Libmonster ID: KZ-707
Author(s) of the publication: M. Tsiporukha

by Captain Mikhail TSIPORUKHA, retired

Still in the beginning of his reign (1690s) the Russian czar Peter I, otherwise known as Peter the Great, got down to the job bequeathed by his father, Czar Alexei Mikhailovich: "Build ships and navigate in the Caspian." From this inland sea Peter hoped to reach Central Asia and India.

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But first, one had to make a map of the Caspian. And so in 1699 Peter I sent Captain Yeremei Meier there to do the job. Four years later, in 1703, the map was ready. But it was never published. As to the captain, he lost his life in 1705 during a mutiny of the streltsi corps at Astrakhan, just where the Volga empties into the northern Caspian. Most likely, the czar was not satisfied with the map as not precise enough and not conforming to the canons of reliable navigation. Still and all. Captain Meter's work became known in Europe and had some effect on the then nascent art of cartography According to Academician Lev Berg (1876-1950), an eminent Russian scientist competent in physical geography and biology in 18th century atlases "the contours of the Caspian Sea were taking more correct and regular forms, and that without prior knowledge of the surveys carried out in 1715 and in 1719-1720".

In May 1714 Peter the Great gave an order to Lieutenant-Captain Alexander Beckovich-Cherkassky of the Preobrazhensky Guards Regiment: make a new map of the Caspian's eastern shore and pinpoint the exact location of the Amu Darya's estuary (believed to be flowing into the Caspian). Now Captain Beckovich-Cherkassky was a Caucasian (Kabarda) prince reared in Russia... And as early as September 1,1714, Peter's envoy reported from Astrakhan: "...I enquired Astrakhan townsfolk about the river Darya - whence it flows, and where its mouth empties. I found people conversant with yond river which they call the Amu Darya. They say it is a no small river rising in India and flowing through the land of Bukhara and the land of Khiva, and running into a lake called the Aral Sea that is 14 days of journey away from the Caspian Sea; some tell there were a small waterway from the lake into the Caspian Sea, yet nobody has seen that strait."

That was the first message about the Amu Darya not flowing into the Caspian, and it supplied data on the real whereabouts of the river's bed.

Soon after, on 7 November 1714, Captain Beckovich-Cherkassky set sail for the east at the head of a small flotilla. Yet failing to reach Guryev (in the mouth of the river Yaik, now the Ural) and losing a few strugs * on the voyage, the flotilla came back to its base, Astrakhan, empty-handed. The following April the brave captain set out again with a small fleet of twenty brigantines. ** This time he managed to describe the northern and eastern shores of the Caspian. Sailing as far as the coast of a gulf which he dubbed Krasnye Vody("Red Waters"), Prince Beckovich-Cherkassky talked to local Turkmens. Drawing them out, he concluded: once the Amu Darya had been running into the Caspian, and rather not long since. More than that, his scouts came back with amazing tidings: Khiva's ruler had ordered that the river's estuary be dammed, and thereupon it started flowing into the Aral Sea. Actually, the prince related the local folk legend about the Amu Darya.

In Ms epistle to the Czar Captain Beckovich-Cherkassky (4 August 1715) said that the day before he "... came to the place called Aktam, where the Amu Darya River used to empty into the Caspian. That place has no water because at some distance away for some purpose yon river was spanned by a dam at Kharakoye, four days of journey off Khiva. From that dam down, yonder river was forced to flow into a lake named the Aral Sea". We see what the lieutenant-captain and prince found exactly: the Amu Darya was flowing into the Aral Sea, not into the Caspian.

Late in October 1715 the sea expedition returned safe and sound to the home base at Astrakhan; and its captain reported to the czar: "...A map was made of the places we have been to", that is the prince and his men mapped the northern and eastern shores of the Caspian. The map was appended to the report.

Learning that the Amu Darya had but recently been emptying into the Caspian and that one could sail upstream as far as India, Peter I dispatched yet another expedition captained by the same Kabardian prince to inspect the dam blocking

__ * Strug - a wooden sail-and row-boat with a flat keel. - Ed .

** Brigantine - a two-masted ship having a square-rigged foremast and a fore-and-aft-rigged mainsail. - Ed.

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the river and find out if one could turn its waters to the Caspian again.

