2012 Issyk Kul expedition: search for a sunken palace

A 19th-century diver in Issyk Kul. Photo from Vinnik 1959

By Kristin Romey - Newswatch National Geographic

After a year of careful planning, our National Geographic team is now set up at a base camp on the northern shore of Issyk Kul, one of the world’s highest and deepest lakes, in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan.

So why are we here ? Issyk Kul, which means “hot lake” in Kyrgyz, was a critical location along the fabled Silk Road, with routes running along its shores.

Nestled in the largest east-west valley in the high Central Asian mountains, Issyk Kul was renowned in historical documents as a strategic point along the Silk Road that was vied and battled for over the millennia.

Countless traders, caravans and nomadic tribes and armies traveled along the 113-mile long lake, leaving a remarkable archaeological legacy behind.

Since the nineteenth century, Russian scientists and, subsequently, Soviet archaeologists and researchers from the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences have studied the ancient remains around Issyk Kul, which range from petroglyphs and 3,000-year-old kurgans (nomadic burial mounds) to early Christian monasteries and medieval cities.

Early on, Issyk Kul also drew attention from researchers for the remains that lie beneath its stunning cobalt waters.

It’s an endorheic lake (meaning that it has no outlet) with abundant underwater springs, and the water level has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries, submerging settlements, buildings and even entire cities that had been established on earlier shorelines.

Issyk Kul was one of the earliest sites for underwater archaeological research in Central Asia, with divers exploring its depths as long ago as the 1860s.

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National Geographic hot lake Issyk Kul Kyrgyz Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan deepest lakes