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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica


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A mountainous region of central Asia, lying on the north-west border of India. Since 1875 the Pamirs have probably been the best explored region in High Asia. Not only have many travellers of many nationalities directed their steps towards the Bam-i-dunya ("the Roof of the World") in search of adventure or of scientific information, but the government surveys of Russia and India have met in these high altitudes, and there effected a connexion which will help to solve many of the geodetic problems which beset the superficial survey of Asia. Since Wood first discovered a source of the Oxus in Lake Victoria in 1837, and left us a somewhat erroneous conception of the physiography of the Pamirs, the gradual approach of Russia from the north stimulated the processes of exploration from the side of India. Native explorers from India first began to be busy in the Pamirs about 1860, and continued their investigations for the following fifteen years. In 1874 the mission of Sir D. Forsyth to Yarkand led to the first systematic geographical exploitation of the Pamir country. In 1885 Ney Elias made his famous journey across the Pamirs from east to west, identifying the Rang Kul as the Dragon Lake of Chinese geographers - a distinction which has also been claimed by some geographers for Lake Victoria. Then Lockhart and Woodthorpe in 1886 passed along the Wakhan tributary of the Oxus from its head to Ishkashim in Badakshan, and completed an enduring record of most excellent geographical research. Bonvalot in 1887, Littledale in 1888, Cumberland, Bower and Dauvergne, followed by Younghusband in succeeding years, extending to 1890; Dunmore in 1892 and Sven Hedin in 1894-1895, have all contributed more or less to Pamir geography; but the honours of successful inquiry in those high altitudes still fall to Lord Curzon, whose researches in 1894 led to a singularly clear and comprehensive description of Pamir geography, as well as to the best map compilation that till then had existed. Meanwhile Russian explorers and Russian topographers had been equally busy from the north. The famous soldier Skobelev was probably the first European to visit the Great Kara Kul. He was followed by scientific missions systematically organized by the Russian government. In 1883 Putiata's mission started south. Gromchevsky was hard at work from 1888 to 1892. Yanov began again in 1891, after a short spell of rest, and has left his mark as a permanent record in the valley of Sarhad (or Wakhan), between the Baroghil pass and Bozai Gumbaz. Finally, in 1895, the Russian mission under General Shveikovsky met the British mission under General Gerard on the banks of Lake Victoria, and from that point to the Chinese frontier eastward demarcated the line which thereafter was to divide Russian from British interests in highest Asia. Since then other travellers have visited the Pamirs, but the junction of the Russian and British surveys (the latter based on triangulation carried across the Hindu Kush from India) disposes of any further claim to the honours of geographical exploration.

Our estimate of the extent of Pamir conformation depends much on the significance of the word Pamir. If we accept the - Persian derivation of the term (which is advanced by Curzon as being perhaps the most plausible), pai-mir, or "the foot of mountain peaks," we have a definition which is by no means an inapt illustration of the actual facts of configuration. It has been too often assumed that the plateau of Tibet and the uplands of the Pamirs are analogous in physiography, and that they merge into each other. This is hardly the case. Littledale poirits out ( R. G. S. fount., vol. vii.) that the high-level valleys of glacial formation which distinguish the Pamirs have no real counterpart in the Chang or plains of Tibet. The latter are 2000 ft. higher; they are intersected by narrow ranges, and are drained by no rivers of importance. They form a region of salt lakes and stagnant marshes, relieved by wide flat spaces of open plateau country. The absence of any vegetation beyond grass or scrub is a striking feature common to both Pamir and Chang, but there the resemblance ceases, and the physical conformation of mountain and valley to the east and to the west of the upper sources of the Zarafshan is radically distinct.

The axis, or backbone, of Pamir formation is the great meridional mountain chain of Sarikol - the ancient Taurus of tradition and history - on which stands the highest peak north of the Himalaya, the Murtagh Ata (25,000 ft.). This chain divides off the high-level sources of the Oxus on the west from the streams which sweep downwards into the Turkestan depression of Kashgar on the east. There are the true Pamirs (i.e. valleys reaching up in long slopes to the foot of mountain peaks) on either side, and the Pamirs on the west differ in some essential respects from those on the east. On the west the following are generally recognized as distinct Pamirs: (1) the Great Pamir, of which the dominant feature is Lake Victoria; (2) the Little Pamir, separated from the Great Pamir on the north by what is now known as the Nicolas range; (3) the Pamir-i-Wakhan, which is the narrow trough of the Wakhan tributary of the Oxus, the term Pamir applying to its upper reaches only; (4) the Alichur - the Pamir of the Yeshil Kul and Ghund - immediately to the north of the Great Pamir; (5) the Sarez Pamir, which forms the valley of the Murghab river, which has here found its way round the east of the Great Pamir and the Alichur from the Little Pamir, and now makes westwards for the Oxus. This branch was considered by many geographers as the main Oxus stream, and Lake Chakmaktin, at its head, was by them regarded as the Oxus source. At the foot of the Sarez Pamir stands the most advanced Russian outpost of Murghabi. To the north-east of the Alichur are the Rang Kul and the Kara Kul (or Kargosh) Pamirs. Rang Kul Lake occupies a central basin or depression; but the Kara Kul drains away north-eastwards through the Sarikol (as the latter, bending westwards, merges into the Trans-Alai) to Kashgar and the Turkestan plains. Similar characteristics distinguish all these Pamirs. They are hemmed in and separated by snowcapped mountain peaks and ridges, which are seamed with glaciers terminating in moraines and shingle slopes at the base of the foot-hills. Long sweeps of grassy upland bestrewn with boulders lead from the stream beds up to the snowfields, yellow, grey or vivid green, according to the season and the measure of sunlight, fold upon fold in interminable succession, their bleak monotony being only relieved by the grace of flowers for a short space during the summer months.

