Syr Darya

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Syr Darya
Map of area around the Aral Sea. Aral Sea boundaries are circa 1960.  Countries at least partially in the Aral Sea watershed are in yellow.
Map of area around the Aral Sea. Aral Sea boundaries are circa 1960. Countries at least partially in the Aral Sea watershed are in yellow.
Origin Naryn and Kara Darya rivers
Mouth Aral Sea
Basin countries Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan
Length 2,212 km
Avg. discharge 703 m³/s (near mouth)
Basin area 219,000 km²

Syr Darya (Uzbek: Sirdaryo; Kazakh: Сырдарья; Tajik: Сирдарё; Persian: سيردريا, also transliterated Syrdarya or Sirdaryo) is a river in Central Asia, sometimes known as the Jaxartes or Yaxartes from its Ancient Greek name ὁ Ιαξάρτης. The Greek name is derived from Old Persian, Yakhsha Arta ("Great Pearly"), a reference to the color of the river's water. In medieval Islamic writings, the river is uniformly know as Sayhoun (سيحون) - after one of the four rivers of Paradise. (Amu Darya was likewise known as Jayhoun, the name of another one of the four).

The name, which comes from Persian and has long been used in the East, is a relatively recent one in western writings; prior to the early 20th century, the river was known by various versions of its ancient Greek name. It marked the northernmost limit of Alexander of Macedon's conquests. Greek historians have claimed that here in 329 BC he founded the city Alexandria Eschate (literally, "Alexandria the Furthest") as a permanent garrison. The city is now known as Khujand. In reality, he had just renamed (and possibly, expanded) the city of Cyropolis founded by king Cyrus the Great of Persia, more than two centuries earlier.

The river rises in two headstreams in the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan and eastern Uzbekistan -- the Naryn River and the Kara Darya River -- and flows for some 2,220 km (1,380 miles) west and north-west Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan to the remains of the Aral Sea. The Syr Darya drains an area of over 800,000 square kilometres, but no more than 200,000 square kilometres actually contributes water to the river. Its annual flow is a very modest 28 cubic kilometres (23 million acre feet) per year - half that of its sister river, the Amu Darya.

Along its course, the Syr Darya irrigates the most fertile cotton-growing region in the whole of Central Asia, together with the towns of Kokand, Khujand, Kyzyl-Orda and Turkestan.

An extensive system of canals, many built in the 18th century by the Uzbek Khanate of Kokand, spans the regions the river flows through. Massive expansion of irrigation canals during the Soviet period, to irrigate cotton fields, wrought ecological carnage to the area, with the river drying up long before reaching the Aral Sea which, as a result, has shrunk to a small remnant of its former size. With millions of people now settled in these cotton areas (and highly repressive post-Soviet regimes in power in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), it is not clear how the situation can be rectified.

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