The Silk Road: How the ancient route is becoming a pathway to the future

Recent infrastructure investments in Silk Road countries are putting the historic pathway back on the map. As Andrew MacLeod writes, a trip down the ancient route is not only a glimpse into history – it is a preview of the future

Andrew Macleod
Wednesday 26 October 2016 19:57 BST
Grand mosques and madrassas in Samarkand are longlasting displays of the power the city once held
Grand mosques and madrassas in Samarkand are longlasting displays of the power the city once held (all pics: Andrew Macleod)

Along the Great Silk Road the shadows of predator and prey chase each other across the wide grassland still today. Like other partnerships that have remained unchanged for centuries, today’s Eagle Hunters care for their birds from the moment they hatch. The bond between eagle and owner is clear as they “kiss” in a gentle touch between beak and nose. It is a sight of great gentleness that sits uncomfortably with the brutal display of hunter and hunted about to unfold.

The eagle hunter releases the bird and watches the attacking descent toward a fearful rabbit. The mighty wings descend as the rabbit’s instincts warn of impending doom.

Eagles still chase their prey across the wild grasslands along the Great Silk Road (Andrew Macleod) (all pics: Andrew MacLeod)

Alas, it is a hopeless task to try to outrun an eagle when there is no nearby burrow in which to hide. The predator grabs the prey but neither stabs with its claws nor kills with its beak. Rather, the great eagle’s talons strangle the victim rabbit, suffocating life out of the mammal as the fur covered legs let out one last futile kick. The eagle gets its ravenous reward by consuming his prey in a crunch of bones.

Brutal also must have been the game of Buzkashi. It is an early form of horse-back polo played not with a ball, but with the headless carcass of a sheep or goat. How much more brutal it must have been in days gone by when the poor goat or sheep was alive for the start of the game, but not at the end.

Along the great Silk Road today many traditions like Eagle Hunting and Buzkashi remain from days gone by.

The scene of these traditions is remote Kyrgyzstan, around Lake Issyk-Kul, where the Soviets used to test their nuclear-armed torpedos. It is the lake where ancient Silk Road traders from China would take a swim after crossing the Karakoram desert on the way out of their homeland and heading to Persia. It is where those from Persia knew they would soon reach their markets in China.

It is a place of breathtaking beauty, of gullies and streams, of snow capped mountains and hot summer’s days followed by frozen winter’s nights. It is a place where traditional Yert tents still dot the landscape as some people cling to the traditional semi-nomadic way of life and love their sports of eagle hunting and horseback contests. It is easy to imagine life on the Silk Road back those thousand years.

Further along the road in Uzbekistan the ancient cities of Samarkand and Bukhara to this day have fine buildings, mosques and madrassas speaking of the amazing power these huge cities had in the 10th to 13th centuries. Then, they were the centre of the world.

In Samarkand a massive observatory stood where the great astronomer Mirzo Ulagbek declared the world round not flat – nearly 200 years before Galileo.

In Khiva, also in Uzbekistan, the mathematician Muhammad ibn Musoak Xorazmiy, not only perfected the use of the number zero (something the Romans couldn’t manage and something critical for the creation of the decimal system) but also perfected algebra.

In Turkmenistan the ancient city of Merv, said to be one of the largest cities in the world at the time of Alexander the Great, lasted nearly 1500 years with a population in the hundreds of thousands.

Mathematician Muhammad ibn Musoak Xorazmiy perfected the use of the number zero, as well as algebra (Andrew Macleod)

Sacked by the son of Chinggis Khan, Merv has never been rebuilt. In the dust of crumbled building you can still touch the broken wine amphora. The bones of the 300,000 slaughtered people still lie in the footsteps, easy to see. Merv, once great, is now barely a set of sand dunes of crumbled brickwork laying testament to the folly of believing your city or culture will remain dominant forever.

But we did not learn of these great cities and civilisations in school.

Those who, like me, received a European style education in Australia learned that the Greeks begat the Romans who begat the Dark Ages, followed by the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Age of Empire, Industrial Revolution, the creation of the United States and here we are today.

We glossed over the thousand years from roughly 300 to 1300 as the “Dark Ages”. We missed the lessons of rise and fall.

We were naïve as to the great powers, the struggles from Zoroastrianism and Buddhism, through Christianity and then Islam, which intermingled and fought along the great corridors of agnostic trade, while Europe went backwards.

When Mohammed and his warriors first took Islam up and down the Silk Road, many historians at the time wrote of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as “sects of the same religion”.

We may find that perspective difficult today. But back when Merv was great the Zoroastrian fire-worshippers dominated, along with the Buddhists and multi-god Hindus, that perspective of the three Abrahamic religions having more in common with each other than with Buddhism, Zoroastrianism or Hinduism is perhaps understandable.

Perhaps those ancient writers had a point? Historians of the time saw three groups all worshipping the God of Abraham, all respecting Moses’ Ten Commandments and all respecting Jesus, but bickering as to his role as a teacher (the Jewish perspective), a prophet (the Islamic perspective) or the Messiah (the Christian perspective).

We also did not learn that Christianity came to the Silk Road before it came to Rome.

In the Biblical story of the Great Flood Noah is said to have sailed his Ark from the coast of Yemen to the slopes of Mount Ararat. This fabled mountain stands majestically over the southern plains of Armenia dominating the countryside and equally dominating the Armenian culture.