On September 15, 1716, Prince Beckovich-Cherkassky, heading a fleet of a hundred vessels, sailed out from the Volga's estuary to the peninsula Tyub-Karagan where he founded a new fortress (today Fort Shevchenko). And he broke ground for two other fortresses-one on the shore of a gulf now bearing his name, and the other-at Krasnye Vody, now the site of the town of Krasnovodsk built in the 19th century In February 1717 the sea expedition returned to the home base, Astrakhan.

In the summer of the same year Captain Beckovich-Cherkassky led a detachment of 2,200 army men and officers for talks with the local khan at Khiva. Bad news overtook him during his journey there: his wife and two children were reported drowned in the Volga. Quite upset, the prince must have taken a fatal decision. Upon reaching Khiva, the Moscow ambassador agreed to the khan's proposal to split his detachment into a few smaller groups and have some of them billeted in the town's environs. The prince did that against the protests of his officers. But then the Khiva people committed an act of treachery: they fell on the prince and killed him, and destroyed the odd Russian detachments. Only few could escape and return home. The garrisons of the Russian seashore fortresses had to be evacuated to Astrakhan.


In 1717 Czar Peter arrived in the French capital where he had many meetings with the eminent savants of the day. On the 17th of June Peter I paid his first visit to the royal geographer Guillaume De Lisle. The czar showed him two hand-wrought maps incorporating the results of Russian surveys of the Caspian and Azov seas. De Lisle was surprised to learn that the Amu Darya did not fall into the Caspian. Recalling his talks with Peter the Great, the French savant stressed the importance of the work of determining the real size and contours of the sea. "... There were most different maps both in area and in configuration. This uncertainty sprung from the idea that it was a gulf into which the sea flowed its waters. But at present the matter is settled owing to the attention shown by His Majesty in making an exact map of that sea by seafarers, brave and adroit." More testimony from Guillaume De Lisle: "There is another small lake, 15 lieues large, where the Caspian flows its waters in the eastern part. I had no inkling of its existence. The waters of that sea are very salty, and the fish entering thither first lose their eyesight and then die. Last, he [Peter I] said the rivulet flowing to the south no longer fell into the Caspian. The residents... had to channel its water elsewhere, to places where it was badly needed, via canals distinct on the map which he vouchsafed to show me."

That is, the Russian czar let De Lisle into the data on the Gulf of Kara Bogaz Gol and on the old bed of the Amu Darya.

French scientists invited Peter to attend a meeting of the Paris Academy of Sciences. The same year, in 1717, he was elected honorary member of the academy.


The tragic death of Prince Beckovich-Cherkassky and his men did not stop the Russian czar from keeping up the exploration of the Caspian - the more so as, while in Paris, he could see that this work was likewise important for the European scientific community Peter I wanted a true map of the entire Caspian through instrument surveys. In 1719 the czar dispatched a new expedition under Lieutenant-Captain Karl von Werden, a Dutchman and former navigator of the Swedish Navy, enlisted in the Russian service. He was assisted by Fyodor Soymonov, a midshipman promoted for that occasion to a lieutenant's rank.

One of the first Russian authorities on hydrography, Fyodor Soymonov played an eminent role in making a description of the Caspian coastline and in mapping the sea. He lived a long and eventful life with all its ups and downs: now an admiral, now an exile, now a governor. But no matter what, the man was wedded to his lifework.

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... Sharing in the new Caspian expedition were 89 seamen, with junior lieutenants Grigori Zolotaryov and Pyotr Doroshenko as officers. Later on they were joined by Lieutenant Vassily Urusov and Captain Jan Rental. At the end of May 1719 the detachment set out on three vessels, the shnyavas * Kari Werden was the captain of The St. Alexander, Fyodor Soymonov had The St. Catherine in charge, while Vissily Urusov was the senior officer on board The Astrakhan. Reaching the Tyuleny ("Seal's") Island, the starting-point of the surveys, the vessels turned west, toward the mouth of the Terek, and then sailed clear of the Agrakhan Peninsula to Derbent. Thereupon the ships hugged the coast on their way toward the Apsheron Peninsula and further south, to the mouth of the Kura. Sailing as far as ten Russian versts (kilometers) on rowboats up that river, the Kura, the seamen turned back to board their ships for a homeward journey and on September 12, 1719, returned to the home base, Astrakhan. Thereafter Werden and Soymonov, on two boats, spent a whole month investigating the arms of the Volga delta.

