The Silk Road unravels

Ross Perlin
29 July 2009

The planned demolition of the ancient trading post of Kashgar, announced earlier this year (see Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar’s old city: the politics of demolition", 3 April 2009), caps a decade of disaster for the Silk Road. The giant Buddhas of Bamiyan fell at the Taliban's whim in 2001; a rapacious antiquities trade still spirits Afghan relics out of the country; and the minarets of Herat and Jam threaten to topple. The ancient citadel of Bam, in eastern Iran, crumbled in a 2003 earthquake. A string of Zoroastrian fortresses, like Topraq Qala, stand neglected in the Karakalpak desert in Uzbekistan - they don't fit with Islam Karimov's brand of nationalism. The ancient site of Merv, layered with legendary cities, has languished little-known under the Turkmen dictatorships.

Humbled history

The Silk Road is a modern abstraction, a term coined in 1877 by the German geologist-explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. (His nephew Manfred, the famous "Red Baron", was a flying ace in World War I). The explorer baron wrote a five-volume opus on his travels in China, in which he linked the abandoned desert citadels of the Taklamakan Desert to the "Seres", the "silk people" mentioned by Roman writers. Ross Perlin has written on issues of language endangerment and cultural survival in China, the US, and the Jewish Diaspora.

His linguistic research, associated with the Himalayan Languages Project, is focused on the long-term documentation of T'rung, an endangered and virtually unstudied language of southwest China. He currently lives in Kunming, China.

Von Richthofen's label began with a straightforward observation: that far-flung trade networks had once moved the fine threads of the bombyx mori across the breadth of Eurasia. Yet the scope of these contacts - from the Adriatic to the South China Sea, over the Hindu-Kush Mountains and across the stone deserts of central Asia - was even greater than von Richthofen had imagined (see maps here). Later scholars have traced a tea road across Siberia, a spice route by way of the Indian Ocean, conduits for amber, musk, cotton, and so on. In these same caravans and caravels, they remind us, there also traveled religions, languages, species, diseases.

A few dozen cities in particular are associated with the classic overland pattern of Silk Road commerce. Many of these old oases now fall within the borders of Iran, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and China's western provinces, and all are humbled to varying degrees. Bukhara, formerly a major center of learning, today sends its finest to Tashkent, the Russified capital. Xi'an, once the world's largest city, now stands in the long shadow of Beijing. Once-vital hubs such as Dunhuang and Panjikant subsist as archaeological attractions well off the beaten path.

Men have destroyed the Silk Road before: Arab invaders vanquished the famous trading nation of the Sogdians, Turkic peoples raced from Siberia to the Golden Horn in a few torrid centuries, and the Mongol hordes left a desolation that is still palpable in places. Yet an extraordinary amount of tangible history survives in the region: dazzling Timurid mosques and palaces, honeycombs of Buddhist cave painting, intact urban centers, and, to a lesser extent, the old merchandise itself. In parts of Turkey, one can follow the string of caravanserais (roadside inns) spaced a day's travel apart, where traveling merchants would have refueled and spent the night.

The Silk Road frenzy

Awareness of the Silk Road - as an evocative, unifying paradigm for pre-modern inner Eurasia - dawned at a moment when its sites seemed, if anything, more inaccessible than ever before. To westerners dreaming of camels and spice markets, Soviet Bukhara was almost as distant as medieval Bukhara, just as the Xinjiang of atomic bomb tests was unthinkable as a tourist destination. Many Silk Road sites have been opened to sustained tourism and scholarship only in the last few decades.

With this new access, a Silk Road frenzy seemed to take hold - in Xi'an, Samarqand, or Isfahan this expressed itself in cosmopolitan longing, invocations of former glory, and marketing spin. The dwellers of coastal Eurasia (whether in Tokyo or London) indulged a desire for the exotic or, less often, dreamed of Eurasian interconnectedness. Scam artists, visionaries, academics, tourists, infrastructure boosters, and business opportunists all found something congenial in von Richthofen's label - and now governments have too.

