Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Transcaspian Region

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See vol. ii. Plate XXVI.

TRANSCASPIAN REGION (Zakaspiyskaya Oblast), an extensive territory to the east of the Caspian, annexed by Russia within the last fifteen years, is bounded on the S. by the highlands of Khorasan and Afghanistan, on the N. by Uralsk (from which it is divided by a line drawn from the Mortvyi Kultuk Bay of the Caspian to the south extremity of Lake Aral), on the N.E. by Khiva and Bokhara, and on the S.E. (where it penetrates towards Herat on the slopes of the Paropamisus, and includes the Badhyz plateau) by Afghan Turkestan. So defined, it has an area of 220,000 square miles.

Although nine-tenths of this territory consists of uninhabitable desert, an interest attaches to it on account of the great physical changes it has undergone during the Post-Glacial period. Since Pallas visited its borders, and still more since Humboldt discussed its history, it has never ceased to attract the attention of geographers. In fact, some of the most interesting problems of geography, such as those relating to the changes in the course of the Jaxartes and the Oxus, the bifurcation and the oscillation of a great river, 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 great physical changes which transformed the Mediterranean of Western Asia—the Aral-Caspian and Pontic basin into a series of separate seas, and desiccated them, powerfully influencing the distribution of floras and faunas, and compelling the inhabitants of Western and Central Asia to enter upon their great migrations. But down to a very recent date the dry and barren deserts, peopled only by wandering Turcoman bands, remained almost a terra incognita, and only now are we beginning to make the very first steps towards their really scientific exploration.

A mountain chain, in length comparable to the Alps, separates the deserts of the Transcaspian from the highlands of Khorasan. It runs from north-west to south-east, and appears as a continuation of the Caucasus. It begins in the Krasuodovsk peninsula of the Caspian, under the names of Kuryanin-kara and Great Balkans, whose masses of granite and other crystalline rock reach a height of more than 5000 feet. Farther to the south-east these are continued in the much lower Little Balkans and Kyuren-dagh (2000 feet), the Kopepet-dagh, Kosty-dagh, Asilma, and Zaryn-kul, the name of Kopepet-dagh or Kopet-dagh being often now used to designate the whole chain which rises steep and wild above the flat deserts from the Caspian to the river Mnrghab, a stretch of 600 miles. 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 watered by two rivers flowing in opposite directions, the Atrek, which flows north-west into the Caspian, and the Keshefrud, which flows to the south-east, and is a tributary of the Murghab. On the other side of this valley the Allahdagh and the Binalund border-ridges (9000 to 11,000 feet) fringe the edge of the Khorasan plateau. At its south-eastern extremity this outer wall loses its regularity where it meets with the spurs of the Hindu-kush. Descending towards the steppe with steep stony slopes, it rises to heights of 6000 and 9000 feet to the east of Kizil-arvat, while the passes which lead from the Turco man deserts to the valleys of Khorasan are seldom as low as 3500, usually rising to 5000, 6000, and even 8500 feet, and in most cases being very difficult. This wall is pierced by but 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 Allah-dagh and Binalund border-ridges are chiefly composed of crystalline rocks and metamorphic slates covered with Devonian deposits, a series of more recent formations Upper and Lower Cretaceous, and Miocene are shown 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. Quaternary deposits have an extensive development on its slopes, and its hillfoots are bordered by a girdle of loess.

The loess terrace, called "Atok" ("mountain base"), is but narrow, ranging in width from 10 to 20 miles; still its chain of settlements have rendered it possible to lay down a railway which now connects the Caspian with Sarakhs. It is very fertile, but could produce nothing without irrigation, and the streams flowing from the Kopet-dagh are few and meagre. The winds which reach the northern slope of the mountains have been deprived of all their moisture in crossing the Kara-kum the Black Sands of the Turcoman desert; and even such rain as falls on the Kopet-dagh (10J inches at Kizil-arvat) too often reaches the soil in the shape of showers which do not saturate it, so that the average relative humidity is but 56 and the average nebulosity only 3 9, as against 62 and 4 1 at even so dry a place as Krasnovodsk. Still, at those places where the mountain streams are closer to one another, as at Geok-tepe, Askabad, Lutfabad, and Kahka, the villages are more populous, and the houses are surrounded by gardens, every square yard and every tree of which is fed by irrigation.

