the old capital of Chorasmia, situated by the Oxus/Āmu Daryā river. Kāṯ owes both its glory and demise to the Oxus, an unending source of sustenance as well as destruction in human history.


KĀṮ (or Kāt, Kat), the old capital of Chorasmia, situated by the Oxus/Āmu Daryā river, near its delta at the Aral Sea. Like the other large urban centers of Chorasmia, Kāṯ owes both its glory and demise to the Oxus, an unending source of sustenance as well as destruction in human history. While silt deposits from the river made the surrounding land fertile, and its water, through a network of man-made irrigation canals, has aided agricultural growth on vast scales since ancient times, at the same time, the nearly flat alluvial plain on which the lower course of the Oxus flows caused the riverbed and adjoining canals to shift over time, a disadvantage for the towns built on or near the lower Oxus. Accordingly, Kāṯ was relocated due to flooding at various times. One may infer from historical reports that such a natural shift was in progress during the 10th century, when Kāṯ was at the zenith of its history; this is the only period for which we find numerous reports on the city.

No historical or archeological record exists on Kāṯ from the pre-Islamic period, when the Afrighid dynasty (see ĀL-E AFRIḠ) of Ḵˇārazmšāhs is assumed to have ruled Chorasmia from their capital, Kāṯ. There are several archeological sites nearby, and the closest excavation hitherto, Toprak-kala, is some 25 miles north of Kāṯ (see CHORASMIA i). According to a Chorasmian tradition related by Abu Rayḥān Biruni (Āṯār, tr., p. 41), one of the Afrighid kings, whose reign marked the beginning of the Chorasmian calendar (616 of the “era of Alexander,” i.e., the Seleucid era, corresponding to 305 CE, as reckoned by Biruni), built his castle at Fir on the outskirts of the city of Ḵˇārazm (i.e., Kāṯ); this citadel of clay and tiles consisted of three concentric forts, in the middle of which rose the royal palaces. Fir’s fortifications were so high that they would be visible from a distance of ten miles or more (Biruni, Āṯār, tr., p. 41). The citadel Fir (or Fil) was one of the three parts of the town during Arab invasions of Chorasmia (which began ca. 44/663 and culminated in 93/712; see Yaʿqubi, II, pp. 222, 252; Balāḏori, p. 423; Ṭabari, II/2, p. 1238; tr., XXIII, pp. 186-89; cf. Karāmati, forthcoming). Arab coins dated 56/676 and 79/699 bear the toponym Fil (which location was surmised in Jorjāniya by John Walker, 1958, p. 170, and Fir[uzābād] by Heinrich Nützel, no. 100, plate IV; no. 327, p. 381). For the next two centuries little is recorded specifically about Kāṯ; one may suppose that the capital city had experienced a fate similar to that of Chorasmia in its entirety.

In terms of size and splendor the capital of Chorasmia rivaled the major urban centers of the Iranian plateau. Moqaddasi (p. 287) compares Kāṯ in size to Nišābur, which, according to Eṣṭaḵri (p. 254), equaled one farsaḵ in length and breath, which amounts to fourteen square miles. Other accounts give three farsaḵs (Tostari, p. 322) and one-third of a farsaḵ (Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 487; Eṣṭaḵri, p. 301; cf. Barthold, p. 145). The town was marked by a citadel, a prison, a congregational mosque, and a marketplace that was built along both banks of a canal known as Jardur that flowed through the center of the town (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 301; Ebn Ḥawqal, p. 487; Moqaddasi, p. 287). A progressive inundation of Kāṯ can be inferred from the successive reports of the 10th-century Muslim geographers, especially those of Eṣṭaḵri (951 CE), Ebn Ḥawqal (976), the anonymous author of Ḥodud al-ʿālam (982), Moqaddasi (985), as well as Biruni (until 998). The congregational mosque that Moqaddasi describes as standing in the midst of markets, with black-stone column pedestals (Moqaddasi, p. 288), appears to be a new edifice replacing the old Friday mosque destroyed by flood, as reported a decade earlier by Ebn Ḥawqal (p. 478; cf. Barthold, p. 423). Likewise, subsequent to desertion of the old citadel of Fir due to overflow of the river, the palace was now standing in the center of the town (Moqaddasi, p. 278; for elucidations by modern scholars, see Le Strange, pp. 446- 47; Barthold, pp. 144-45; Bosworth). According to Biruni, who eye-witnessed the flooding of his hometown before his emigration at the age of twenty-five (in 998), Fir “was broken and shattered by the Oxus, and was swept away piece by piece every year, till the last remains of it had disappeared” in the year 1305 of the Seleucid era (994 CE) (Biruni, Āṯār, tr., p. 41).

Moqaddasi, in spite of praising Kāṯ’s edifices and architects, which points to a continuous practice of construction as the city shifted, found the city very filthy, containing many refuse drains, which everywhere overflowed onto the high road (Moqaddasi, p. 288); this indicates again the consequences of flooding: a high underground water table which rejected sewage waste. Approaching the end of the century, the old town was constantly flooded by the river, and the inhabitants were moving farther and farther away eastward from the bank. A recent study by Yunes Karāmati expands our knowledge of the historical geography of medieval Chorasmia. In an elaborate array of computations, Karāmati compares the geographical coordinates of towns in Biruni’s Taḥdid with the data obtained from modern satellite images. Among his conclusions we find that the observatory where Biruni and his associates collected their information was located, not in Kāṯ itself, but to the southwest towards Urganj and Khiva, the later capitals of Chorasmia (Karāmati, 2012, pp. 28-29). This data further confirms that Kāṯ, with the continuing flooding it had suffered, was no longer an appropriate place to build an observatory (Borjiān, 2012).

