to the direction of a favorable wind. The builders were erecting these edifices to be higher than the surrounding buildings, emphasizing their greatness and significance, as the elevation is important and sacred for many architectural monuments, such as pyramids in Egypt, ziggurats in Babylon, etc. Already in the architecture of Achaemenid period the palaces were situated at the elevated locations that, perhaps, was borrowed from the Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian building practices (10, p. 280). In the palaces of the Central Asia the highest and most venerated location point in the city used to be chosen for this purpose (Kuzeli-Gyr, Saksonokhur or Ay-Khanum, or an artificial platform used to be erected (10 m high at Saksanokhur and 14.3 m high at Toprak-Kalae), at which the building itself was constructed. It should be noted that the high platforms as the basement of the citadel and temples were typical of the architecture of the Ancient Orient. Due to the sacred character of the palace buildings, often associated with the cult of the ruling dynasty, the builders were conferring them a more secluded nature, surrounding them with impressive, often defensive walls: “Sustainable use of the layout techniques to create a closed space can be explained by the inherent desire to be protected from the enemies” (11, p. 87) and from the prying eyes. Such walls can be found, for example, in Saksanokhur Palace, where the ledges-vanes were reinforcing not only the walls, but the rectangular towers as well. Toprak-Kale Palace was also sought to isolate from the city by the mighty walls including a complex system of niches and ledges, although construction did not intend as a palace-fortress.
The main construction material of the buildings was the loess, which was made into bricks and Pakhsa. The bricks of all ancient regions were square in shape, “due to the requirement of the seam bandaging. For example, in the palaces of Khalchayan were used the bricks of the size 34 – 36×12 cm, in Yerkurgan – 40x40x10 cm, and in Toprak-Kala – 38-42×10 cm. Majority of the adobe bricks were marked with the signs which “suggests the existence of certain organizations, …engaged mostly in the manufacture of primary material” (12, p. 72).
The group consisting of the priests, artists, and architects was working on the project, the need for which was never in doubt. For example, craftsmen from different parts of the state were commissioned to the construction site of Toprak-Kala Palace (5, p. 22). As a building material the alabaster was also used both in the form of the adobe brick and for roofing, cornices and architectural details (at Kalaly-Gyr). The stone was used for the foundations of the columns (for instance, red sandstone in Khorezm or Marly limestone in Bactria). Due to the specifics of the main building material, one-of-a-kind building technique was developed as well. Basically, in all the regions of interest the overlaps were made of beams and were vaulted. The beamed ceilings were used in large rooms, while the vaulted ones for the narrow secondary rooms that were not playing the role of “the shaping element, but were used as a purely engineering component” (13, p. 37). Vaulted roofing was known both in Mesopotamian and Achaemenid architectures, and “in all of those areas where the presence of these two elements can be observed. Premises of such design are of auxiliary purpose, and they do not play the major role” (23, p. 145). A striking example of it is the Palace of Toprak-Kala (180×180 m), many of its 150 rooms which were covered by the barrel vaults of the size in span ranging from 1.8 m to 3.65 m, while all the bricks were of trapezoidal shape, which reduced the wedge-shaped seams. In such large halls-courts, as the Throne Room, where the rites and mysteries were taking place, the ceilings were flat and supported by two rows of columns. Such roofing was used also in the parade halls of the palaces in Kalaly-Gyr and in the hall of Kushan Gaur-Kala (24, p. 360).
The ceilings rested on the walls of impressive thickness: 2 m thick – on the outer walls of the Kalaly-Gyr Palace, from 2.3 m to 2.4 m in Saksanokhur Palace, 3.0 m – in Khalchayan, which was caused by the reason of providing the excellent thermal regime in the premises.
In the absence of a standard system of design for the palatial buildings in all of the historical and cultural regions of Uzbekistan, as well as for the Eastern Hellenistic architecture the court was a characteristic feature (as a necessary element of the southern dwellings) in the perimeter of the premises (26, p. 107 – 116). In the layout of the Palace on Kuzeli-Gyr, in addition to the large columned halls, a large courtyard with sofas and throne place is standing out. The stages of development of the layout structure of the Khorezmian palaces can be seen in the palaces in Kalaly-Gyr and Toprak-Kala. The palace at Kalaly-Gyr had two internal and two external courtyards. There were about thirty rooms in this building, set around the courtyards. The researchers have discovered six halls of oblong shape among them. The courtyard’s layout was applied in Toprak-Kala as well. Here it was of more complex nature (13, p. 36), combining both roofed rooms and internal courtyard premises.
The Bactrian palatial buildings were also of closed type: the Palace-Fortress of the Greco-Bactrian period at Ayritam had a patio amidst the rooms and corridors (14, p. 19); the Palace-Temple at Saksanokhur (which existed until the II-III centuries B.C.) also had a courtyard (27.7m x 27.7m), it was surrounded on three sides by a roundabout corridor (15, p. 163). One could enter the palace at Ay-Khanum through the large ceremonial courtyard (137m x 108m), surrounded by 118 Corinthian columns, while all the administrative and residential buildings were located to the south from the courtyard (16, p. 254).
A great role in the palatial structures played the columned terraces, typical of the Eastern Hellenistic architecture. They were also of different types. For example, in the Khalchayan Palace the six-column ayvan (terrace), secluded by blank walls from two sides, represented the composition of the main facade, behind which, the reception hall and the throne room were located along a single axis. The facade of this building was overlooking the yard of the Cour d’honneur type, encircled by the columns along its perimeter, which met the requests of the wealthy.
As noted above, the buildings in question towered over the city and the entire neighborhood, “in their model patterns … performed by highly professional architects” (17, p. 90). Emotional significance of these structures used to be achieved by their large dimensions, impressive with their integrity and conciseness. The ancient builders intentionally did not pay as much attention to the external design of the palaces as to their internal decoration. The beauty of the majestic buildings were hidden behind the thick walls and revealed in their interior. In the interiors of ancient palaces one can note the use of such forms of visual art as painting and sculpture that are subordinated to the architecture, which, however, was of limited nature – “only in the key elements of the dimensional and spatial composition of the buildings” (18, p. 43).
Thus, the palaces in the ancient times were playing not so much a civil, but religious role. Each of them was one-of-a-kind and was bearing the proofs of the active process of their construction, distinguishing them among other buildings by their monumentality, rationalistic consistency and innovation to a certain extent. Due to their monumental forms, the palaces have determined the images of the ancient cities, towering over all the surrounding buildings as a crucial component of the entire urban architectural composition.

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