The Iaxartes is a river, today-called Syr-Daria, which springs west of the Pamir Mountains in Fergana (in modern Kyrgyzstan), and flows through modern Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to Lake Aral, covering a distance of 2212 km. In ancient times this river flowed through Fergana and Sogdiana, marking the border of the Central Asian Steppes. It was the backbone of the area, allowing irrigation systems in an arid area.
This river also had a symbolic meaning for western civilizations, for which it marked the limit between the know civilized world south of it and the nomadic world north of it. This river had different names in different sources, such as Araxes (“rapid river”) or “Yakhsha Arta” in Persian.
The Medes first defined the Iaxartes as the northern border between civilization and nomads (such as the Scythians), a tradition which the Persians followed. The Persian king Cyrus the Great founded the town Cyropolis in 544 BC on the Sogdian side of the river, in order to make it “the frontline of the Persian Empire against the nomads” (Strabo, XI 11. 4.). Unluckily, according to Herodotus, he died next to this river, fighting the Massageate in order to make them his vassal.
When Alexander the Great invaded the Persian Empire, he decided to make the Iaxartes the northeastern frontier of his empire. He built his most advanced town on the Iaxartes in 329 BC, called Alexandria Eschate (“Alexandria the farthest”). The same year he destroyed Cyropolis after the Sogdian rebellion, and won a decisive battle against the Scythians on the Iaxartes, making this northern frontier sure until his death.
After Alexander’s death, the river continued to be a frontline but more and more nomad armies crossed it. The last Greek political presence seems to have been the Greco-Bactrian one, under Euthydemos’reign (c.230-200 BC). After his rule, the Iaxartes fell into the hands of Sakas, Yuezhei then Kangju nomads, all of them pushing southward against the Greco-Bactrian and Parthian empires.
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