For the last few years, China and the five ex-Soviet Central Asian nations have been lobbying UNESCO to grant World Heritage status to their hand-picked stretches of Silk Road, which would include a large number of individual sites and the "routes" themselves. China in particular has latched on to the World Heritage designation lately, both for the title's reputed ability to boost tourism and for its worth as an international status symbol. In 2008 alone, China was pushing for inclusion of more than 30 candidate sites as World Heritage sites - as many as already lie within its borders. Also by Ross Perlin:

"Letter from Motor City"
(19 June 2006)

Selective exclusions

At the same time, the list of sites that China that hopes to include under the Silk Road heading is pointedly - even heartbreakingly - selective. Giovanni Boccardi, who directs UNESCO's World Heritage Centre for East Asia, told me: "As far as UNESCO understands, Kashgar is for the time being not part of the intended nomination."

With UNESCO's encouragement, it now seems increasingly likely that the dictatorships and failed states which stand astride the old oases will get the best of both worlds. What they choose to preserve and hawk to tourists will lend them cultural legitimacy, while sites deemed aesthetically or politically unfavorable can still fall to the wrecking ball or neglect. In China, early Buddhist temples are restored while mosques languish, while in Afghanistan and Pakistan the reverse is true, and in Uzbekistan, the heritage of Amir Timur (Tamerlane) trumps work on Sogdian sites.

There is UNESCO precedent for honoring historic routes-the pilgrim itineraries of Santiago de Compostela (France and Spain) and the Kii Mountains (Japan) are already World Heritage-listed. However, the Silk Road presents a much greater conservation challenge, as Boccardi recognizes: "The ‘land routes' were only one of the many silk roads that developed over the past two millennia." As a result, UNESCO is involving countries from Europe, South Asia, and East Asia in hopes of hammering out some larger arrangement. Boccardi says that the "complex nomination [of the Silk Road]... might be proposed in more than one stage, by successive extensions" or, more conventionally, "as two or three self-standing World Heritage properties, under the overarching theme of the Silk Road."

Yet international intervention can only do so much. Three decades of almost uninterrupted conflict in Afghanistan have scattered that countries' antiquities far and wide. If the looting of Iraq's National Museum dispersed and damaged the treasures of Fertile Crescent civilization over four shameful days, lawlessness and desperation have been doing the same, gradually, to Afghanistan's immense heritage of Hellenistic, Buddhist, and Islamic art-once a testament to the Silk Road's powers of syncretism. Some artifacts are now finding their way back, but so much has already disappeared into private collections, largely in the West - what might have been an inspiring basis for a new, pluralistic Afghanistan is lost in an unfathomable diaspora 

Two hundred and thirty kilometers northwest of Kabul, only the notches remain where the 6th century Buddhas Vairocana and Sakyamuni once projected Gandharan grandeur to the valley below. The Afghan authorities, UNESCO, and other groups are working on the site, but its future remains uncertain, aside from a poignant project by Japanese artist Hiro Yamagata to recreate the Buddhas with massive lasers, reminiscent of New York City's Tribute in Light. The initial hopes at Bamiyan of rebuilding the statues have dimmed considerably, with concerns about authenticity and a deteriorating security situation. Meanwhile, zealots of a revived Taliban now direct their ire against the defenseless Buddhist past in Pakistan.

To a large extent, the principal threats to Silk Road sites today are country-specific. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, most conservation work was a product of Soviet initiative and expertise-and it remains an open question whether cash-strapped local authorities will have the incentive and the knowhow to maintain cities like Khiva, or ruins like those at Merv, where tourism remains small-scale.

The destruction of mud-brick cities, the plundering of desert antiquities, the razing of mosques and Buddhist relics: these are now almost familiar sights, recurring news items. A concept that seems as poignant and powerful as ever - a map for understanding both a Eurasian past and possibly a Eurasian future - the Silk Road is unraveling, just as it comes within reach.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData