Silk Road’s revival and challenges


by Hajrudin Somun*

A soldier stands guard in front of the Idkhar Mosque in the Chinese city of Kashgar, a former Silk Road city (PHOTO REUTERS)
 “You people from Europe and the West are anxious about what will happen in Syria these days and preoccupied with the Arab Spring, but disregard what is happening in our huge Eurasian expanses,” said Dosym Satpayev, a young Kazakh international relations expert from Almaty.

To my question if what is happening in the Eurasian region was similar to the Middle East uprisings, he replied, “In our area, an ‘Arab Spring’ started much earlier… Just recall the Kyrgyzstan revolution of 2000.”

This dialogue was just part of the wider discussions we had last week in Bucharest at the international scientific conference titled “The Silk Road: History and Perspectives,” organized by the Romanian Silk Road Association. I had wondered “What is the reason for holding such a conference and what should I pay attention to while attending?” After listening to the first few participants, however, I found there are many reasons to pay attention to what is happening now, more so than in the past, in the vast area of the Silk Road — from the Mediterranean Sea to China.
Dr. Tasin Gemil, director of the Institute of Turkology and Central Asian Studies at the Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca and the conference’s main organizer, was right in saying, “That road, unique in the history of mankind, has attracted and brought together peoples and cultures, facilitating the creation in time of great Eurasian-based civilizations of different forms [Islamic, Byzantine, Mongol-Turkish-Tatar, Russian, Ottoman, etc.].” Adapting the Silk Road to contemporary circumstances, particularly after the collapse of the Russian tsarist and communist empires, I would assume a new order where remnants of the mentioned civilizations in new forms (Islamist, Mongol-Dictatorial, Chinese-Communist, Russian-Authoritarian, Pan-Turkic, neo-Ottoman, etc.) are interacting and even confronting each other.

Therefore, the Silk Road’s historical evaluation and various challenges of its revival were enough reason for the said Bucharest conference.

The influence of the Silk Road

Altered by sea routes and modern means of transportation and communication, the Silk Road lost its essentially commercial raison d’être that lasted for a millennium and a half. It has served primarily trade objectives but it is still more considerably remembered for its cultural significance. Many scholars defined the Silk Road as the essential exchange of cultures that occurred through trade routes across Eurasia. If we consider religions as part of that exchange, then we might find that the main faiths that still rule human spiritual life have left a fundamental trace on areas covered by the Silk Road. Historical documents show that these kinds of cultural exchanges were not always accepted willingly due to the very simple reason that religions have always been involved in great political changes.

Thus, most of the Chinese perhaps would never have become Buddhists if their monks had not traveled on the Silk Road to ancient India to study Buddhism and bring it back to the inner parts of China. It was the same with Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorianism — which were called the “three foreign religions” in the Tang Dynasty that lasted for almost three centuries. From the fifth century B.C., Zoroastrianism started to spread into the western regions of China. Once the state religion of Persia, Zoroastrianism was forced to move east after the rise of the Arab empire. The first millennium A.D. was the time of great moves of various faiths between the Far East and Europe. Caves of the ancient Persian divinity Mithra, which was later adopted by Romans, can even be seen today in Jajce in Bosnia. The Iranian people, the Sogdians, played a role in the spread of Manichaeism to the Uyghurs in the eighth century, by which time both Islam and Eastern Christianity had also made their way to China. Christianity, however, never found a fertile land in Asia while Tamerlane and other Mogul invaders easily became devoted Muslims and spread and consolidated Islam in South Asia.

As in all movements of medieval empires, religion served politics and the arts were influenced by religion. The arts also encouraged expression of religious devotion, which united and changed societies and would continue to do so until present times. Samarkand and Bukhara are perhaps the two most famous cities that lie on the Silk Road. Their names alone whisper Oriental exotics and recall Persian poet Hafez’s two verses, known to all poetry lovers: “If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart in hand / I would remit Samarkand and Bukhara for her Hindu mole.” The verses enraged Prince Tamerlane, but those were times when art and poetry played a more important role than they do today.

Everything subsequently changed in the world. The Kalyan minaret in Bukhara, which for many centuries dominated the city, couldn’t compete with the modern TV tower. In the age of globalization, transnational companies gained importance but the revival of different intercontinental routes and communications became a social need and a demand of the times. Most of the Silk Road routes were demolished and the cities that were built around them became ruins, but life goes on and the people living between China and the Mediterranean basin — particularly in Central Asia — use the Silk Road as a symbolic incentive and encouragement for mutual connection and cooperation in various fields.

‘China is the leader of the new Silk Road’

These were the main lines along which most of the participants of the Bucharest conference directed their speeches and discussions — from the eldest one, Professor Agajan G. Babaev from Turkmenistan, who is one of the last living academics from the Soviet era, to young enlightened scholars from Babes-Bolyai, the largest Romanian university. There were some very interesting subjects, such as “The Confluence of Civilizations on the Silk Road,” “Russian-Ottoman Rivalry for the Control of the Central Asian Segment of the Great Silk Road” and “Silk Road in Anatolia.”

Vasile Simileanu, publicist and director of the journal Geopolitika, stressed that “China is the leader of the new Silk Road” and concluded that “geopolitical importance of this route — the Eurasian axis — will generate new strategies and new alliances.” Satpayev from Kazakhstan emphasized that “the politics of ‘equidistant partnership’ of Central Asian countries with Russia, China, the US, the EU and other geopolitical players was justified, for now,” but at the same time stated that tighter cooperation among those countries was of utmost importance.

Coming from Bosnia and the Balkans, where that subject is not only a matter of coexistence but conflicts as well, I dealt with the multicultural aspects of the Silk Road. However, during the discussions I was particularly interested to hear from attendees from Central Asia to see if I was right in considering — even in these Today Zaman’s pages — that the authoritarian regimes in those countries were a successful combination of the so-called Asian despotism and Stalinism. That was, in fact, a negative impact of those wide multicultural exchanges over the Silk Road and its indirect effect was a new hereditary non-monarchical dictatorial rule which we are witnessing in the Middle East as well. I did not get a direct answer, except non-committal smiles, but I was again warned that those Central Asian countries should not be regarded as a bloc and that in some of these countries, movements similar to the Arab Spring have already started.

In the end, to justify connecting the Silk Road with the Balkans today is to acknowledge that the Balkan Peninsula has a strategic geographic position which even in the old times controlled access to the Silk Road, the ancient trade route linking China and imperial Rome where the first supplies of silk were brought to decorate Roman palaces and adorn its ladies. Therefore, the Balkans were a battlefield for competing superpowers since medieval times.

Now a new global economic and military power, China is still interested in Southeast Europe. But its strategy is now shifting to spread its influence primarily over increasing trade, fostering tighter relations with governments and businesses throughout the region and having Chinese language taught in Balkan schools from Tirana to Sarajevo. In October 2010, the Turkish and Chinese governments signed “The New Silk Road” framework agreement while Bursa has hosted the Silk Road Film Festival since 2007. China has interest in power plants in Serbia, an automotive plant in Bulgaria, businesses in Bucharest, mines in Albania and is talking to all Southeast European countries about improving trade relations. Central Europe Watch has qualified China’s expansion into the Balkans as the “drafting” of “long-term plans for a modern Silk Road” across the Eurasian landmass.

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.

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