Page images


The capital of this district, Samarcand, with its six gated-walls, and its memories of Tammerlane—or Timour Leng—who is buried within it, is a still more interesting town, though its interest centres all in its ruinous buildings and the tales which still cling to them (pp. 296, 297). From the middle of the market place the “melancholy domes” of the mosques rise above the flat-roofed houses, and in the background are high mountains, covered during part of the year with snow, on which the rays of even an Asian winter sun is reflected with dazzling brightness. But though interesting in every respect, Samarcand is a city of the past. Here it was that Alexander the Great killed his friend Clytus in a fit of drunken passion; in this town, even in those days an important place, the Macedonian conqueror

[graphic][merged small]

fixed his head-quarters when he was warring with the mountain tribes, and preparing for his expedition against the Scythians on the other side of the Syr Darya. Traditions of the exploits of Alexander, or Iskender Dulkarnain (the two-horned), are still among the stock tales of the inhabitants. Many of the petty princes of the Upper Oxus country claim their descent from him. But their genealogies are extremely apocryphal; for though the generals he left in charge of his conquests founded the Græco-Bactrian dynasties, and introduced among other elements of Greek culture the Macedonian calendar, little now remains to attest their existence save a number of coins and medals, which are often found on the Steppe, and in all the ruins about Samarcand, along the valley of the Zarafshan River. Russian society is in Samarcand smaller than in Tashkend: but less punctilious, but perhaps on that account not less pleasant. In Tashkend the Governor-General keeps up a petty state, and conducts himself with a reserve towards even the highest officials not

much less than imperial. At his receptions no one is permitted to sit down in his presence, and altogether the etiquette observed is ludicrous, considering the place and the person.

In Samarcand society is freer. Indeed, there are few Russians, and those not of high rank. Adventurers either directly from Russia, or who have wandered from Siberia, and after a strange life amongst the native Khanates have only appeared in the light of civilisation after they imagined that their former misdeeds had been forgotten or forgiven, sometimes encamp here in spite of the discreet vigilance of the Lieutenant-Governor; and precise people will not hesitate to say that the morals of the later arrivals might be greatly improved without Samarcand society running any claim of being stigmatised as prudish.*


Into the Sea of Aral debouch the Amu Darya, and Syr Darya—in other words, the Oxus and Jaxartes; and the amount of sand which they carry down and deposit amid the reed patches of its shallow waters has suggested the name of the lake, namely, the “Sea of Islets.” From north to south the sea stretches for 265 miles, and its breadth from east to west is 115. Hence, next to

Hence, next to the Caspian, it is the largest body of water on the Asiatic Steppes. It is said to be 117 feet above the Caspian, which is again 84 below the Black Sea; but these data still requires verification. It was only in 1818 that ships were launched on its waters, but at present its flotilla is of some importance. The flat boats of the Kirghiz have, however, navigated it from the earliest periods; but so little have they disturbed its surface or explored its shores, that when the Russians first landed on the numerous islands which skirt its coast, they found them abounding with antelopes so fearless as to prove that they had hitherto been little acquainted with man. Wild storms often blow over its shallow waters, and this, combined with the almost total absence of harbours, renders navigation somewhat dangerous. The northern end is moreover usually frozen during winter, but the southern part is never shut to any extent. Sturgeon, silurus, carp, and a species of herring—in a word the fishes of the Caspian-abound in it, its waters being only slightly brackish. Curiously enough, however, the lake has no visible outlet. Hence, at one time it was thought that it might communicate by some subterranean passage with the Caspian, 150 miles to the west. It has, however, been ascertained that the evaporation in this dry region is so great as to fully account for its equilibrium. It is now believed that its waters are, like those of the Caspian, decreasing; and some geographers, among others Sir Henry Rawlinson, are firm in the conviction that the Aral is a lake of such comparatively recent origin as not to have existed here much before the middle ages. Others—among whom Sir Roderick Murchison was the leader-maintain that the Aral and the Caspian have existed all through the historical period, and that their outlines, as well as the course of the Oxus and Jaxartes, were determined in distant geological periods. The 'Russian authorities have, however, a different opinion ; for, as we have seen (p. 280), they are

* The most recent account of Samarcand, and much of the country under description, will be found in Mr. Marvin's edition of Colonel Grodekoff's “Ride from Samarcand to Herat, through the Uzbek States of Afghan Turkestan” (1880).

endeavouring to turn the former river in the channel along which it was supposed at one time to run to the Caspian. If this should be successful—at the cost of ruin to the Khivan oasis-vessels might then be sent from the Caspian, or, indeed, from the town on the banks of the Volga far into the heart of Russia, on to the borders of Afghanistan, thus avoiding the terrible sands of the Kizyl and Kara Kums.*

The name of Ust Urt is applied to the bare plateau between the Aral and the Caspian. Since 1873 it has been entirely Russian, the forts of Alexandrovsk, Krasnovodsk, and Chikishlar, the latter at the mouth of the Attrek River, being the most important point in the region. But Ashuradé in the south-east part of the Caspian is now a Russian station, and on the shores of that sea there are several Russian landing-places.