To the east of the Sarikol chain is the Taghdumbash Pamir, which claims many of the characteristics of the western Pamirs at its upper or western extremity, where the Karachukar, which drains it, is a comparatively small stream. But where the Karachukar, joining forces with the Khunjerab, stretches. out northwards for a comparatively straight run to Tashkurghan, dividing asunder the two parallel ranges of Sarikol and Kandar, which together form the Sarikol chain, the appellation Pamir can hardly be maintained. This is the richest portion of the Sarikol province. Here are stone-built houses collected in scattered detachments, with a spread of cultivation reaching down to the river. Here are water-mills and many permanent appliances of civilization suited to the lower altitude (11,500 ft., the average height of the upper Pamirs being about 13,000), and here we are no longer near the sources of the river at the foot of the mountain peaks. One other so-called Pamir exists to the east of Sarikol, separated therefrom by the eastern range (the Kandar) of the Sarikol, which is known as Mariom or Mariong. But this Pamir is situated nowhere near the sources of the Zarafshan or Raskam river, which it borders, and possesses little in common with the Pamirs of the west. The Mariom Pamir defines the western extremity of the Kuen Lun, which stretches eastwards for 250 m. before it becomes the political boundary of northern Tibet.

The Murtagh chain, which holds within its grasp the mightiest system of glaciers in the world, forms a junction with the Sarikol at the head of the Taghdumbash, where also another great system (that of the Hindu Kush) has its eastern roots. The political boundary between the extreme north of the Kashmir dependencies and the extreme south of Chinese Turkestan is carried by the Zarafshan or Raskam river which runs parallel to the Murtagh at its northern foot (its valley dividing the Murtagh from the Kuen Lun), to a point in about 79° 20' E., where it is transferred to the watershed of the Kuen Lun. Within the limits of these partially explored highlands, lying between the Pamirs and the Tibetan table-land, exact geographical definition is impossible. But we may follow Godwin-Austen in accepting the main chain of the Murtagh as merging into the central mountain system of the Tibetan Chang, its axis being defined and divided by the transverse stream of the Shyok at its westward bend, whilst the Karakoram range, in which the Shyok rises, is a subsidiary northern branch. The pass over the Karakoram (18,500 ft.) is the most formidable obstacle on the main trade route between Leh and Kashgar.

The Taghdumbash Pamir occupies a geographical position of some political significance. One important pass (the Beyik, 15,100 ft.) leads from the Russian Pamirs into Sarikol across its northern border. A second pass (the Wakhjir, 16,150 ft.) du ' 'mbash connects the head of the Wakhan valley of Afghanistan Pamir. with the Sarikol province across its western head, whilst a third (the Kilik, 15,600 ft.) leads into the head of the Hunza river and opens a difficult and dangerous route to Gilgit. The Taghdumbash is claimed both by China and Kanj ut (or Hunza), and there is consequently an open boundary question at this corner of the Pamirs.

From Lake Victoria of the Great Pamir the northern boundary of that extended strip of Afghanistan which reaches out to the head of the Taghdumbash from Badakshan north of the Hindu Boundary between Kush is to be traced: westwards, in the Lake Victoria b Russia and affluent of the Oxus; and eastwards, on the Nicolas Afghan- range, dividing the Great and Little Pamirs, till it over. looks a point on the Aksu (or Murghab) river in about istan 74° 40' E. Here it diverges southwards to the Sarikol chain, north of Taghdumbash. This eastward extension was laid down by the Pamir Boundary Commission of 1895. All the head of the Little Pamir, with the Wakhan valley, is consequently Afghan territory, but no military posts have been established so far. The Alichur, Rang Kul, Kargosh (Kara Kul) and Sarez are Russian Pamirs. The Mariom Pamir is Chinese.

The Wakhan glaciers under the Wakhjir water-parting, Lake Chakmaktin near the sources of the Aksu, and Lake Victoria of the Great Pamir have all been claimed as indicating the Glacial of true source of the Oxus. But detailed examination of Sources Oxus. their hydrographical conditions proves that neither of the the two lakes, Victoria (13,400 ft.) or Chakmaktin (13,020 ft.), can justly be regarded as sources, both of them being derived from the same mighty system of glacial snowfields on the summit of the Nicolas range. Both may be regarded as incidents in the course of glacial streams (incidents which are diminishing in volume day by day), ' rather than original springs or sources. The same glacial beds of the Nicolas range send down tributary waters to the Panja or Wakhan river, below its junction with the ice stream from Wakhjir, and thus it becomes impossible to decide whether the glaciers of the Wakhjir or the glaciers of Nicolas should be regarded as effecting the most important contribution to the main stream. There is evidence also that glacial moraine formations from time to time may have largely affected the catchment area of these tributary streams. It would be as rash to assert that from Lake Victoria no waters could ever have issued with an eastward flow as it would be to state that 'from Chakmaktin none ever flow westwards. The measure of the veracity of Chinese pilgrims and geographers in the early centuries of our era must not be balanced on such points as these.