The mountain is on the nation’s currency. Monuments appear to it all throughout the country. The snow peak and dwindling glaciers stand over a monastery at Khor Virap where Saint Gregory the Illuminator convinced the Armenian King to covert, marking Armenia as the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion in 301 AD.

While the mountain neatly links Noah’s Ark with the first country in the world to adopt Christianity, the narrative has just one flaw. Across the fertile valley that separates the monastery from the mountains rises a fence and a series of companion guard towers that mark the closed boarder that separates Turkey from Armenia. Mount Ararat is in Turkey. The monastery is in Armenia.

To say Armenia and Turkey have a “troubled relationship” is a slight understatement. The first Christian country butts up against the remnants of old Ottoman Empire, now a secular nation seemingly heading down the path of Islamification. But it is not this age-old conflict of Islam and Christianity that lies at the heart of the current conflict.

In the aftermath of the First World War, a catastrophe that marked the final death of the Ottomans, a conflict between Armenia and Turkey broke out in which hundreds of thousands of Armenians died. Armenia calls these killings Genocide, which Turkey denies, despite the views of many modern jurists.

Samarkand has long been a central point of trade and is known for its historic mosques (Andrew Macleod)

Armenia wants Turkey to apologise for the Genocide as Germany has to the Jews. If this were all that was in dispute one could imagine a modern government could quite well apologise for the past deeds of long dead government decision makers. But Armenia also wants compensation and land return from the conflict. Including the mountain with the Ark.

Regardless of the Turkish Government’s view on the definition of Genocide, I rate the chances of them giving Mt Ararat to Armenia as something approaching Hillary Clinton finding 33,000 emails.

But we didn’t learn this in school. We learned that the Silk Road from Armenia through the ‘Stans’ to China, was a little known trading route until it was discovered by Marco Polo in the 13th century. A journey down the Silk Road today shows how wrong my childhood learning was. Marco Polo not only did not “discover” the Silk Road, he came upon not at its beginning, but closer to its end nearly 1300 years after Emperor Augustus first noted its existence in 1 BC.

Far from the world going backwards, it was only Christian Europe that retreated in those thousand years. Persia and Islam grew and advanced science and mathematics, medicine and learning, trade and technology.

And now, when walking along those ancient footpaths it is worth reflecting that Romans once thought they were invincible, and crumbled. Zoroastrian Persia though it would rule for eternity. The great Islamic empires of Samarkand and Merv thought the same and then fell.

When travelling today’s Silk Road, and listening to the perspectives of those who live there now, we heard that empires were at their strongest when they tolerated difference and celebrated learning and perspectives from other parts of the world.

When empires became intolerant, and self absorbed, that is when they started to weaken and fall.

One can’t help but wonder if like the Romans, the Zoroastrians, the Muslims in Samarkand, all of whom grew strong and then collapsed, Western European cultural dominance will one day ebb. Is the growing intolerance in both Islam and Western Culture a sign that both these cultures will decline and soon?

If so, who will follow us as the dominant power, and when?

I finished my Silk Road tour in Kashgar, China. There I saw the impact of President Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” policy, and the reinstitution of the old Silk Road as a new trade corridor.

This policy, announced by President Xi in 2013 envisions a collaborative land belt connecting the countries of the old silk road in to a new massive trade corridor. The policy adds a new sea-borne roadway connecting China to South Asia and East Africa. It is in this context that China’s strategic approach to the South China Sea is not about resources on the seabed, but about control of the new great silk road.

China is investing trillions in trade, road, rail and gas pipelines. They have just opened a Beijing to Afghanistan rail line with a Beijing to Karachi line well underway. They are rebuilding the Karakorum highway and are opening new air based trade routes.

Kashgar in China is being reinstituted as a new trade corridor (Andrew Macleod)

Windmills, solar panels, self charging street lights all dot the landscape demonstrating the huge effort China is putting in to new energy technologies in readiness to a switch to a cleaner economy.

China is open to ideas from other countries. It is aware of science, technology and is showing the tolerance to ideas that historical empires had used to build their strength, just at the time where Western and Islamic cultures have growing intolerances and tendencies to isolationism.

A trip down the ancient silk road is no longer historical, it is a preview of the future.

Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, and Astana in Kazakhstan are gleaming new cities. The Uzbek’s are building fast rail connections at a rate that must make Australians and Brits blush with the embarrassment that combined Australia and Britain have precisely zero fast rail links.

If I were a 20-year-old in Central Asia today there would be much to be optimistic about.

When I see the infrastructure investment, the growing strength of that economy and the construction in the Silk Road countries and I watch the West’s response or lack thereof, the answer to the question of who will replace the West as the cultural dominance become clear. When I see the rapid scale of this investment I see the time line of the replacement of dominant cultures is much shorter than I previously thought.

I know which culture will replace ours and I have the feeling that, unlike in the past, this cultural change will not take generations to unfold. I am confident that I will live to see it.

This is what a trip down the Silk Road showed me. I went wanting to learn about the past, and what I saw instead was a glimpse at the rapidly approaching future.

Professor Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor at Kings College London and a director of US and Australian based companies. He can be followed on @AndrewMMacLeod

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