What were, or are, the ‘Silk Roads?

The ‘Silk Roads’ has become such a commonplace marketing cliché that the historical reality is often forgotten or distorted. The term Seidenstraßen, rendered into English as ‘Silk Roads’ or ‘Silk Routes’, was coined in the 1870s by the German scholar and explorer Ferdinand von Richthofen. It was a captivating, glamorous metaphor for the ancient network of trade routes that spanned Eurasia and connected to similar networks in Africa. But like any metaphor, it should not be taken literally. Silk was the most costly and luxurious commodity that was transported across the continent from China to Europe, but it was by no means the only item. Precious cargoes included gem stones, ceramics, glass, gold and silver wares, thoroughbred horses, furs, medicinal plants and even slaves. The routes were also an important channel for the transmission of cultures and ideas. People who travelled these routes from one place to another helped to disseminate religious beliefs, philosophies, languages, scripts, technologies, music and dance.

The territory of what is now Uzbekistan lay at the heart of this transcontinental web of connectivity, an integral part of this long chain of production and consumption. Archaeological finds show that transcontinental trade was flourishing as early as 500 BC, but there are indications that it might have started at least a millennium before this. This network of trade routes linked the sedentary empires of Eurasia to each other and also to the nomad cultures of the steppe region. Moreover, they gave access to the maritime routes of East Asia, the Indian sub-continent and the African coast through ports on the Persian Gulf, Arabian Ocean and Red Sea. Today, a new phase of connectivity is opening up, supported by modern infrastructure and advanced transport technology, such as high-speed trains and multi-modal networks. The speed and nature of travel is different, but the impact of contact between peoples of different cultures ‒ the exchange of ideas as well as commodities ‒ still has a powerful, dynamic force.

In 1988, UNESCO launched a major, ten-year programme on the ‘Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Routes of Dialogue’. This was a multi-faceted undertaking that involved expeditions, conferences, publications and collaborative research across the entire network of Silk Road routes.

One of the most important aspects of this project was that it brought together local specialists with scholars from foreign institutions. These contacts were intellectually enriching and often led on to collaboration and lasting friendships. UNESCO has continued to promote cultural projects in this sphere. An important initiative was the creation of the ‘UNESCO Silk Roads Online Platform’, which provides in-depth information on many different aspects of the history and culture of the Silk Roads region. A number of international consultative meetings have been held on this and related topics. In May 2017, a consultative meeting was convened in Beijing to discuss prospects for the creation of an ‘Interactive Atlas of the Cultural Interactions along the Silk Road’ (jointly organised by UNESCO and the Chinese non-governmental agencies World Peace Foundation and Beijing International Peace Culture Foundation held in Beijing). Uzbekistan was represented by the distinguished scholar Professor Bakhrom Abdukhalimov. The meeting was chaired by senior UNESCO officials and by Dr Shirin Akiner, long-time collaborator on UNESCO Silk Roads projects.

Cities of Silk Roads

Samarkand

This is as much a place of the mind as a physical location, still the mystical, enchanted destination of modern-day travellers who, like the merchants in James Elroy Flecker’s famous poem …

‘… travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.’

Dry facts and figures can never compete with the special aura that surrounds the city and envelops the visitor. One of the great cities of the Silk Roads, it was probably founded between the 8th to 7th century BC. From Alexander the Great onwards, conquerors occupied the city, left their mark – and passed into history. Today, most of the surviving monuments date from the Islamic period (9th century onwards), particularly the reign of Timur (Tamerlane) who, in the late 14th century established his capital in Samarkand. Samarkand has a long tradition of scholarship and science (noteworthy is the great Observatory of Ulugh Beg, Timur’s grandson). It is also known for its fine tradition of applied arts such as embroidery, silk weaving, and engraving on copper, ceramics and wood carving. In 2001, Samarkand was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Bukhara

Like Samarkand, it has a history that stretches back millennia. It reached its zenith as during the golden age of the Samanid dynasty (875-999). Famed throughout the Islamic world for its scholars and artists it was described by the thirteenth-century Persian historian Juvaini as ‘the cupola of Islam … adorned with the brightness of doctors and jurists and its surroundings embellished with the rarest of high entertainments.’ Today, there are still many ancient monuments in the centre of the city, as well as historic trading areas. Bukhara, too, has been listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Khiva

Archaeological finds indicate that there has been human habitation on the site of Khiva for some 2,000 years. In 1511, the Khanate of Khiva was established, encompassing territory that straddled the border between modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Khanate was strategically placed on the main regional trade routes and by the end of the 18th century, the ruler and other locals elites had amassed considerable wealth. As a result, many fine buildings were erected. Many of these monuments have survived and today, the centre of Khiva is often described as an ‘open-air museum’. It was the first site in Uzbekistan to be inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List (1991).

Tashkent

At first sight, this appears to be a typical, bustling modern city. Yet it is not only one of the oldest of the Silk Road cities, but it has had the most varied continuous history. Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a citadel here as early as the 5th century BC. Located on the Chirchik River, close to the foothills of a spur of the Tien Shan Mountains, it was a benign environment for the early settlers. It was also a major hub on the east-west, north-south trade routes. In early Persian and Chinese sources the city is referred to as Chach. This was later transformed into the Turkic Tashkent (‘city of stone’). The city suffered massive destruction during the Mongol invasion in 1219. Yet gradually it recovered and by the time of the Timurid Empire, it had regained much of its former prosperity and was again a centre of commerce and scholarship.

In 1865 Tashkent fell to the advancing Tsarist troops. A couple of years later, it became the capital of Russian Turkestan. European-style architecture and town-planning was organised in the ‘new’ colonial city, adjacent to the ‘old’ native city. Buildings such as churches (Orthodox, Lutheran and Roman Catholic), palaces and grand mansions (for example, home of Grand Prince Nikolay Konstantinovich Romanov, designed by A. Benois) brought a new look to the city. After the collapse of the Tsarist Empire, Soviet rule was established in Central Asia. In 1924, Tashkent became the capital of the newly proclaimed Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. Once again, the urban environment was dramatically transformed. Also, new institutions were established, with their administrative buildings, infrastructure and related utilities. Some of the best Soviet architects worked here, creating important examples of styles such as Constructivism. Since independence, Tashkent has yet again been remodelled, and is now the proud capital of an independent state. It has new monuments and amenities, including a metro system with wonderfully decorative stations.

This long chronicle of upheaval and change is inscribed in the stones, buildings, streets, parks and fountains of Tashkent. For those who care to open their eyes and look around, this is certainly not a faceless, rootless modern city!