The Caspian, though now eighty-four feet below the Black Sea, is believed to have been at one time on a level with it, and to have formed one of the series of sea basins of which the Mediterranean and the Black Sea are the remains. Its elevation is probably due to the continual evaporation which has been going on until its waters have shrunk to their present level. There is, however, a neck of land lying to the north of the Caucasus, so low that a rise of twenty-three feet in the waters of the Black Sea would cause them to overflow to the Caspian, and re-convert it into the great Asiatic Europo-Asiatic Mediterranean it probably once was. Nevertheless, a lake 710 miles long, 210 broad on an average, and embracing an area of 180,000 square miles, is sufficiently extensive without the imagination finding it necessary to speculate on the still greater space it might have occupied in the past. Into it the Volga and the Ural pour the drainage of 613,000 square miles—probably more than the Don and Danube combined contribute to the Black Sea. If, however, the waters of the Kuma, the Terek, the Arax, the Kur, the Sefid, and the Attrek are taken into the calculation, it is quite evident, as Dr. Carpenter has pointed out, that the Caspian receives nearly, if not quite as much, river water as the more important inland sea to the west and south of it. Yet, owing to the great evaporation to which it is subject, the surface is not rising, but rather falling; and the saltness of the water is curiously not so great as that of the Black Sea, or of the ocean generally. This, however, varies in different parts, and at different seasons of the year. In the shallow northern parts the water is drinkable; in the middle and southern basins the salinity is about one-third that of the ordinary sea, while in the numerous lagoons off the shore, salt is manufactured for commercial purposes from the extremely concentrated brine which is found there. The temperature of the Caspian is also extremely variable. In the summer the heat is often great, and in the winter the cold is proportionately severe. At this season the northern portion is more or less covered with ice, but as in the case of the Sea of Aral the waters of the southern reaches do not freeze. There are no preceptible tides, but the sudden changes of the wind often cause strong currents. The presence of seals

* The literature of this subject is extensive. In Wood's “Shores of Lake Aral" (1876), Goeje's “Das alte Bett des Oxus" (1875), and Roesler's “ Die Aralseefrage" (1873), the subject is discussed with great fulness.

and herrings points to the lake having at one time communicated with the ocean, though Dr. Carpenter thinks that the communication was rather northwards with the Polar Sea, than westwards through the Black Sea and Mediterranean. The other fish are either salt water or marine. Salmon abound, and the sturgeon fisheries are so valuable that nearly the whole world is supplied with isinglass made out of their swimming bladders. Caspian salt fish are also transmitted to distant parts, and their capture and curing form the chief oecupation of the people of Astrakhan and other parts on the shores of the sea. Naptha and petroleum springs abound in the neighbouring region. Those of Baku are very celebrated. Some of them are constantly burning, and one known as the “burning field ” was in former times the favourite place of pious resort to the Ghebers, or ancient fire-worshippers of Persia.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

The division between Europe and Asia is mainly an arbitrary one, which for our purpose not be strictly observed. The Caspian, however, forms a sufficiently natural boundary, and accordingly we shall for the present leave it to touch briefly upon the ancient kingdom which abuts on its southern shores.



PERSIA: THE COUNTRY AND ITS PRODUCTS. We now enter a plateau five times the size of Great Britain, but not quite so popelous as Ireland, a land which ranks among the most famous of the world

, if we com sider its past, but which, looking at it from its present point of view is, perhaps, one of

the poorest and less important of the greater States of Asia. Nor is the cause of this decadence difficult to divine. Persia is a country for which nature has done little, and for which man must therefore do much. It is an upland averaging 2,500 feet above the level of the sea. Indeed, the only level portions are those skirting the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and the southern shore of the Caspian; but here, though the vegetation is often dense, the climate is most unhealthy and relaxing. Leaving “Gurmsir ”—or the low country so called, and crossing the Elburz Range, whose volcano—Mount Damavand towers to the height of 18,469 feet, and in the south over the parallel chains of the Kohrud Mountains, and the yet partially explored and often snow-capped ranges of Kurdistan, Farsistan, and Laristan, we come on Persia proper. This is known as, “Sarhadd,” a land of dry

[graphic][subsumed][ocr errors][merged small]

plateaux, often sandy, and in nearly every case sterile, unless where irrigated by the few rivers which intersect the country. Once on a time the Persians attended to these irrigating works, and hence their soil was fertile and their kingdom prosperous. But nowadays an imbecile Government, whose only thought seems to be to squeeze out of the people all that cannot be expressed, does little, if anything, to develop the resources of the country; and consequently, unless a few more than ordinarily fertile villages are to be taken as exceptions, the Persia of Nassr-e-Din is for the most part a waste, streaked with green oases; monuments of the industry of a people from whom ages of oppression and misgovernment have not altogether eradicated some of the virtues which they possess in common with the other down-trodden nations of Asia. There are no railways in the country, few roads worthy of the name, and hence naturally a scarcity of wheeled carriages. Water communication has

« PreviousContinue »