Why did ancient historians call the Amu Darya and other rivers in remote regions the Arax?
The name “Arax” in ancient times was given to many rivers from Central Asia to the Iberian Peninsula. What this is connected with and what the word itself means, there is still no single opinion. But it is possible to find out why ancient historians were convinced of the correctness of such names.
The Armenian Arax, one of the largest rivers of the Armenian highlands, turns out to be at the center of a very large geographic scatter of such a naming tradition. 76% of the river’s length runs through the territory of Armenia. It was first mentioned by the ancient Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus in the 6th century BC as Arax. Later sources contained variants: Arax, Aros, Aras, and Araz.
In the 19th century, Russian historian and ethnographer Alexey Levshin (1798-1879) wrote that in Persia all rapid rivers are given the name Arras.
Greek historians Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, Strabo, and Ptolemy in their works also called the Amu Darya “Arax” – the second longest and most water-rich river in Central Asia. There are a number of Western authors who believe that even the great Russian river Volga was called Arax by Herodotus.
He mentioned it when describing the habitat of the Massagets (Book 1, § 201). Although most researchers identify Herodotus’ Arax with Oxus, i.e. it is again the Amu Darya.
The name of our river Arax sounded like Eraskh in Old Armenian. However, the etymology of the word “Arax” and the meaning of its broad application are still subject to dispute. There is not only no generally accepted, but even a convincing version of an explanation on this topic. Meanwhile, ancient names often have a very interesting meaning.
Khorenatsi associates the Old Armenian name of the Arax River – Eraskh with the grandson of the legendary king Aramais Erast, who was the great-grandson of Hayk Nahapet: “Aramaneak, having lived years, gave birth to Aramais and died, having lived many more years. His son Aramais builds a dwelling for himself on a hill by the river and names it Armavir after his own name, and the river after the name of his grandson Erast – Eraskh” (Movses Khorenatsi, “History of Armenia”). And what does science say? Modern researchers compare Erast with a contemporary of Argishti I, the Urartian prince Erias, whose possessions were located in the Ararat Valley, along the Arax River.
Arguments of ancient historians
Strabo claimed that Arax once formed a sea covering almost the entire Ararat Valley, which dried up only after the ancient Greek hero Jason broke through the rocks and freed the flow. And it turned out that he was absolutely right. Geologists confirm that the sea once indeed splashed at the very foot of Ararat, this was 8 thousand years ago. They call it the Ararat paleo-lake with fresh water. Where Strabo could have learned about this is unknown, but it turns out that even at the turn of our era, memories of the Neolithic or even Paleolithic times were preserved.
Strabo in his work “Geography” (BOOK XI, chapter XIV, paragraph 12-13) writes: “Armen from the Thessalian city of Armenia, located between Pherae and Larisa on Lake Boebe, went on a campaign to Armenia with Jason. Kirsil of Pharsalus and Midias of Larisa, participants in Alexander’s campaign, claim that Armenia received its name from him…
It is believed that Armen and his companions named Arax after the Peneus (Pinios) due to its similarity to this river; for the Peneus is also called Arax because it “split” Ossa from Olympus, breaking through the Tempe Valley… Jason, however, made a fissure in the rock following the example of the Tempe Valley, through which the river waters now plunge into the Caspian Sea.
As convincing as the exposition in Ancient Greek was for those times, one can imagine if one knows the meaning of the words used. When Strabo says “split off”, it sounds like “Aparaxai”, that is, the word Arax is already in the Ancient Greek word “split off”. And the prefix “Ap” (Gr. ἀπό) means “from”, so for him “split off” even sounds like “From-Arax”. Moreover, such a technique is repeated several more times with other words. When he says that the waters of the river “plunge”, it sounds like “Kataraxai”, that is, again Arax is fully contained in the Ancient Greek word. And the prefix “kat” means “down”, for example the word “Cataract” (Anc. Gr. Καταρράκτης) means “waterfall”, that is, the plunge of water. Nowadays, this word is used to denote a vision disorder due to the clouding of the eye’s lens, the analogy being that vision blurs and becomes cloudy, like through the splashes and streams of a waterfall. It is clear that such a play on words and concepts fully convinced the ancients of the correctness of such etymology.
As for the information that Armenia was named after the Thessalian Armen, it used to be cited along with excerpts from Herodotus in support of the version about the Armenians’ foreign origin. But this point of view has been completely refuted over the last half-century, and even its ardent supporter I. M. Diakonoff had to admit the fallacy of such views at the end of his life and speak out about the localization of the proto-Indo-European homeland in the 6th millennium BC in Asia Minor. Research conducted over the past half-century has shown that I. M. Diakonoff’s hypothesis about the proximity of Greek and Phrygian to Thracian and Armenian, put forward by him in the 1960s, has not been confirmed in science. Moreover, Greek and Armenian belong to different branches of the Indo-European language. Greek and Phrygian – to the western, Armenian – to the eastern. So why was the name of the river used so much in places far apart? Apparently, in ancient times there could be more than a dozen of them, and even today there are at least two.
Independent researcher Yuri Sargsyan found out that the name “Arax” was quite common in antiquity among different peoples not only from Asia to Western Europe, but even in Africa – in Ethiopia and Egypt. A river with such a name exists today in the Basque country, it flows through the city of Isaba in the province of Navarre, and in this city there is also a very ancient street called Armenia. Yuri Sargsyan assumes that these are all echoes or fragments of information about rivers that had a divine origin, according to the most ancient myths. The Basques themselves, as is known, believe that their ancestors come from Ancient Armenia. This opinion is held not only by the majority of ethnographers and scientists of the Basque country, but also by a significant part of the population. And this story deserves a separate story.
by Armen Petrosyan
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan