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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Silk Road

In the fall of 2000, Elderhostel, now called Road Scholars, offered a full two week educational adventure to Uzbekistan in Central Asia and we joined up. Uzbekistan is where Samarkand, Tashkent and Khiva were established trading posts on the Silk Road that merchants traveled from Europe to China. [click on map to enlarge]

At that time it was only nine years since Uzbekistan had declared its independence after 24 years of Russian occupation and, as we expected, there were few concessions for tourists – but that made it all the more interesting for us! We found the food very unfamiliar and most signs and directions were written in the Russian alphabet [русский алфавит] or Arabic script that had been used before that. The architecture, impacted mostly by Arab and Muslim culture, was unusual and different and one also felt that quite a few Uzbeks were not many generations away from their fierce equestrian tribesmen ancestors. They were civil but cautious and carried themselves with pride - as well they might.
Seeing things from their point of view, we gained a new respect to learn that is was largely in this part of the world that the concept of one God, instead of many, first originated. It started with Zoroastrianism and then was taken up in turn by Judaism, then Christian and Muslim religions. As well, after the fall of the Roman empire during the Middle Ages from the 5th to the 15th century, when there were barbarian hoards devastating European culture, the Uzbeks were among those who valued the knowledge that had been accumulated in such places as the famous Library at Alexandria. They preserved it and built institutions that fostered the search for new learning.
I had always had the misconception that the Silk Route was discovered by Marco Polo because he was the first ever to write about his extensive travels from Europe to China in the 13th century. However our lecturers informed us that the route was actually first traveled during the expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia and China in 329 BCE. Much of Central Asia is so arid it is desert but the fertile area between two rivers in Uzbekistan, the Amu and Syr, can be considered a cradle of civilizations that goes so far back into antiquity that one can only guess at its origin. We do know that cities like Samarkand and Tashkent already had a long history when Alexander conquered the region.
A feature that constantly reminded us of the ever present danger of getting lost in the shifting sands of the desert, were the very tall round towers on which fires were kept lit all night to guide travelers. I have often wondered if the idea of using the minarets around their mosques was picked up when the Muslims invaded this part of Asia in the middle of the 7th century! Rie