There is no evidence that the Pamirs were ever the support of permanent settlements. The few mud-built buildings which once existed at Chakmaktin and at Langar only decide Population and Ethno- recent occupation which could hardly have possessed a. permanent character, and the few shrines and domed graphy tombs which are scattered here and there about the empty desolation of the Pamir slopes are all of them of recent construction. The nomadic population which seeks pasturage during the summer months in these dreary altitudes is entirely Kirghiz, and we may take it for granted that it will soon be entirely Russian. The non-Russian population during the summer of 1895 could not have amounted to more than a few hundred souls - occupying a few encampments in the Little Pamir and in the Taghdumbash. The total population of the Russian Pamirs has been reckoned at 250 "kibitkas," or 1500 souls. There is no ethnographical distinction to be traced between the Kirghiz of the Alichur Pamir and the Kirghiz of the Taghdumbash.

The Kirghiz are Sunni Mahommedans by faith, but amongst them there are curious survivals of an ancient ritual of which the origin is to be traced to those Nestorian Christian Evidences communities of Central Asia which existed in the of the middle ages. A Christian bishopric existed at Yarkand Survival of in Marco Polo's time, and is supposed to have survived Christian for another century (1350). The last Gurkhan of the Symbols. Kara Khitai Empire in the early part of the 13th century (the legendary Prester John) was a member of a Christian tribe called Naiman, which is one of the four chief tribal divisions mentioned by Ney Elias. The Naiman tribe claim kinship with the Kipchaks. It is curious that the same survival of Christian ceremonial should be found amongst the Sarikoli, a Shiah people of Aryan descent akin to the Tajiks of Badakshan, as may be traced amongst the Kirghiz. Christian symbols have been discovered in the southern towns of Chinese Turkestan by Sven Hedin.

The total area of the Pamir country may be estimated as about 150 m. long by 150 m. broad, of which about one-tenth is grass Area pasture land and the rest mountainous. All of it once the Pamirs. formed part of the ancient kingdom of Bolor, itself a survival of the yet more ancient empire of the Yue-chi, Tokharistan; and across it, in spite of its bleak inhospitality, there have been one or two recognized trade routes from east to west throughout all ages. The most important commercially Trade was that which passed north-west via Tashkurghan Routes. and Rang Kul, from Chinese Turkestan to the khanates R north of the Oxus; but the route via Tashkurghan and Lake Victoria to Badakshan was also well trodden. The great pilgrim route of Buddhist days was that which connects the ancient Buddhist cities of the Takla Makan in Chinese Turkestan with Chitral (Kashkar), by the Baroghil Pass across the Hindu Kush. This was but one link in a chain of devout peregrination which stretched from China to India, and which included every intervening Buddhist centre of note which existed in the early centuries of our era.

For six or seven months of the year (November to April) the Pamirs are covered with snow, the lakes are frozen, and the passes nearly impracticable. The mean temperature during Climate the month of January recorded by Russian observers at the Murghabi - or Pamirski - post is - 13° F. In of t July this rises to 62° F., the elevation of the station being Pamirs. 12,150 ft. During the spring and summer months the prevalence of fierce cutting winds, which are shaped by the conformation of the valleys into blasts as through a funnel, following the strike of the valleys either up or down, makes travelling painful and existence in camp most unpleasant. In the absence of wind the summer atmosphere is often bright and exhilarating, but there is a constant tendency to sudden squalls of wind and rain, which pass as quickly as they gather. The most settled record of the Pamir Boundary Commission of 1895 lasted from the 19th of August to the 11th of September, the maximum temperature being recorded at 77° on the 21st of August at Kizil Rabat (12,570 ft.); and yet on the 16th of August snow had fallen to the depth of 6 in. and the Beyik Pass was blocked. There were indications that monsoon influences extended as far north at least as the Great Pamir, and a definite analogy was established between the record of barometric pressure on the Pamirs and that of the outer ranges of the Himalaya.


Captain J. Wood, A Journey to the Source of the Oxus (new ed., London, 1872), Report of the Forsyth Mission (Calcutta, 1875); Colonel T. E. Gordon, The Roof of the World (London, 1876); Pitman (trans.), Through the Heart of Asia (London, 1889); Earl of Dunmore, The Pamirs (London, 1893); Major Cumberland, Sport on the Pamirs (London, 1895); Hon. G. N. Curzon, "The Pamirs and the Source of the Oxus," R. G. S. Journ., vol. viii.; Report of the Proceedings of the Pamir Boundary Commission (Calcutta, 1897). (T. H. H.*)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Pamirs'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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