Men come to wash their cars, bicycles and themselves on a hot day in midsummer in the Syr Darya River near Kyzylorda (the capital of Kazakhstan from 1925–29), in the south of the country.
This river, which the ancient Greeks knew as the Jaxartes, has as its source the Naryn River in Kyrgyzstan and the Kara Darya River in Uzbekistan, and stretches some 2,212 km to the Aral Sea. The Greek name is derived from the old Persian Yakhsha Arta (‘Great Pearly’), a reference to the colour of the river’s water.
The Syr Darya is one of the two great rivers of Central Asia, referred to in early Islamic writings as the Sayhoun, one of the four rivers of Paradise. Its watercourse irrigates great swathes of the region, particularly the cotton-rich Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan.
The Syr Darya has always been immensely important for the Kazakhs. Prior to their incorporation into the USSR, the nomadic Kazakhs were split between three hordes, with the Middle Horde wintering along the Syr Darya’s middle reaches and the Small Horde wintering along its lower reaches, adjacent to the Aral Sea.