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

NGS Resource Carousel Loading Logo
Loading ...
Selected text level

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 human-made desert of the Aral Sea basin. The river’s currents carry the bone dust of empires. They are the color of sand.

During the conquest of Bactria in 329 B.C., Alexander ferried his whole army across the stream in five days. They used vessels stitched from his troops’ leather tents. The Chinese monk and scholar Xuanzang crossed the Amu Darya on his 15,000-mile trek through the Buddhist world of the seventh century A.D. Genghis Khan shaped the river into a weapon of war in the Middle Ages, building and puncturing through mud dams to flood the Silk Road kingdoms along its banks. This summer, with two guides, a horse, and a cargo donkey, I walked 220 miles of the Amu Darya’s main channel in remote western Uzbekistan. The waterway was no longer the superhighway it was in ancient times. It was a twisting and turning shape in history. It was a maze of channels, canals, reservoirs, dikes, and embankments.

“We compete with the farmers for water,” said Oljabay Shaniyazov, director of the Badai-Tugai Nature Preserve, near the town of Nukus. “Cotton and rice take priority. We pump water for our trees whenever we 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 a remnant of immense woodlands that once shaded the Amu Darya’s wide riverbed for hundreds of miles. The local Caspian tigers are gone. But the preserve still shelters 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 unsheathed. Forest rangers couldn’t recall the last time a foreigner had camped in the park.

If the Amu Darya makes any headlines today, they usually concern the Aral Sea disaster.

The historic waterway has been strangled 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 evaporates miles before reaching its old delta in the Aral Sea. Independent Uzbekistan has inherited the fourth-largest saltwater lake in the world as a graveyard of sand dunes, fish bones, dust storms, and beached ships. The Aral’s shoreline retreats every year in rhythmic diminishing tides. Its waters are so salt-dense it is impossible to submerge in them.

The Amu Darya is largely a course of ghost waters, connecting 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 piloted unruly herds of tree-climbing goats. Women melon farmers wearing face masks against suntan walked there. Three schoolboys pumped by on bicycles, each in a white ball cap with the letters F.B.I. The river people were mostly ethnic Karakalpaks, but there were also Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Kazakhs. They were friendly but shy. Beehive ovens puffed smoke in their yards. Villages bore rough pioneer names, like Three Roofs or Five Roofs. We camped in apricot orchards. When the canal paths dead-ended in water, we swam.

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

Downstream from the nature preserve stood two giant mud fortresses. One, Gaur Kala, dated back two millennia and was Zoroastrian, an ancient Iranian faith. The other, Jampik Kala, was built in the 11th century by the Muslim trading empire of Khwarezm. The Mongols destroyed both. The ruins would have been swarmed by tour buses in some countries. On the Amu Darya, old men played backgammon under lonesome defense walls without ever glancing up.

Another day’s walk downstream, at a place called Chalpyk, we climbed a 2,200-year-old Tower of Silence. There, fire worshippers had placed their dead on boards to be stripped by birds. The temple looked like a volcano knuckling up from the desert plain. From the top poked a modern surveying marker made of steel. People had wrapped it in ribbons of rags, converting it into a wishing tree. The Amu Darya was like this.

“I must admit myself that, as far as my experience of water extends, 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 marched along the Amu Darya in 1863, calling the Amu Darya by its classical Greek name, the Oxus.

Vámbéry was a slippery character. He disguised himself in the rags of a Sufi pilgrim. Then, he spied for Britain during the struggle between London and imperial Russia for influence over Central Asia’s khan tribes. It was a 19th-century version of the Cold War dubbed the Great Game. On the topic of the Amu Darya’s waters, however, my guides and I felt the same as Vámbéry.

We walked from hand-pumped well to hand-pumped well. We walked from whirlpool to whirlpool. Scientists say that the airborne dust raked up from the dying Aral Sea is accelerating the melting of the Tajik glacier fields that birth the stream.

At a pumping station, we sipped tea with engineers who told stories of hooking the bodies of drunk fishermen from the river. They spoke of 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 it would require a tractor to haul them out.

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

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

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

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources