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WI: The 'Djordanian Dam' was never built?

SinghSong

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In antiquity, the Amu-Darya River, aka as the 'Oxus River', flowed into the Caspian Sea via the Uzboy River distributary, up until the 9th century AD, and then again between 1220 and 1575, approximately; with a major branch of the river splitting off from the Oxus delta, and rather than flowing north into the Aral Sea, flowing west into the fresh-water Sarykamysh Lake. This was then drained south-westwards by the Uzboy River, which flowed out into the Caspian Sea at Krasnovodsk Bay through the Bala-Ishem salt marshes; with the historical Uzboy River effectively connecting the Caspian Sea and Aral Sea with one another in much the same manner that the Detroit River connects Lake Huron and Lake Erie (with the Sarygamysh Lake, in spite of being less than half the volume that it was then, still having more the 3x the surface area and c.20x the volume of Lake St.Clair). All geographers, from the ancient Greeks to the early Arabs, reporting that the Oxus flowed into the Caspian- up until the 9th century, when this apparently dried up. With this not-so-coincidentally coinciding with the building of a dam near the ancient city of Old Ürgenç, aka as 'Djordjania', in what's now northern Turkmenistan, along the banks of the Oxus river tributary which led to the Sarykamysh Lake.

Founded as early as the 5th century BC (and now believed to be the likeliest candidate for the capital city of the ancient Dahaens, who were famed as mounted archers, and heavily recruited by Alexander the Great for his invasion of India), this was one of the largest cities and most important trading centres in Central Asia; previously the western-most major entrepot on the Silk Road, with the Tang Dynasty's fleetingly brief claims of suzerainty over the city and the wider region under its control (from the conquest of the Western Turkic Khaganate in 657 until the rebellion against the puppet Qaghans appointed to rule over them by the Tang Emperor that began in 662) having formed the basis for their assertions that the Caspian Sea formed the western limits of their Chinese Empire. Regarding its locally cultivated expertise though, Ürgenç was world-renowned as one of the historical world's foremost centers of craftsmanship, engineering, construction and architecture; with the knowledge and skills of this ancient school of architecture having spread across the Islamic World throughout the centuries, recognizable in the structures and decorations of many buildings from the Timur period, both within Turkmenistan, and in regions such as Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Transcaucasia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India. And after having been captured by the Arabs in 712CE, at some time in the 9th century, they employed their civil engineering expertise to construct a dam just east of the town, along with a network of canals.

This allowed the region of Khwarazm, or the classical Chorasmia, to flourish as a well irrigated and rich agricultural region, surrounded on all sides by steppe land and desert, in geographic isolation from other areas of civilization, having blocked off the flow of the Oxus into the Caspian Sea, with the city itself becoming the founding capital of the Khwarazmian Empire- but also forced many settlements further downstream to be permanently abandoned, as the Uzboy River dried up, with agricultural irrigation and flows of trade drying up with it. This dam, though, was destroyed by the Mongols in order to flood and ransack the city in 1220, during Genghis Khan's conquest of the Khwarazmian Empire, in what is considered to be one of the bloodiest massacres in human history. Unobstructed once more, the Uzboy River began to flow again, reaching the Caspian Sea from about the turn of the 14th century onwards. And despite the devastating effects of the Mongol invasion, the restoration of the Uzboy River, along with the flows of renewed trade which came with it, allowed the city to be revived and regain its previous status- with 14th-century Berber traveller Ibn Battuta describing it as "the largest, greatest, most beautiful and most important city of the Turks. It has fine bazaars and broad streets, a great number of buildings and abundance of commodities".

But after a series of revolts by its rulers, under the Sufid Dynasty, against the Timurid Empire, Timur razed Urgench to the ground and massacred its population, destroyed the city's irrigation system, and had barley planted over the ground where the city had once stood, leaving only one mosque standing. And in around 1575, the east branch of the Oxus cut through some hills, causing the main current to shift to the Aral Sea, with a new dam rebuilt near the old site of the city to retain the remaining water and to deny it to the Turkomans who were in the habit of raiding the Oxus delta. This not only blocked the Uzboy, but caused the Sarikamish to slowly dry up too; bringing an end to the civilization which had thrived in the Chorasmia region for millennia, and forcing the survivors of the previously agricultural population to become nomadic desert dwellers.