A good deal of work was accomplished during 1719: apart from depth-finding, it also included astrofixation of the seven points en route: the islands of Chetyryekhbugomy ("Four Hills"), Tyuleny ("Seal's"), Chechen, Dva Brata ("Two Brothers") as well of the port Derbent, Nizovaya Pristan ("Lower Jetty") and the Cape of Apsheron. When Soymonov arrived in St. Petersburg, the new Russian capital, to report the results of the expedition, Peter I summoned him. Taking a close look at the map of the Caspian, the czar inquired into the circumstantials of the surveys.

This work was continued the next year. The selfsame shnyava vessels approached the Kura's mouth in May 1720. Having surveyed the Kura and Kyzylagach bays, the crews pushed further south as far as the Zinzili Gulf (today the Gulf of Enzeli in Iran). Inspecting the Caspian's southern coastline from the Kura's mouth to the Enzeli, our seamen found and described vantage anchorages and the estuaries of rivers where one could replenish supplies of fresh water. The ships pushed on along the shores of the Giland and Mesandron provinces down to the Astrabad (now Gorgan) inlet, the easternmost point on the Caspian's southern coast.

After completing the depth-sounding work in the mouth of the river Astrabad, the party turned north and covered 24

* Shnyava - a small two-masted square-rigged sailing ship with a bowsprit and an additional fore-and-aft sail back of the mainmast.- Ed.

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miles along the eastern shore of the sea. In the end Werden and Soymonov tied in their survey with the description of the Caspian's eastern shores made by Prince Beckovich-Cherkassky. Thereupon the ships set sail for the west, toward the mouth of the river Fuza and, as Soymonov put it, "we took measure of that sea across." Then the expedition returned to Astrakhan.

During the voyage of 1720 Soymonov conducted astrofixations of yet another five points - the Kura Island, the village of Perebazar, the estuaries of the rivers Sebdura and Mazendaran, at the entry into the Astrabad inlet. Overall, the expedition surveyed more than 2,500 km of the coastline in just two summer seasons-certainly a feat for those times.


Leaving their seaships in the custody of the Astrakhan Admiralty, the seamen boarded strug boats and went up the Volga as far as Saratov; thence they traveled by land to St. Petersburg. The party carried the first ever circumstantial map of the world's greatest inland sea. By and large, the map depicted correctly the Caspian's outlines, with some inevitable errors here and there, especially on the eastern coast. Subsequently, however, Soymonov set right those errors in the course of further surveys.

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In December 1720 the new large-scale map of the Caspian went to press in St. Petersburg under this lengthy title: "A Bat Picture of the Caspian Sea from the Mouth of the Yarkov Arm of the Volga Delta to the Astrabad Inlet by the Meridian, in Degrees and Minutes, with Depth Indicated in Russian Fathoms and Feet. Drawn in Astrakhan and Copperplated in Sanct Peter Burg. Anno 1720."

That was the greatest achievement of the young Russian marine science and hydrology. The first ever printed navigational map of the Caspian upset the then persisting notions about the sea and became a scientific sensation of world significance.

In February 1721 Czar Peter sent a letter of thanks to the Paris Academy of Sciences on the occasion of his election to the Academy as honorary member. His Majesty also appended the first printed map of the Caspian as a gift to the French academicians who were greatly impressed; Guillaume De Lisle had it published in the Oeuvres de la Paris Academic des Sciences with French legends. Two years after that, in 1723, the map was published in Amsterdam, and little by little it gained recognition all over Europe.