The Chorasmian capital was a commercial metropolis with a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population. The anonymous author of Ḥodud al-ʿālam (p. 122; tr., p. 121) describes Kāṯ as a town with abundant wealth (ḵˇāsta), a “resort of merchants,” and an “emporium of the Turks, Turkistan, Transoxiana, and the Khazars” (see KHAZAR). Its major products were cushion covers (ruy-e moḵadda), quilted garments (qažāgand), cotton stuffs (karbās), and felt carpets (namad), which suggest that cotton played an important role in the rural economy of the region, just as it does today in Uzbekistan. There must have been in Kāṯ substantial non-Muslim inhabitants. It is reported that Kāṯ was the seat of bishopric of the Christian church in the 8th century (Tolstov apud Bosworth). It was probably in Kāṯ that there lived and worked the Christian scholar ʿIsā b. Yaḥyāʾ Masiḥi, a colleague of Abu Rayḥān Biruni, himself a native of the suburbs (birun) of Kāṯ. There must have also been a sizeable Zoroastrian community in Kāṯ from whom Biruni obtained the rich research data on Zoroastrianism in his Āṯār al-bāqia. The Ḥodud al-ʿālam adds that Kāṯ was the gate (dar) of Ḡuz Turkestan and that the townspeople were warlike and active fighters for the faith (p. 122, tr., p. 121). This statement reflects the frontier (ṯaḡr) status of Kāṯ within Islamic lands, which compelled its inhabitants to defend their faith and civilization against the Turkic nomads, who were on their historic westward and southward migrations in the 10th century.

The process of Turkicization of Chorasmia in general, and Kāṯ—located on the right or Turkic side of the Oxus—in particular, was probably intensified soon after the Iranian dynasty of the Ḵˇārazmšāhs lost power to the Turkic dynasties (see Chorasmia ii). Kāṯ is referred to in several historical works by the name of the province, Ḵˇārazm (e.g., Ṭabari, passim; Biruni, Āṯār, tr., p. 41; Biruni, Ketāb al-mosāmarāt fi aḵbār Ḵˇārazm, quoted by Bayhaqi, pp. 656 ff.; tr., II, pp. 381, 392; see also the index in each book), or as Ḵˇārazm’s capital: šahrestān (Moqaddasi, p. 287), qaṣaba (Eṣṭaḵri, p. 301), madina (Biruni, Taḥdid, p. 246), and šahr-e bozorg (Tostari, p. 322). The meaning “major town, capital” could have been expressed by the word kaṯ or kāṯ in Chorasmian or other East Iranian languages of Central Asia (cf. Sogd. kaθ, kanθ, kand “town” [see Gharib, nos. 4761, 4470, 4937]; Khot. kanthā- “city” in Bailey, p. 51), which appear as suffixes in several Central Asian toponyms, such as Bonjikaṯ, Aḵsikaṯ, the capital of Farḡāna, and Marakanδa (Sogd. Smār(a)kanθ) “Samarqand,” the capital of Sogdia. There is yet another interpretation of the toponym: Yāqut (IV, p. 222) states that the word kāṯ was used by the Chorasmians for a wall (ḥāʾeṭ) on the steppe; this seems to correspond to Sogdian kaθām “city wall” (Gharib, no. 4946; cf. katām “wooden structure,” kadvāda “wall,” in Borhān-e qāṭeʿ III, p. 1606, and Sogd. kadwē “roof,” in Gharib, no. 4725). Moreover, in the sole printed edition of Ḥodūd al-ʿālam (p. 122; tr., p. 121) we find the name of the Chorasmian capital spelled as Kāž; this must be an orthographic confusion between the symbols for and ž, both written with three dots above in the Perso-Arabic script.

Kāṯ lost its status as the capital of Chorasmia to Gorgānj across the Oxus, synchronous with the dynastic change from Afrighids to Maʾmunids in 385/ 995. Three centuries later, in 732/ 1333, Ebn Baṭṭuṭa (tr., p. 549), on his way from Gorgānj to Bukhara, passed through Kāṯ, which he portrays as a small but prosperous town. Some forty years later, Timur devastated Kāṯ during his combat with Toqtameš, but later he had the destroyed walls reconstructed. The fact that Šaraf-al-Din ʿAli Yazdi (index) makes several citation of Kāṯ implies its relative importance in the late 14th century.

The modern history of Kāṯ is marked by more flooding and population shifts but also by name changes. In the 17th century, another wave of flooding washed out the old canals. As a result, Anuša, khan of Khiva (1663-85), dug the canal Yārmiš and built a fortress on the left side of the Oxus and brought here the remaining population of Kāṯ. Meanwhile, the ruins of old Kāṯ on the right side of the river became known as Shaikh ʿAbbās Wali, after a local mausoleum. In the 19th century the inhabitants of the new Kāṯ once again were relocated across the river around the mausoleum, and the settlement was renamed Šābbāz (i.e., Shaikh ʿAbbās; see UMI V, pp. 68-69). In Soviet Uzbekistan, the settlement Šobboz was renamed Beruniĭ in 1957 and gained the status of an urban center in 1962, dedicated to the forthcoming millennium observance of Abu Rayḥān Biruni. Beruniĭ is the administrative center of a district (tuman) in the Karakalpakstan Republic within Uzbekistan (UME I, pp. 723-25; see also Atlas Uzbekskoĭ SSR). In the early 21st century, the district of Beruniĭ, that is, the ancient Kāṯ, appears on satellite maps as a vast continuum of built environment and farmland, with a network of canals branching out from the Āmu Daryā River.



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(Habib Borjian)

Originally Published: May 31, 2013

Last Updated: April 9, 2013

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