ATRAK, river of northern Khorasan, flowing first northwest, and then southwest into the Caspian Sea. Its course is some 320 miles (according to Ḥamdallāh Mostawfī, 120 farsaḵs); the upper two-thirds drain the wide trough between the mountain chains of the Kopet-Dag and the Kūh-e Hazār Masjed to the north and the Kūh-e ʿAlī, Kūh-e Šāh Jahān and Kūh-e Bīnālūd to the south. The Atrak actually rises in the Kūh-e Hazār Masjed, and all this part of its course lies today within Persian territory; it does receive some minor right-bank affluents which rise near the Soviet-Persian border running along the ridge of the Kopet-Dag. The trough between the two series of mountain chains continues to the southeast, over a low watershed, into the basin of the Kašaf River and the region of Herat in northwestern Afghanistan. The whole corridor has always been a historic route connecting the Caspian shores with northern Khorasan, and the part of it drained by the Atrak contains today the important market towns of Qūčān (q.v.) or Ḵabūšān and Bojnūrd and the medieval district of Ostovā, as well as smaller places like Qatleš, Šervān and Sīsāb. The lower third of the Atrak’s course has formed the Russian-Persian boundary since the delimitation of 1882. The river here flows through a shallow gorge (presumably caused by the fall in the level of the Caspian) across the arid steppelands before debouching through a marshy stretch into the Caspian. The only significant affluent here is the Sīmbār River flowing in from the north where the Atrak begins to form the political boundary. Until the present century there were virtually no settlements in this lower part of the river valley, owing to the insecurity of life caused by Göklen and Yomut Turkmen raiders, but in 1869 the Imperial Russian government established a fort at Chikishlyar near the Atrak mouth and within a few years subjugated the Turkmens; remnants of irrigation works here nevertheless show that the region cannot always have been so infertile and deserted as in recent times. The Atrak was anciently called the “Sarnois” (Strabo 11.8.1; Pliny, NaturalHistory 6.36 gives “Zonius”), i.e., “the Golden (River)” (J. Markwart, Wehrot und Arang, Leiden, 1938, p. 128; cf. Avestan zaranya “gold”). Strabo refers to it as the boundary between Hyrcania (Gorgān), to the south, and the desert. In the medieval Islamic period, the lower Atrak separated the province of Gorgān to the south from Dehestān (the classical land of the Dahae) to the north. The early Muslim geographers seem to have been remarkably hazy about the Atrak’s course and do not mention it under this name. Thus the author of the Ḥodūd al-ʿālam (372/982) calls its upper course the Herand River, but then confuses its lower course with the Gorgān River somewhat to the south (tr. Minorsky, p. 77, par. 6.50, and p. 133, par. 32.1). Mostawfī, Nozhat al-qolūb, p. 212, tr. p. 205, seems to be the first to mention the Atrak under this name; later, popular etymology explained it as “the river of the Turks” (Atrāk).
See also Le Strange, Lands, p. 377.
Admiralty handbook, Persia, 1945, index.
Camb. Hist. Iran I, index.
EI2 I, pp. 349-59.
J. Markwart, Eranšahr, p. 221.
W. W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 1951, pp. 113, 489.
(C. E. Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 1987
Last Updated: August 17, 2011
This article is available in print.
Vol. III, Fasc. 1, p. 16