Return to the Center of the World

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.

Carolyn Drake is a documentary photographer based in Istanbul. She was recognized as a top emerging photographer in 2006 by Photo District News and in 2007 by the Magenta Foundation.


  1. Just to add some information to this excellent piece, here is something I wrote while researching on agriculture and child rights for the Canadian International Development Agency a few years ago:

    Agriculture and Child Protection in the Aral Sea Area

    The biological death of the Aral Sea and its devastating effects on the livelihood of the 5 million people who live in the bioregion is one of the world’s worst ecological disasters. It is caused by ongoing unsustainable agricultural practices upstream, and its effect has been to undermine the health of the ecosystem and all living things in it, including people (Small and Bunce, 2003). It is featured in the World Bank’s 2003 World Development Report as a cautionary tale about just how bad “spillover effects” can get if the “role of an environmental asset” (the watershed) is ignored (World Bank 2003). If the Bank and donor community were to take a rights-based approach to addressing the causes and the effects of the disaster, however, the case could usefully described as the cost of ignoring the links between agriculture and child protection, understood to require a commitment to Ecosystem Health and Sustainable Livelihoods.

    5 million people live in the degraded and increasingly uninhabitable environment of the Aral Sea Area, which includes the northern inhabited areas of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as well as western Kazakhstan. In the 1950s the Soviets began to develop an ever-expanding irrigation scheme in the Central Asian watershed of the great Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers in an effort to become self-sufficient in cotton. The overall watershed spans six countries. Since its inception, agriculture policies driving the industry have been blind to intractable sustainability problems. Millions of hectares of naturally arid lands are irrigated with highly sedimented, saline river waters in primitive unlined and uncovered systems to create a cotton monoculture, combined with rice cultivation in the desert.

    Linkages between Livelihood, Ecosystem and Child Health Impacts

    Towns that were fishing villages in the 1950s are now as much as 100 km. from the sea. The former great fishery is now unfit for aquatic life. The seabed is saturated with saline river sediments and agricultural chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, defoliants and fertilizers excessively used during the Soviet era. As the seabed continues to dry up, these toxic chemicals and salts are blown back into the face of the population at a rate of 43 million tons of dust per year. Indeed, The Aral Sea area currently logs the highest dust deposition rates anywhere on the planet (Small and Bunce, 2003). This is suspected to be a prime cause of the elevated levels of acute respiratory infections in the local populations, and respiratory diseases are the leading cause of mortality among children. Weakened lung function and high rates of anemia may also exacerbate the tuberculosis epidemic in the region which is currently the highest in Europe and the former Soviet Union (Small et. al., June 2001). Water and food quality are also affected by airborne and waterborne chemical and salt contamination of soil and water. In the Uzbek Aral sea area over a quarter of the population draw their water from irrigation ditches, which are heavily contaminated with agrochemicals and sewage. The proportion of infant death due to diarrhea is as high as 29.1% compared to the regional rate of 16%. Outbreaks of water-borne diseases such as hepatitis B are common (Small, Oct. 2001).

    The failure of the World Bank and international donors, despite many millions of dollars invested, to make any substantial progress in alleviating the suffering of the area’s 5 million inhabitants over the last fifteen years has been well documented (Small and Bunce, 2003).

    Since 1997 Médecins Sans Frontières has been engaged with a project in the region to assess the impact of the disaster on human health, and to help the people who live in the Aral Sea Area cope with their environment. MSF has engaged in ongoing advocacy to draw international attention and resources to the agricultural causes and health effects of the disaster, to change regional agricultural policies and programs and to provide health services and ecological restoration for the affected population around the sea. As part of this operational research MSF is conducting a longitudinal study of child respiratory health. Research will measure the impact of dust on the lungs of children. Data collection includes study of dust samples, spyrometry testing of children, and questionnaires to mothers. Next steps will include analysis of the policy significance of these child health outcomes linked to the dust which is evidently contaminated and produced, as noted above, due to agricultural practices in the watershed. A consortium of Canadian research institutes and NGO’s are currently taking over the research from MSF, to expand the scope of the project and implement new initiatives to address the health needs of the population in the Aral Sea Area.

  2. Remarkable images of this part of the world and I appreciated the audio component, where the author provided her comments about her experiences. She captured so many “everyday” images, I really had the feeling that I was walking around in the homes, villages and countryside–it wasn’t a flashy pictorial, the kind of thing we get too much of. Most moving were the ones of very tired women and children and very tired looking men, yet people who obviously were still hanging on to their situations. bleak, as always these days, “no longer the center of the world, but now living on its edge,” a chilling reminder of so many things haunting western culture (or at least those of us haunted…) thank you for making these available. I hope to see more by that photographer…

  3. Such beautiful images. Not grandiose beauty, but focused segments of richness. Surely the people living in these places must appreciate the beauty of it, even while dealing with the hardships of their lives. In life’s mixed bag survival is top priority of course but beauty can’t be at the bottom of the list. And those stars!

  4. It is only a coincidence that I also read today a post by Oregon State University’s Dr. Michael E. Campana. He was also referring to the river Amu Darya and the probability of the earthquake formed dam of Lake Sarez breaking up and flooding the entire region… perhaps in another earthquake. If that were to happen, Carolyn Drakes photos might be what we are able to remember of the area as it once was.

  5. Great work! I study Central Asian politics and it’s always nice to stay back for a while and see the human component not reduced to numbers. This region has got so much history; it’s our duty to give it a fair representation also in art. Congratulations!

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