No one still lives in Babylon. Luxor is an open-air museum, ancient ruins for tourists. Alexandria was burned down, Tenochtitlan is underground, and Çatalhöyük can hardly be spelled, let alone found.
It’s not the oldest continuously inhabited city, yet 2800 years seems a pretty good pedigree. And if you’re going to write about the center of the Silk Road, only ONE city in the center, Samarkand would be it.
Oasis in the Desert
Remember the Oxus, remember the Hindu Kush and the Kushans a few alphabetic posts back? The Kush is a mountain range in northern India, and the Kushans and Sogdians spread across the land to its northwest. The Oxus, today the Amu Darya, flows from the those mountains to the northwest, to the Caspian and the once Aral Sea.
Above the Oxus, nestled in a long and unusual stripe of green across those mix of foothills, dirt, desert, and mountains, is the ancient city of Samarkand, the second-largest city in Uzbekistan. If you were to take a map of Asia and North Africa, squint and put your finger on the middle, you might exactly touch Samarkand.
The Land of the ‘Stans. Everybody wanted it after the Kushans left (see letter K). It was a highly desirable place, so people diverted the waters, and environmental devastation ensued and still goes on. The waters flow.
The Names of the Waters
Alexander called the river the Oxus. Not very imaginative, since he probably just saw cattle at the river. For most of its recent history–that of the last thousand years–the river has been called Amu Darya. That means “river near Amul,” which is also a city that has been renamed and renamed.
Transoxiana, the land beyond the Oxus, refers to the fertile plain between the Oxus (well! duh!) and the other river, which was named the Jaxartes. That meant something like “Pearl Waters” in ancient Persian, though now it’s called Syr Darya, the river near the Aral Sea. Because it flows into the Aral Sea. I liked that pearl image better.
This place has seen an ebb and flow of waters, of people, of names, and of historical events. Whenever you wander through the rivulets of Asia in the Middle Ages, if you come across something like:
Baruq set a trap for the invader Kaidu’s troops on the bank of the Jaxartes, and defeated his forces. In the next battle, however, Kaidu defeated Baraq with the assistance of Mengu-Timur, the Khan of the Golden Horde who sent 3 tumens … Transoxiana was then ravaged by Kaidu…
Wikipedia story of the Battle of the Jaxartes @1268. Notice that there was still plundering going on!
Where Is that Again?
The Oxus rises in the Pamil mountains, just south of the Tien Shan and north of the Hindu Kush. It flows northwest down to the Aral Sea. You read that correct. On the maps customary to an American, it flows up to the left. But this is central, central, CENTRAL Asia, and everything will flow down out of the mountains. The plain between the two rivers is a mix of foothills and blissfully fertile land for either pasture or farming.
Alexander got this far, taken it from the Sogdians. (I’m tempted to say the soggy Sogdians, but I won’t. Doh! I just did.) Alexander had this area, then the Kushans took, the Arabs, the Mongols. It’s all right there, right? After that, Babur descended from the Mongols and founded the Mughal Dynasty. It’s all right there. The confluence of the ‘stans.
Dams Usually Are Not the Solution
The tributaries flowing out of the Pamil glaciers carried enough water to split into two rivers and to fill the fourth largest lake in the world, the Aral Sea. There was also some water left over to flow into the Caspian.
The Kushan-Sogdian-Arab Khwarizm populations gradually built up over the centuries, and they pulled off a lot of the water supply. The Muslims built a dam in the little town Gurganj in 985 CE put at the forks, starting to pull all the water to the Aral Sea. We haven’t had giant dams for centuries, but we already know how dams reform the watersheds. And over time, as populations dip their straw into dams and begin to suck them dry, then the dam turns out to be a bad idea.
It didn’t matter so much in the Middle Ages, but the Soviets diverting so much water in the middle of the twentieth century, that the Aral Sea had become highly salinized (super salty) by the millennium. Since then, there have been reversals of irrigation rules, and the lake is starting to come back.
The Mongols had a more extreme solution in the 1200s. After getting into a spat with the sultan of Khwarizm, who killed the Mongol envoys, they put the entire basin under siege. This involved wiping out the populations of several ancient cities and destroying the hue Ganjul dam. The Mongols went big. The grasslands recovered for a while before the straw sipping started again.
Today Transoxiana is in the middle. It’s in the middle of Turkemnistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistans. They weren’t always nomads. Some of the waves of people came across the grasslands to where the water made waves, too, and they came from everywhere to everywhere. The Chinese knew them because they fashion little bobblehead figurines called “foreigner” in the shape of Sogdians.
The Middle Men who brought their oxen to the river.