Transcaspian Region - Encyclopedia

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TRANSCASPIAN REGION, a Russian territory on the E. of the Caspian, bounded S. by Khorasan and Afghanistan, N. by the Russian province of Uralsk, N.E. by Khiva and Bokhara and S.E. by Afghan Turkestan. Area, 212,545 sq. m. Some of the most interesting problems of geography, such as those relating to the changes in the course of the Jaxartes (Syr-darya) and the Oxus (Amu-darya), and the supposed periodical disappearance of Lake Aral, are connected with the Transcaspian deserts; and it is here that we must look for a clue to the physical changes which transformed the Euro-Asiatic Mediterranean - the Aral-Caspian and Pontic basin - into a series of separate seas, and desiccated them, powerfully influencing the distribution of floras and faunas, and centuries ago compelling the inhabitants of Western and Central Asia to enter upon their great migrations. But down to a comparatively recent date the arid, barren deserts, peopled only by wandering Turkomans, were almost a terra incognita. A mountain chain, comparable in length to the Alps, separates the deserts of the Transcaspian from the highlands of Khorasan. It begins in the Krasnovodsk peninsula of the Caspian, under the names of Kuryanyn-kary and Great Balkans, whose masses of granite and other crystalline rock reach an altitude of some 5350 ft. Farther south-east they are continued in the Little Balkans (2000 ft.) and the Kopepet-dagh or Kopet-dagh. The latter rises steep and rugged above the flat deserts over a stretch of 600 m. In structure it is homologous with the Caucasus chain; it appears as an outer wall of the Khorasan plateau, and is separated from it by a broad valley, which, like the Rion and Kura valley of Transcaucasia, is drained by two rivers flowing in opposite directions - the Atrek, which flows north-west into the Caspian, and the Keshef-rud, which flows to the south-east and is a tributary of the Murghab. On the other side of this valley the Alla-dagh (Aladagh) and the Binalund borderranges (9000 to 11,000 ft.) fringe the edge of the Khorasan plateau. Descending towards the steppe with steep stony slopes, the mountain barrier of the Kopet-dagh rises to heights of6000-9000ft. to the east of Kyzyl-arvat, while the passes which lead from the Turkoman deserts to the valleys of Khorasan are seldom as low as 3500, and usually rise to 5000, 6000 and even 8500 ft., and in most cases are very difficult. It is pierced by only one wide opening, that between the Great and Little Balkans, through which the sea, which once covered the steppe, maintained connexion with the Caspian.

While the Alla-dagh and Binalund border-ranges are chiefly composed of crystalline rocks and metamorphic slates, overlain by Devonian deposits, a series of more recent formations - Upper and Lower Cretaceous and Miocene - crops out in the outer wall of the Kopet-dagh. Here again we find that the mountains of Asia which stretch towards the north-west continued to be uplifted at a geologically recent epoch. Quarternary deposits have an extensive development on its slopes, and its foothills are bordered by a girdle of loess.

The loess terrace, called Atok ("mountain base"), 10 to 20 m. in width, is very fertile; but it will produce nothing without irrigation, and the streams flowing from the Kopet-dagh are few and scanty. The winds which impinge upon the northern slope of the mountains have been deprived of all their moisture in crossing the Kara-kumthe Black Sands of the Turkoman desert; and even such rain as falls on the Kopet-dagh (Ioi in. at Kyzyl-arvat) too often reaches the soil in the shape of light showers which do not penetrate it, so that the average relative humidity is only 56 as compared with 62 at even so dry a place as Krasnovodsk. Still, at those places where the mountain streams run closer to one another, as at Geok-tepe, Askhabad, Lutfabad and Kaaka, the villages are more populous, and the houses are surrounded by gardens, every square yard and every tree of which is nourished by irrigation.