Beyond this narrow strip of irrigated laud begins the desert,— the Kara-kum,—which extends from the mountains of Khorasan to Lake Aral and the Ust-Urt, and from the Caspian to the Amu, interrupted only by the oases of Merv and Tejefi. It appears, how ever, that the terrible shifting sands blown into barkhans, or elongated hills, sometimes 50 and 60 feet in height, are grouped chiefly in the west, where the country has more recently emerged from the sea. Farther to the east the barkhans are more stable, their slopes being covered with bushes (for the most part leafless); the caravans sometimes follow their crests, and the shifting sands occupy restricted spaces. Large areas amidst the sands are occupied by takyrs, or flat surfaces covered with clay which is hard as a rule, but becomes almost impassable after heavy rains. In these takyrs the Turcomans dig ditches, draining into a kind of cistern—the kak—where the water of the spring rains keeps for a few mouths. Wells are sunk also along the routes of the caravans, and water is found in them at depths of 10 to 50 or occasionally 100 feet and more. All is not desert in the strict sense; in spring there is for the most part a covering of grass, which allows of journeys across the desert. There are footpaths in several directions, especially from the irrigated and cultivated Atok towards Khiva.

The vegetation of the Kara-kum cannot be described as poor; the typical representative of the sand deserts of Asia, the saksaul (Anabasis Ammodendron), has been almost destroyed within the last hundred years, and never appears in forests, but the borders of the spaces covered with salted 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 macquennii, Gray, though not frequent, 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, mixed with Persian and Himalayan species.[1]

The Uzboi.—A feature distinctive of the Turcoman desert is seen in the very numerous shors, or elongated depressions, the lower portions of which are occupied mostly with sand impregnated with brackish water. They are obviously the remains of brackish lakes, and, like the lakes of the Kirghiz steppes, they often follow one another in close succession, thus closely resembling river-beds. As the direction of these shors is generally from the higher terraces watered by the Amu-Daria towards the lowlands of the Caspian, they were usually regarded as old beds of the Amu-Daria, and were held to support the idea of its once having flowed across the Turco man desert towards what is now the Caspian Sea. A few years ago it seemed 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 succession of elongated depressions, having a faint resemblance to old river-beds, was traced from Urgenj to the gap between the Great and the Little Balkans, marked on the maps as the Uzboi, or old bed of the Oxus.[2] The idea of again diverting the Amu into the Caspian was thus set afloat, and expeditions were sent out for explora tions with this view. The result of these investigations by Russian engineers, especially Hedroitz, Konshin, MushketofT, Lessar, and Svintsoff,[3] was, however, 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, where the small Sary-kamysh lakes are now the only remains of a wide basin, was proved, and it became evident that this depression, having a length of more than 130 miles, a width of 70 miles, and a depth of 280 feet 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 feet below the present level of Lake Aral, this latter could not be made to dis appear, nor even be notably reduced in size by the Amu flowing from Urgenj to the south-west. A more careful exploration of the Uzboi has shown moreover that, while the deposits in the Sarykamysh depression, and the Aral shells they contain, bear unmistakable testimony as to the fact of the basin having once been fed by the Amu-Daria, no such traces are found along the Uzboi below the Sary-kamysh depression;[4] 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 characters of a series of lakes which continued to subsist at the hillfoots of the Ust-Urt plateau, while the Caspian was slowly receding westwards during the Post- Pliocene period. On rare occasions only did the waters of the Sary-kamysh, 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;[5] and this gives much plausibility to Konshiu'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, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, alternately into Lake Aral and into the Sary-kamysh.

As for the ancient texts with regard to the Jaxartes and Oxus, it becomes more and more probable that their interpretation, if possible at all, is only so when it is admitted that, since the epoch to which these 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 could not possibly maintain for some twenty centuries the outlines which they have 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 aud the Tejen, once flowed towards the west; but the Caspian of that time was not the sea of our days; its gulfs penetrated the Turcoman steppe, and washed the base of the Ust-Urt plateau, as is shown by the deposits of its shells described by the Russian engineers.

Kelif-Uzboi.—There is also no doubt that, instead of flowing north-westward of Kelif, the Amu once flowed to join the Murghab and Tejen; the succession of depressions described by the Russian engineers as the Kelif-Uzboi[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, remain unsettled. Much, however, has still to be done before we can fully reconstruct the geological history of that region since the Pliocene epoch, or show how far the data of Pliny, Strabo, and Ptolemy were descriptions of actual facts.[7]

Population.—With the exception of some 35,000 Kirghiz en camped with their herds on the Ust-Urt plateau (a swelling some 600 to 1000 feet in height and nearly 92,000 square miles in extent, which, owing to its dryness and cold winter, can be inhabited only by nomad cattle-breeders) and a few Persians in the Lutfabad and Shilghyan villages of the Atok, the whole of the population of the Transcaspian region consists of Turcomans. Until a very recent date their chief occupation was cattle-rearing and robbery. Even those Turcomans who had settled abodes on the oases of the Atok, Tejen, and Merv were in the habit of encamping during spring in the steppes, and there practising robbery. Robber bands were easily formed, and on their powerful horses they extended their excursions to distancesof 200 and 300 miles from their abodes. The} infested the Astrabad province; and the villages of the khanates of Afghan Turkestan, from Balkh to Meshhed, were periodically devastated by them. The aspect of the steppe has, however, greatly changed since the Russian advance, the fall of the Turco man stronghold of Geok-tepe, and the massacres which ensued; the Persians are already beginning to avenge themselves on the inhabitants of the Atok by disputing with them the supplies of water coming from the Kopet-dagh.

The chief oasis of the Turcoman desert is the Atok, which extends along the base of the Kopet-dagh, and is now traversed by the Transcaspian railway. The Akhal and the Arakadj oases, collectively called Atok, now have a population of about 42,000 Tekke-Turcomans, who have recently settled there, and live for the most part in miserable clay huts or in felt tents (kibitkas). They raise wheat, barley, aud lucerne; and the Persians have excellent gardens. Some cotton is also grown, and the culture of the silk worm is beginning to spread. The chief settlements are Askabad, Kizil-arvat, and Geok-tepe.

The oasis of Merv (q.v.) is inhabited by Akhal-tekkes (about 160,000), mostly poor. In January 1887 they submitted to Russia.

The oasis of Tejeft has recently sprung up where the river Tejen (Heri-rud) terminates in the desert. Formerly it was only temporarily visited by the Tekkes who came to cultivate the fields in summer. In 1883 it was estimated to have 7500 inhabitants.

South-West Turcomania.—The region between the Heri-rud and the Murghab, as they issue from the highlands, described in English maps under the name of Badhyz, and by the Russians as South-West Turcomania, has of late attracted a good deal of attention since the Russian occupation of Sarakhs on the Tejen (see Afghanistan and Persia) and Penjdeh on the Murghab. It has the characters of a plateau reaching about 2000 feet above the sea, with hills 500 and 600 feet high covered with sand, the spaces between being filled with loess. The Borkhut Mountains which connect the Kopet-dagh with the Sefid-kuh, reach 3000 to 4000 feet, and are crossed in a gorge by the Heri-rud. Thickets of poplar and willow follow the courses of both the Murghab and Heri-rud, and the trees reach a considerable size. Pistachio and mulberry trees grow in isolated groups on the hills; but there are few places available for culture, and the Saryks (some 60,000 in number) congregate in only two oases at Yor-otan and Penjdeh. Cattle-breeding is their chief occupation, and enables them to live in a certain degree of affluence. Brigandage, formerly a notable source of income, is now being suppressed. The Sarakhs oasis is now occupied by the Salors, hereditary enemies of the Tekkes, who number about 3000 tents at Old Sarakhs, and 1700 more on the Murghab, at Tchardjui, at Maimene, and close to Herat.

Great modifications in the life of the steppe have of course been brought about by the Russian conquest, which was followed with great rapidity by the construction of a railway from Mikhailovsk on the Caspian to Kizil-arvat and Sarakhs, and thence to Merv and north-eastward to Tchardjui on the Amu, from which point it is now being continued across Bokhara towards Samarkand. Attempts at growing cotton and tea are being made, and land has been rented at Merv for cotton plantations. Cotton is to be pressed by steam at Bokhara and Tchardjui, to be sent to Russia by the Transcaspian railway.[8]

Caspian Littoral.—The Caspian littoral is divided into two districts, Krasnovodsk and Manghishtak. The former has about 15,500 settled inhabitants and 3056 Turcoman kibitkas (partly shifted in summer to Persian territory). The chief settlements of the district are Krasnovodsk on the Krasnovodsk Gulf; Mikhailovsk, the terminus of the Transcaspian railway, in regular communication by steamer with Baku; and Tchikishlyar, close to the mouth of the Atrek. The Manghishtak district, which includes the Ust-Urt plateau, has a population of about 34,500 Kirghiz. Its chief settlement is Alexandrovsk.

The total population of the Transcaspian region was estimated in 1883—that is, before the annexations in South-West Turcomania—at from 214,000 to 260,000 inhabitants (P. A. K.)


  1. See N. Zarudnyi, "Les Oiseaux de la Contrée Transcaspienne," in Bull. Soc. Nat. Mosc., 1885.
  2. It is to be observed that 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.
  3. Their original papers are printed in the Izvestia of the Russian Geogr. Soc., 1883 to 1887, as also in the Journal of the Russian Ministry of Roads and Communications.
  4. According to A. E. Hedroitz and A. M. Konshin the old Tonu-Daria bed of the Amu contains shells of molluscs now living in the Amu (Cyrena fluminalis, Dreissena polymorpha, and Anodonta). The Sary-kamysh basin is characterized by deposits containing Neritina liturata, Dreissena polymorpha, and Lymnxus, characteristic of this basin. Below the Sary-kamysh there are no more deposits containing shells characteristic for the Amu; Anodontss are found quite occasion ally on the surface, not in beds, in company with the Caspian Cardium (Didacna) trigonoidei, var. crassum, Cwdium piramidatum, Dreissena polymorpha, D. roitriformis, Hydrobia caspia, Neritina liturata, and Dreitsena brardii; the red clays with these fossils extend for 130 miles to the east of the Caspian (Izvestia of Russ. Geog. Soc., 1883 and 1886).
  5. As by Jenkinson, who mentions a sweet-water gulf of the Caspian within six days march from Khwarezm, by which gulf he could mean nothing but the Sary-kamysh depression.
  6. In connexion with this southern "old bed," it is worthy of notice that the Ersari-Turcomans call it Unghyuz or Ongnz (" dry old bed "), and there can be no doubt that when the Bolshoi Tchertezh of the 16th century (speaking from anterior information) mentions a river, Ughyuz or Ugus, flowing to the west from the Amu towards the Caspian, it is merely describing as a river what its very name shows to have been a dry bed, only supposed to have been once occupied by a river. The similarity of the names Ongus and Ugus with the Ogns and Ochus is so striking that one is inclined to see in the Ogus or Ochns nothing but the mention of a dry old bed. Compare Petrusevitch, " The South-East Shores of the Caspian," in Zapiski of the Caucasian Geogr. Soc., vol. xi., 1880.
  7. Such an intermingling of modern data with older traditions is not unknown to geographers. A striking instance of it is given in the supposed connexion of Lake Aral with the Arctic Ocean during historical times; physical changes are proceeding so rapidly in Asia that we find traces of like survivals of traditions even in this age of accurate surveys.
  8. No Russian sea shows so rapid a growth of navigation as the Caspian Sea during the last fifteen years. In 1884 no less than 1945 steamers (611,000 tons), engaged in foreign trade, entered the Russian ports of the Caspian, as against 409 (113,000 tons) in 1876.