(also Khorezm, Khwarizm), a historical region and ancient state in Middle Asia that occupied most of the the lower Amu Darya basin. Kwarazm was first mentioned in the Behistun inscription of Darius I and in the Zoroastrian Holy book the Avesta; in addition, many scholars have identified Khwarazm with Aryamen Vaejo, referred to in the Avesta as the first Zoroastrian state.
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 the great historian and scientist 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. 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.