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JAXARTES, IAXARTES (6 Ἰαξάρτης), the river of Central Asia which now bears the name of Syr-Daria, or Yellow River (Daria is the generic Tartar name for all rivers, and Syr== “yellow” ), and which, watering the barren steppes of the Kirghiz-Cossacks, was known to the civilised world in the most remote ages.

The exploits of Cyrus and Alexander the Great have inscribed its name in history many centuries before our aera. If we are to believe the traditionary statements about Cyrus, the left bank of this river formed the N. limit of the vast dominion of that conqueror, who built a town, deriving its name from the founder [CYRESCHATA], upon its banks; and it was upon the right bank that he lost his life in battle with Tomyris, Queen of the Massagetae. Herodotus (1.201-216), who is the authority for this statement, was aware of the existence of the Syr-Daria; and although the name Jaxartes, which was a denomination adopted by the Greeks and followed by the Romans, does not appear in his history, yet the Araxes of Herodotus can be no other than the actual Syr, because there is no other great river in the country of the Massagetae. Much has been written upon the mysterious river called Araxes by Herodotus; M. De Guignes, Fosse, and Gatterer, suppose that it is the same as the Oxus or Amou-Daria ; M. De la Nauze sees in it the Araxes of Armenia; while Bayer, St. Croix, and Larcher, conceive that under this name the Volga is to be understood. The true solution of the enigma seems to be that which has been suggested by D'Anville, that the Araxes is an appellative common to the Amou, the Armenian Aras, the Volga, and the Syr. (Comp. ARAXES p. 188; Mém. de l'Acad. des Inscr. vol. xxxvi. pp. 69--85; Heeren, Asiat. Nations, vol. ii. p. 19, trans.) From this it may be concluded, that Herodotus had some vague acquaintance with the Syr, though he did not know it by name, but confounded it with the Araxes; nor was Aristotle more successful, as the Syr, the Volga, and the Don, have been recognised in the description of the Araxes given in his Meteorologics (1.13.15), which, it must be recollected, was written before Alexander's expedition to India. (Comp. Ideler, Meteorologia Vet. Graecor. et Rom. ad l.c., Berol, 1832; St. Croix, Examen Critique des Hist. d'Alex. p. 703.)

A century after Herodotus, the physical geography of this river-basin became well known to the Greeks, from the expedition of Alexander to Bactria and Sogdiana. In B.C. 329, Alexander reached the Jaxartes, and, after destroying the seven towns or fortresses upon that river the foundation of which was ascribed to Cyrus, founded a city, bearing his own name, upon its banks, ALEXANDREIA ULTIMA (Khojend). (Q. Curt. 7.6; Arrian, Arr. Anab. 4.1.3.)

After the Macedonian conquest, the Syr is found in all the ancient geographers under the form Jaxartes: while the country to the N. of it bore the general name of Scythia, the tracts between the Syr and Amou were called Transoxiana. The Jaxartes is not properly a Greek word, it was borrowed by the Greeks from the Barbarians, by whom, as Arrian (Arr. Anab. 3.30.13) asserts, it was called Orxantes (Ὀρξάντης). Various etymologies of this name have been given (St. Croix, Examen Critique des Hist. d'Alex. § 6), but they are too uncertain to be relied on: but whatever be the derivation of the word, certain it is that the Syr appears in all ancient writers under the name Jaxartes. Some, indeed, confounded the Jaxartes and the Tanaïs, and that purposely, as will be seen hereafter. A few have confounded it with the Oxus; while all, without exception, were of opinion that both the Jaxartes and the Oxus discharged their waters into the Caspian, and not into the Sea of Aral. It seems, at first sight, curious, to those who know, the true position of these rivers, that the Greeks, in describing their course, and determining the distance of their respective “embouchures,” should have taken the Sea of Aral for the Caspian, and that their mistake should have been repeated up to very recent times. Von Humboldt (Asie Centrale, vol. ii. pp. 162--297)--to whose extensive inquiry we owe an invaluable digest of the views entertained respecting the geography of the Caspian and Oxus by classical, Arabian, and European writers and travellers, along with the latest investigations of Russian scientific and military men--arrives at these conclusions respecting the ancient junction of the Aral, Oxus, and Caspian:

1st. That, at a period before the historical era, but nearly approaching to those revolutions which preceded it, the great depression of Central Asia--the concavity of Turan--may have been one large interior sea, connected on the one hand with the Euxine, on the other hand, by channels more or less broad, with the Icy Sea, and the Balkash and its adjoining lakes.

2nd. That, probably in the time of Herodotus, and even so late as the Macedonian invasion, the Aral was merely a bay or gulf of the Caspian, connected with it by a lateral prolongation, into which the Oxus flowed.

3rd. That, by the preponderance of evaporation over the supply of water by the rivers, or by diluvial deposits, or by Plutonic convulsions, the Aral and Caspian were separated, and a bifurcation of the Oxus developed,--one portion of its waters continuing its course to the Caspian, the other terminating in the Aral.

