In this project, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya – two rivers – become guides on a journey through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
Early Islamic writings call the Amu and Syr Darya two of the four rivers of Paradise. Their water has sustained human life for forty thousand years, providing pastures for nomadic herders and irrigation for farmers, enabling the development of culture, trade, language, literature—and, in parallel, motivating a centuries-long succession of wars and imperial conquests. Turkic, Mongol, Hun, and Wu Hu nomadic warriors from the mountains fought settled farmers in the valleys and desert oases until the sixteenth century, before the conquests of the Qing dynasty and the British and Russian empires.
When the Soviet government officially incorporated Central Asia in 1917, it carved the land up into independent republics and transformed its rivers into a web of irrigation canals, turning the region into a gigantic cotton farm. Such large quantities of water were diverted that the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest lake, began to disappear, replaced by salt and dust storms. When Moscow’s rule ended in 1991, five new Central Asian nations were left behind, burdened with struggling economies, artificial borders, and a growing environmental crisis.
Despite the divisions that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two rivers still run through these countries, binding them inextricably. This project follows the rivers from beginning to end, crossing into the lives of people and the layers of history that they intersect along the way.