North of this narrow strip of irrigated land begins the desert - the Kara-kum - which extends from the mountains of Khorasan to Lake Aral and the plateau of Ust-Urt, and from the Caspian to the Amu-darya, interrupted only by the oases of Mer y and Tejen. But the terrible shifting sands, blown into barkhans, or elongated hills, sometimes 50 and 60 ft. in height, are accumulated chiefly in the west, where the country has more recently emerged from the sea. Farther east the barkhans are more stable. Large areas amidst the sands are occupied by takyrs, or flat surfaces paved with clay, which, as a rule, is hard but becomes almost impassable after heavy rains. In these takyrs the Turkomans dig ditches, draining into a kind of cistern, where the water of the spring rains can be preserved for a few months. Wells also are sunk, and the water is found in them at depths of to to 50, or occasionally loo ft. and more. All is not desert in the strict sense; in spring there is for the most part a carpet of grass.

The vegetation of the Kara-kum cannot be described as poor. The typical representative of the sandy deserts of Asia, the saksaul (Anabasis ammodendron), has been almost destroyed within the last hundred years, and occurs only sporadically, but the borders of the spaces covered with saline clay are brightened by forests of tamarisk, which are inhabited by great numbers of the desert warbler (Atraphornis aralensis) - a typical inhabitant of the sands - sparrows and ground-choughs (Podoces); the Houbara macqueeni, though not abundant, is characteristic of the region. Hares and foxes, jackals and wolves, marmots, moles, hedgehogs and one species of marten live in the steppe, especially in spring. As a whole, the fauna is richer than might be supposed, while in the Atok it contains representatives of all the species known in Turkestan, intermingled with Persian and Himalayan species.

The Uzboi

A feature distinctive of the Turkoman desert is the very numerous shoes, or elongated depressions, the lower portion of which are mostly occupied with moist sand. They are obviously the relics of brackish lakes, and, like the lakes of the Kirghiz steppes, they often follow one another in quick succession, thus closely resembling river-beds. As the direction of the shors is generally from the higher terraces drained by the Amu-darya towards the lowlands of the Caspian, they were usually regarded as old beds of the Amu-darya, and were held to support the idea of its once having flowed across the Turkoman desert towards what is now the Caspian Sea. It was formerly considered almost settled, not only that that river (see Oxus) flowed into the Caspian during historical times, but that after having ceased to do so in the 7th century, its waters were again diverted to the Caspian about 1221. A chain of elongated depressions, bearing a faint resemblance to old riverbeds, was traced from Urgenj to the gap between the Great and the Little Balkans; this was marked on the maps as the Uzboi, or old bed of the Oxus.' The idea of again diverting the Amu into the Caspian was thus set afloat, but the investigations of Russian engineers, especially A. E. Hedroitz, A. M. Konshin, I. V. Mushketov, On the original Russian map of the Transcaspian, drawn immediately after the survey of the Uzboi had been completed, the Uzboi has not the continuity which is given to it on subsequent maps.

P. M. Lessar and Svintsov, 2 went to show that the Uzboi is no river-bed at all, and that no river has ever discharged its waters in that direction. The existence of an extensive lacustrine depression, now represented by the small Sary-kamysh lakes, was proved, and it was evident that this depression, having a length of more than 130 m., a width of 70 m., and a depth of 280 ft. below the present level of Lake Aral, would have to be filled by the Amu before its waters could advance farther to the south-west. The sill of this basin being only 28 ft. below the present level of Lake Aral, this latter could not be made to disappear, nor even be notably reduced in size, by the Amu flowing south-west from Urgenj. A more careful exploration of the Uzboi has shown that, while the deposits in the Sary-kamysh depression, and the Aral shells they contain, bear unmistakable testimony to the fact of the basin having once been fed by the Amu-darya, no such traces are found along the Uzboi below the Sary-kamysh depression; 3 on the contrary, shells of molluscs still inhabiting the Caspian are found in numbers all along it, and the supposed old bed has all the characteristics of a series of lakes which continued to subsist along the foothills of the Ust-Urt plateau, while the Caspian was slowly receding westwards during the postPliocene period. On rare occasions only did the waters of the Sarykamysh, when raised by inundations above the sill just mentioned, send their surplus into the Uzboi. It appears most probable that in the 16th century the Sary-kamysh was confounded with a gulf of the Caspian; 4 and this gives much plausibility to Konshin's supposition that the changes in the lower course of the Amu (which no geologist would venture to ascribe to man, if they were to mean the alternative discharge of the Amu into the Caspian and Lake Aral) merely meant that by means of appropriate dams the Amu was made to flow in the 13th-16th centuries alternately into Lake Aral and into the Sary-kamysh.