So then, here's an alternate history scenario worth pondering: what if the original 'Djordjanian Dam' were never created (and as a result, the historical Uzboy River had never died or dried out)? IOTL, the first Russian military expedition into Central Asia, kicking off 'The Great Game', was launched immediately after Peter the Great heard about the story (or rather, spun a heavily altered tale, by a Turkmen traveller, that it had been diverted by the Khivans to the Aral Sea in order to extract golden sand from the river waters), and that it would be possible to destroy the dam and send the Oxus into its old channel, thereby making a waterway from Moscow down the Volga and up the Oxus into the heart of Asia; with these plans later developing into the proposed (but never built) Main Turkmen Canal, which was later abandoned in favor of Stalin's far larger-scale and more ambitious 'Great Plan For the Transformation of Nature' instead.

And looking back at the timeline of major events in the Caspian and Aral Sea basins, in the years, decades and centuries which followed on from the construction of the 'Djordanian Dam', which cut off the Uzboy River for the next four centuries or so (along with the westernmost riverine route of the Northern Silk Road)- the drying up of the Uzboy river, thanks to the original dam's construction, appears to have taken place only a few years prior to the first breakthroughs of the Varangian (i.e, Viking) traders and merchants of the Keivan Rus' into the Muslim areas adjacent to the Caspian Sea, via the Volga Trade Route. And only around half a century prior to the first large-scale Varangian raids along the shores of the Caspian Sea, overwhelmingly directed against the Abbasids in the south.

If the Djordanian Dam had never been built, and the Uzboy River channel which connected the Caspian and Aral Seas via the Amu Darya/Oxus River had remained open, along with the flow of trade and wealth down this primary historical branch of the Northern Silk Road, then couldn't the Varangian traders and/or raiders of Keivan Rus' have been equally, or even more, likely to turn their attentions eastwards instead- perhaps even attempting to settle permanently in the region (as they attempted to in Azerbeijan IOTL, only to be forced to withdraw after an outbreak of dysentry)? After their destruction and conquest of Khazaria, if the Keivan Rus' still emerge successful over them as they did IOTL, what would stop the Volga Trade Route from merging fully with the Northern Silk Road, and simply becoming the north-westernmost branch of it? And how great could the long-term cultural and geopolitical repercussions of establishing this merger of the Volga Trade Route and Northern Silk Road, at such an early juncture, have been?
 

SinghSong

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You know, it's really disheartening when you invest so much time and detail into a question, only to get no responses at all...
 

SenatorChickpea

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This is a great question, but it runs into the problem that most people here have a limited knowledge of Central Asia; even apart from the neglect of the region in education and popular culture beyond generalised clichés about the Silk Road and conquering hordes, it's hard for a layman to know where to begin to learn. Frankopan's The Silk Roads was the first major work of popular history on the region that enjoyed real commercial success and that didn't focus on the twentieth and twenty first centuries, and it's a survey book.

I would suggest that with this kind of technical question, you might consider two approaches:

Firstly, if you want to get a discussion going- perhaps try a more general 'Central Asian Scenarios' thread where you guide the discussion a little. I think it's quite possible that there are people on this board who know more about the topic than they at first think, but, and I know this is unfair, your detailed and comprehensive first post can make it hard to follow up. If you don't have the confidence, it's easy to look at that first post and go 'what can I possibly add?'

Secondly- this is exactly the sort of thing that would interest @Gary Oswald as the basis of a post for the blog. That's the alternative where you expand on your thoughts, maybe run down a couple of mini scenarios- and the discussion thread around the article is where you'd get feedback and a back-and-forth, because there'd be a few clear scenarios to think about.

Don't be discouraged. You post interesting stuff, and I'll try to get back to you on it sooner.
 

Gary Oswald

Old and Foolish now
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I agree entirely with @SenatorChickpea here. I regularly check out this forum but ultimately if I see a post about an area of the world I know nothing about, I don't have anything to say about it. It's the nature of the game that if you post about a western country, you are going to get a much better response simply because more people can engage constructively.

Likewise as someone who has written a fair few article and admittedly also has some self interest in this, that's where I tend to put stuff where I know a lot about and I don't expect other people to be equally well informed.

If I don't know much about the area or it's a relatively open ended question, I'll ask a question on here to pick other people's brains, it's a thing I've done plenty of times. But if I want to try and talk about a thing where I reckon I'll know the most, the articles are where I'd do that because it's much more of a kind of space for deliberately informative posts, I guess.
 

Geordie

Big Ol' Soviet Deltic
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This is a fascinating WI, although I'm afraid I can add very little. My knowledge of Central Asian masters is barely enough to clear the hurdle of "non-existent".

The idea of plugging the Volga trade routes into the Silk Road, especially when the Norse are active in the former, is an idea rich in possibility.
 
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