These Waters Carry the Ghosts of Ancient Empires

These Waters Carry the Ghosts of Ancient Empires

Paul Salopek travels along the banks of the Amu Darya, a river diminished by agriculture and the flow of time.


5 - 12


Social Studies, English Language Arts, Anthropology, Geography, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


Following the banks of the fabled Amu Darya, an antique highway of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan

The Amu Darya River springs from the glaciers of the Pamir Mountains. It dies more than 1,500 miles to the west, in the dried-up, human-made desert of the Aral Sea basin. The river’s currents carry the bone dust of empires. Those waters are the color of sand.

During the conquest of Bactria in 329 B.C., Alexander the Great ferried his whole army across the Amu Darya in five days. They used vessels sewn from his troops’ leather tents. In the seventh century A.D., the Chinese monk Xuanzang crossed the river on his 15,000-mile journey through the Buddhist world. Conqueror Genghis Khan shaped the river into a weapon of war in the Middle Ages. He used mud dams to flood the Silk Road kingdoms along its banks.

This summer, I walked 220 miles of the Amu Darya’s main channel in remote western Uzbekistan. I traveled with two guides, a horse, and a cargo donkey. The waterway was no longer streaming with life as it was in ancient times. It was a twisting and turning shape in history. It was a maze of channels, canals, ponds, ditches, and human-built banks.

“We compete with the farmers for water,” said Oljabay Shaniyazov, director of the Badai-Tugai Nature Preserve, near the town of Nukus. He explained that cotton and rice crops get water first. Then, the preserve pumps water for its trees whenever it can.

Shaniyazov’s trees live on 29,000 acres. They are river poplars with stringy grey bark braided like old ship’s ropes. The trees are what remain of the huge woodlands that once shaded the Amu Darya’s wide riverbed for hundreds of miles. The local Caspian tigers are gone, but the preserve still protects the country’s last herd of Bactrian deer. A young zoologist fed the cheerfully antlered beasts every morning as if they were his poodles. Behind him, the surface of the Amu Darya shone through the gnarled tree trunks like a steel blade. Forest rangers couldn’t recall the last time a foreigner had camped in the park.

If the Amu Darya makes any headlines today, they are usually about the troubles in the Aral Sea.

The historic waterway was choked by sixty years of irrigation projects under the Soviet Union. The projects were built to make the Central Asian desert bloom with cotton. Today, the Amu Darya starts to disappear miles before reaching its old basin in the Aral Sea. Independent Uzbekistan is home to the fourth-largest saltwater lake in the world. It is now a graveyard of sand dunes, fish bones, dust storms, and beached ships. The Aral Sea’s shoreline retreats every year, with lower and lower tides. Its dirty waters are so salt-dense that it is impossible to sink down into them.

The Amu Darya is largely a path of ghost waters. It connects what is and what was.

With my guides Aziz Khalmuradov and Tanatar (“Bolt of Sunrise”) Bekniyazov, I slogged from Kungrat to Khiva on soft canal roads. The entire world traveled those roads. Shepherds led restless herds of tree-climbing goats. There were women melon farmers wearing face masks against suntan. Three schoolboys rode by on bicycles, each in a white ball cap with the letters F.B.I. The river people were mostly ethnic Karakalpaks. There were also Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Kazakhs. They were all friendly but shy. Beehive ovens puffed smoke in their yards. The villages had rough pioneer names like Three Roofs or Five Roofs. We camped in apricot orchards. When we reached the end of a canal path and there was water, we swam.

Even tamed by farming, the lower Amu Darya River still holds a dizzying magic. Our swimming holes were like time pools.

Downstream from the nature preserve stood two giant mud fortresses. The Gaur Kala dated back two thousand years. It was built by followers of an ancient Persian religion, Zoroastrianism. The other old fortress was Jampik Kala. It was built in the 11th century by the Muslim trading empire of Khwarezm. The Mongols destroyed both. In some countries, the ruins might be full of tour buses. On the Amu Darya, old men played backgammon under the lonesome walls without ever glancing up.

Another day’s walk downstream, we came to a place called Chalpyk. We climbed a 2,200-year-old Tower of Silence. The temple looked like a volcano rising out of the desert plain. From the top poked a modern surveying marker made of steel. People had wrapped it in ribbons of rags. They turned it into a wishing tree. The Amu Darya was like this.

“I must admit … I have never found a river or source that yielded any so precious as that of the Oxus,” wrote Arminius Vámbéry, a Hungarian explorer. He once marched along the Amu Darya in 1863. He called the Amu Darya by its classical Greek name, the Oxus.

Vámbéry was a sly character. He disguised himself in the rags of a Sufi pilgrim and became a spy. He spied for Britain during the contest between London and imperial Russia for control over Central Asia’s khan tribes. It was a 19th-century version of the Cold War and was called the Great Game. However, my guides and I felt the same as Vámbéry on the topic of the Amu Darya’s waters.

We walked from hand-pumped well to hand-pumped well. We walked from whirlpool to whirlpool. Scientists say that the dust in the air raked up from the dying Aral Sea is accelerating the melting of the Tajik glacier fields, where the river begins.

At a pumping station, we sipped tea with engineers who told stories of hooking the bodies of drunk fishermen from the river. They remembered river ice so thick you could drive your car across to Turkmenistan in winter. They talked of catfish so big in the sand-colored waters that you needed a tractor to haul them out.

One night, in the moonlight, I walked, hot, filthy, and fully clothed, into the Amu Darya’s waters. I let its tired fingers pick me up, spin me around, and cradle me.

Media Credits

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Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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