4th. That the continued preponderance of evaporation has caused the channel communicating with the Caspian to dry up.

At present it must be allowed that, in the absence of more data, the existence of this great Aralo-Caspian basin within the “historic period,” must be a moot point; though the geological appearances prove by the equable distribution of the same peculiar organic remains, that the tract between the Aral and the Caspian was once the bed of an united and continuous sea, and that the Caspian of the present day is the small residue of the once mighty Aralo-Caspian Sea.

Strabo (xi. pp. 507--517) was acquainted with the true position of this river, and has exposed the errors committed by the historians of Alexander (p. 508), who confounded the mountains of the Paropamisus--or Paropanisus, as all the good MSS. of Ptolemy read (Asie Centrale, vol. i. pp. 114--118)--with the Caucasus, and the Jaxartes with the Tanaïs. All this was imagined with a view of exalting the glory of Alexander, so that the great conqueror might be supposed, after subjugating Asia, to have arrived at the Don and the Caucasus, the scene of the legend where Hercules unbound the chains of the fire-bringing Titan.

The Jaxartes, according to Strabo (p. 510), took its rise in the mountains of India, and he determines it as the frontier between Sogdiana and the nomad Scythians [p. 2.7](pp. 514, 517), the principal tribes of which were the Sacae, Dahae, and Massagetae, and adds (p. 518) that its “embouchure” was, according to Patrocles, 80 parasangs from the mouth of the Oxus. Pliny (6.18) says that the Scythians called it “Silis,” probably a form of the name Syr, which it now bears, and that Alexander and his soldiers thought that it was the Tanaïs. It has been conjectured that the Alani, in whose language the word tan (Tan-aïs, Dan, Don) signified a river, may have brought this appellative first to the E., and then to the W. of the Aralo-Caspian basin, in their migrations, and thus have contributed to confirm an error so flattering to the vanity of the Macedonian conquerors. (Asie Centrale, vol. ii. pp. 254, 291; comp, Schafarik, Slav. Alt. vol. i. p. 500.) Pomponius Mela (3.5.6) merely states that it watered the vast countries of Scythia and Sogdiana, and discharged itself into that E. portion of the Caspian which was called Scythicus Sinus.

Arrian, in recounting the capture of Cyropolis (Anab. 4.3.4), has mentioned the curious fact, that the Macedonian army entered the town by the dried--up bed of the river ; these desiccations are not rare in the sandy steppes of Central Asia,--as for instance, in the sudden drying up of one of the arms of the Jaxartes, known under the name of Tanghi-Daria, the account of which was first brought to Europe in 1820. (Comp. Journ. Geog. Soc. vol. xiv. pp. 333-335.)

Ptolemy (6.12.1) has fixed mathematically the sources, as well as the “embouchure,” of the Jaxrartes. According to him the river rises in lat. 43° and long. 125°, in the mountain district of the COMEDI ( ὀρεινὴ Κωμηδών, § 3: Muz-Tágh), and throws itself into the Caspian in lat. 48° and long. 97°, carrying with it the waters of many affluents, the principal of which are called, the one BASCATIS (Βασκατίς, § 3), and the other DEMUS (Δῆμος, § 3). He describes it as watering three countries, that of the “Sacae,” “Sogdiana,” and “Scythia intra Imaum.” In the first of these, upon its right bank, were found the COMARI (Κόμαροι) and CARATAE (Καράται, 6.13.3); in the second, on the left bank, the ANIESES (Ἀνιέσεις). and DREPSIANI (Δρεψιανοί), who extended to the Oxus, the TACHORI (Τάχοροι), and IATH (Ἰάτιοι, 6.12.4); in Scythia, on the N. bank of the Syr, lived the JAXARTAE (Ἰαξάρται), a, numerous people (6.14.10), and near the “embouchure,” the ARIACAE (Ἀριάκαι, 6.14.13). Ammianus Marcellinus (23.6.59), describing Central Asia, in the upper course of the Jaxartes which falls into the Caspian, speaks of two rivers, the ARAXATES and DYMAS (probably the Demus of Ptolemy), “qui per juga vallesque praecipites in campestrem planitiem decurrentes Oxiam nomine paludem efficiunt longe lateque diffusam.” This is the first intimation, though very vague, as to the formation of the Sea of Aral, and requires a more detailed examination. [OXIA PALUS]

The obscure Geographer of Ravenna, who lived, as it is believed, about the 7th century A. D., mentions the river Jaxartes in describing Hyrcania.

Those who wish to study the accounts given by mediaeval and modern travellers, will find much valuable information in the “Dissertation on the River Jaxartes” annexed to Levchine, Hordes et Steppes des Kirghiz-Kazaks, Paris, 1840. This same writer (pp. 53--70) has described the course of the Syr-Daria, which has its source in the mountains of Kachkar-Dávain, a branch of the range called by the Chinese the “Mountains of Heaven,” and, taking a NW. course through the sandy steppes of Kizil-Koum and Kara-Koum, unites its waters with those of the Sea of Aral, on its E. shores, at the gulf of Kamechlou-Bachi.


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