The ancient texts (of Pliny, Strabo, Ptolemy) about the Jaxartes and Oxus only become intelligible when it is admitted that, since the epoch to which they relate, the outlines of the Caspian Sea and Lake Aral have undergone notable changes, commensurate with those which are supposed to have occurred in the courses of the Central Asian rivers. The desiccation of the Aral-Caspian basin proceeded with such rapidity that the shores of the Caspian cannot possibly have maintained for some twenty centuries the outlines which they exhibit at present. When studied in detail, the general configuration of the Transcaspian region leaves no doubt that both the Jaxartes and the Oxus, with its former tributaries, the Murghab and the Tejen, once flowed towards the west; but the Caspian of that time was not the sea of our days; its gulfs penetrated the Turkoman steppe, and washed the base of the Ust-Urt plateau. (See Caspian and Aral.) Kelif-Uzboi. - There is also no doubt that, instead of flowing north-westward of Kelif (on the present Bokhara-Afghan frontier), the Amu once bent south to join the Murghab and Tejen; the chain of de p ressions described by the Russian engineers as the KelifUzboi 6 supports this hypothesis, which a geographer cannot avoid making when studying a map of the Transcaspian region; but the date at which the Oxus followed such a course, and the extension which the Caspian basin then had towards the east, are uncertain.

In 1897 the population numbered 377,416, of whom only 42,431 lived in towns; but, besides those of whom the census took account, there were about 25,000 strangers and troops.

2 Their original papers are printed in the Izvestia of the Russian Geographical Society, 1883 to 2887, also in the Journal of the Russian ministry of roads and communications.

3 According to A. E. Hedroitz and A. M. Konshin the old Tonudarya bed of the Amu contains shells of molluscs now living in the Amu (Cyrena fluminalis, Dreissensia polymorpha and Anodonta). The Sary-kamysh basin is characterized by deposits containing Neritina liturata, Dreissensia polymorpha and Limnaeus, characteristic of this basin. Below the Sary-kamysh there are no deposits containing shells characteristic of the Amu; Anodontae are found quite occasionally on the surface, not in beds, in company with the Caspian Cardium (Didacna) trigonoides, var. crassum, Cardium piramidatum. Dreissensia polymorpha, D. rostriformis, Hydrobia caspia, Neritina liturata and Dreissensia beardii; the red clays containing these fossils extend for 130 m. east of the Caspian (Izvestia of Russ. Geog. Soc., 1883 and 1886).

4 As by Jenkinson, who mentions a freshwater gulf of the Caspian within six days' march from Khwarezm (or Khiva), by which gulf he could only mean the Sary-kamysh depression.

The Turkomans call this southern "old bed" Unghyuz or Onguz ("dry old bed"), and there can be no doubt that when the BolshoiChertezh of the 16th century (speaking from anterior information) mentions a river, Ughyuz or Ugus, flowing west from the Amu towards the Caspian, it is merely describing as a river what the very name shows to have been a dry bed, supposed to have been once occupied by a river. The similarity of the names Ongus and Ugus with Ogus and Ochus possibly helped to accentuate, if not to give rise to, the confusion. Cf. N. G. Petrusevich, "The South-east Shores of the Caspian," in Zapiski of the Caucasian Geographical Society (1880), vol. xi.

