In northwest Uzbekistan, Karakalpakstan and the Kyzylkum Desert operate as an autonomous republic. Here flatness of land and geopolitics always have gone hand in hand. Long ago, the Khwarezm region was an oasis fed by the Aral Sea, a delta worthy of myths and song. Protected by this sea to the north, a plateau to the west, and deserts to the east and south, this lowest-lying plain became the flourishing center of the great Iranian Khorezm kingdom of the first millennium. Thus began the delta's covetous status. The Khorezm built colossal fortresses, set upon steeps like power punctuation, their scale outwitting the human even in their ruin today. Silk road caravans passed through on their way to the Caspian, the Anatolia, the Balkans. "The Khwarazmshahs have brought peace to the world," wrote the peregrine Persian poet Shirwan Khaqani, who wandered the Middle East to know the "Gift from the Two Iraqs," meaning the "Persian Iraq" of Iran and the "Arabic Iraq" of Mesopotamia. Peace. There.
It was always complicated, of course; richness has that effect. It is impossible to imagine the current land—now the poorest in Uzbekistan and the region—as lush, but it was. Extensive irrigation supported thriving agriculture, and that brought the Mongols, Timur, and finally the Russians during their Great Game with the British in the nineteenth-century. The colossal walls of Khiva, seat of the Khanate, protected them for a time. So did the Khan's savagery. But the Russians eventually won after five campaigns, and with the rise of the USSR came cotton. They bled the sea dry to feed the basin, and what is left are walls and dust.
Karakalpakstan can be an independent state because it has nothing. The Aral Sea is gone, all is desert. In the shadow of the great fortress Kyzyl Kala, a peasant family has fortune in that their fields abut a stream. A pipe system flows. The ecological efforts involved are visible from between the Kala's great rock-slats. At the bottom of Topraq Kala, the crown jewel of the third-century AD Khorezm, a collective of yurts for tourists are staged. And Khiva is a staging ground itself of architectural magnificence, though the historical wall's use is now for storage and refuse instead of holding back the hordes. I climb Ayaz Kala, look down at the small fortress, and brace myself against the winds of time, of power, of sand.