The Russian czar used Ms naval expedition to Daghestan and northern Azerbaijan in what became known as "the Persian Campaign" (1722-1723) for making further corrections in the new map. As an authority on the Caspian, Fyodor Soymonov was posted as captain of The Princess Anne, a small hooker vessel * . A fleet of 442 naval shnyavas, hookers, sloops of war, merchant ships and boats set out from Astrakhan on the 18th of July 1722. The local fortress gave a gun salute by way of send-off. The following summer Soymonov, in another naval expedition, brought Russian troops to the fortress of Baku and captured it after a short siege. While being there Soymonov described in his diary the astonishing natural phenomena unknown in Russia and elsewhere in Europe: oil shows on the sea water, burning gas torches and fluctuations of the sea level. Two versts away, at a depth of four fathoms in the Baku Bay, the Russian captain found "the remains of a big stone building, most of it destroyed; yet some parts of it distinguishable above water. They say it was the Caravanserai that in olden times stood on firm ground but then was engulfed by the sea in an earthquake".

Late in 1723 Captain Soymonov reported to the emperor in person about surveys in the Kura's mouth. After that Peter the Great decided to erect fortifications there and indicated the place on the map. On the 10th of November 1723 a flotilla left Astrakhan and shortly afterwards reached the Zinzili Strait where it stayed for the winter. But the work in the Kura's estuary could not be completed because of the Russian emperor's death in January 1725.

All things considered, it was owing to the new map of the Caspian that the Russian flotilla could navigate safely during its voyage there.


The next year, in 1726, the Admiralty's Collegium ruled to continue the surveying of the Caspian eastern coast. A new flotilla dispatched for the purpose comprised the 10-cannon gig ** Tsaritsyn, the shnyava Astrakhan and a skarboat *** with a crew of 140 under the command of Lieutenant-Captain Fyodor Soymonov

Upon reaching the island of Chetyryekhbugomy the sea expedition broke up: F. Soymonov on his gig and O. Lunin on board his shnyava headed southeast toward the peninsula Tyub- Karagan, while Dolmatov, the navigator, on his skarboat sailed eastward, toward the Yaik Bay. A sudden storm damaged the old gig boat, its hull sprung a bad leak that Soymonov and his crew were unable to stop. They had to disembark on dry land. Removing part of the cargo, the men started repairs. Ibis done, the party moved further south to continue surveys. Passing past the Gulf of Kara Bogaz Gol, the Russian seamen would rather not venture into it, they just described its inlet.

Fyodor Soymonov, the doughty captain, was the first to make a correct assessment of the water balance of the Caspian, the world's largest inland sea. Now the water balance describes a correlation between the amount of water evaporating from the sea surface and the volume of a run-off contributed by in-flowing rivers. Soymonov disproved the rumors about an "abyss" in Kara Bogaz Gol ostensibly engulfing the Caspian water. But even in later years, at the end of the 18th century, some scientists would insist on that mysterious abyss.

Bypassing Kara Bogaz Gol, the sea expedition headed for the southern coast of the sea and then turned west, toward the Kura's mouth. During another violent storm the ship hull sprung a bad leak again, and its crew had trouble taking the vessel to the Apsheron Peninsula. Once there Soymonov boarded a galleon and on its board returned to Astrakhan. In just six months his crew did splendid work in correcting the previous surveys, especially on the eastern coast.

In 1731 Fyodorov sent to print the first hydrographical atlas of the Caspian and sailing directions there. Again, in the manner of those times, this publication carried a longish title: "A Description of the Caspian Sea from the Mouth of the Volga River, from the Yarkovskaya Channel to the River Astrabad;

Position of the Western and Eastern Shores, Ground Depths and Views of Eminent Mountains." This atlas included a general map of the sea and a collection of particular maps. For more than half a century the maps of the atlas served as a major guide for Russian and foreign sailors navigating in the Caspian.

* Hooker - a small Dutch fishing ship with two masts, occasionally armed with a few cannon. Its payload capacity was between 60 and 200 tons. - Ed .

** Gig - a gunboat rigged with sails and used for patrol duties (measuring up to 30.5 m in length, and 8.2 m in width).- Ed.

*** Skarboat - a small one-masted vessel propelled by sails and oars (6 to 8 pairs), armed with 4-6 light guns. - Ed.


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