EARLY ISLAMIC WRITINGS call the Amu Darya and Syr Darya two of the four rivers of Paradise. Now perceived as being on the extreme fringes of the world, these rivers were once its center. Their water has sustained human life for forty thousand years, providing pastures for nomadic herders, irrigation for farmers, and enabling the development of culture, trade, language, literature, and, in parallel, an enduring succession of wars and imperial conquests over the centuries.
When the Soviet government officially incorporated the region into its empire in 1917, it began transforming the rivers into a web of irrigation canals that brought cotton production to the area on a massive scale. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, began to disappear, leaving salt and dust storms in its place. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations appeared: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Kyrgyz Republic. They are burdened with plunging economies, artificial borders, and a growing environmental crisis.
Despite the divisions that have emerged since the Soviet Union collapsed, the two rivers that run through the countries still bind them inextricably. Two thousand five hundred kilometers long, the Amu Darya is formed from the thousands of glacial mountain streams that feed the Panj and Vakhsh rivers in Tajikistan. It begins a longer, slower, flatter course between deserts downstream, where Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan come together. Stopped up at man-made dams and reservoirs along the way, it fractures into a maze of irrigation canals so that the river itself now vanishes well before reaching the Aral Sea.
The Syr Darya, which carries only half the water of its counterpart, is created from the Naryn and Kara Darya rivers in the mountains of the Kyrgyz Republic and Uzbekistan. Also dammed and diverted, it runs flat across central Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan, eventually draining into the tiny North Aral Sea, which is now separated from the dried South Aral by the Kokaral dike.
This is a place where the connection between the Earth and human life is at once plainly visible and complex, where the forward flow of time and progress are not a given. I have seen cotton harvested on pesticide-laden land be later burned in a ritual celebrating rebirth and spring. I have traveled along the Qaraqum Canal, which, running fourteen hundred kilometers through Turkmenistan, is the world’s longest; it has turned barren desert into a lush landscape of fishing and farming and beekeeping.
As these rivers have splintered on natural and unnatural paths, so have empires and cultures. Tombs, caravansaries, consulates, coins, teapots, palaces, cell phones, tractors, Mercedes, prayer books, fortresses, factories, bones, gas rigs, and armor of the past all remain in varying states of decay and revival. Soviet missile heads become garden boxes in western Turkmenistan. In a local history museum in the former Aral port town of Moynaq, half the formaldehyde solution embalming Aral Sea fish has evaporated like the vanished sea itself. Here the cracks of history exist together with the present, and the present carries no more weight than the past.
In America’s mass consciousness, Central Asia has transformed from being part of a powerful communist Cold War enemy into a place where the threat of Islamic extremism is imminent — all within the short span of my adult lifetime. Amid the clutter of preformed judgments that surface during the course of this work, it is always a comfort to return to the rivers. No matter how many different names they have been given, or empires have ruled them, or canals have been made from them, I can still see the rivers. Traveling along them offers the closest thing to truth that I can find.