Included in the total were some 280,000 Turkomans, 60,000 Kirghiz, 12,000 Russians, 8000 Persians, 4250 Armenians, and some Tatars. The estimated population in 1906 was 397,100. The province is divided into five districts, the chief towns of which are Askhabad, the capital; Krasnovodsk; Fort Alexandrovskiy, in the district of Manghishlak, on the Caspian Sea; Mer y and Tejen. Until a recent date the chief occupations of the Turkomans were cattle-rearing and robbery. Even those who had settled abodes on the oases of the Atok, Tejen and Mery were in the habit of encamping during the spring in the steppes, the khanates of Afghan Turkestan from Balkh to Meshhed being periodically devastated by them. The aspect of the steppe has, however, greatly changed since the Russian advance and the fall (1881) of the Turkoman stronghold of Geok-tepe. Their principal oases are situated along the Atok or loess terrace, the chief settlements being Askhabad, Kyzyl-arvat and Geok-tepe. The oasis of Mer y is inhabited by Akhal-tekkes (about 240,000), mostly poor. In January 1887 they submitted to Russia. The oasis of Tejen has sprung up where the river Tejen (Heri-rud) terminates in the desert.

South-west Turcomania

The region between the Heri-rud and the Murghab has the characteristics of a plateau, reaching about 2000 ft. above the sea, with hills 500 and 600 ft. high covered with sand, the spaces between being filled with loess. The Borkhut Mountains which connect the Kopet-dagh with the Sefid-kuh in Afghanistan reach 3000 to 4000 ft., and are cleft by the Heri-rud. Thickets of poplar and willow accompany both the Murghab and the Heri-rud. Pistachio and mulberry trees grow in isolated clumps on the hills; but there are few places available for cultivation, and the Saryk Turkomans (some 60,000 in number) congregate in only two oases - Yol-otan or Yelatan, and Penjdeh. The Sarakhs oasis is occupied by the Salor Turkomans, hereditary enemies of the Tekke Turkomans; they number about 3000 tents at Old Sarakhs, and 1700 more on the Murghab, at Chardjui, at Maimene (or Meimane), and close to Herat.

The Transcaspian Region is very rich in minerals. Rock-salt, petroleum, gypsum and sulphur are extracted. Nearly 300,000 acres are irrigated by the natives, and attempts are being made by the government to increase the irrigated area; it is considered that over 5,000,000 acres of land could be rendered suitable for agriculture. Several hundred thousand trees are planted every year, and a forest guard has been established to prevent useless destruction of the saksaul trees, which grow freely in the steppes. A model garden and a mulberry plantation have been established at Askhabad in connexion with the gardening school. The land in the oases, especially those of the Atrek River, is highly cultivated. Wheat and barley are grown, in addition to sorghum (a species of millet), maize, rice, millet and sesame for oil. Raw cotton is extensively grown in the Mer y district. Gardening and fruit-growing are well developed, and attempts are being made to encourage the spread of viticulture. Livestock breeding is the chief occupation of the nomad Turkomans and Kirghiz. Considerable fishing is carried on in the Caspian Sea, and seals are killed off the Manghishlak peninsula. The natives excel in domestic industries, as the making of carpets, travelling bags, felt goods and embroidered leather. The Russian population is mostly limited to the military and the towns. Wheat, flour, wool, raw cotton and dried fruit are exported; while tea, manufactured goods, timber, sugar, iron and paraffin oil are imported, as also rice and fruit from Bokhara, Turkestan and Persia. The Transcaspian railway, constructed across the province from Krasnovodsk to Merv, with a branch to Kushk, and from Mer y to Bokhara and Russian Turkestan, has effected quite a revolution in the trade of Central Asia. The old caravan routes via Orenburg have lost their importance, and goods coming from India, Persia, Bokhara and even China are now carried by rail. (For the history of the region see MERV.) See the researches of Andrusov, Bogdanovich, Konshin, Mushketov and Obruchev in the Memoirs, the Bulletin (Izvestia) and the Annuals of the Russian Geographical Society (1890--1900); P. M. Lessar, L'Ancienne jonction de l'Oxus avec la mer Caspienne (1889); Zarudnoi (zoology) in Bulletin de la societe des naturalistes de Moscou (1889 seq.). (P. A. K.; J. T. BE.)

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