'Travelling The Silk Road' Exhibition Review

This is an exceptional review not necessarily about the exhibition but some of the current thinking emerging about the role of the Silk Road on Western History. I suggest reading it. Here’s the clincher:

[T]he critical intellectual shortcoming of the exhibition is that with Baghdad, the Silk Road seems to come to a prematurely celebratory end. Why, instead of dealing with the development of Arab shipping in a final gallery, didn’t the show follow a narrative, visible on one of its maps, leading past Baghdad and to the port of Venice? By extending the history another few centuries, we would have seen how the Silk Road led to a fertilization of Western thinking, not just with the discoveries of Islamic scientists but also with a variety of philosophical and religious perspectives that proved influential over the course of centuries. We know how deeply affected Marco Polo was by the Silk Road in the 13th century: he passed that enthusiasm on.

This would have helped the exhibition make a more cogent contribution to Western cultural self-understanding. It would have also helped explain why, once European shipping and exploration took off in the late Renaissance, the overland Silk Road route became more and more a commercial backwater, leading to centuries of cultural and political decline, whose effects are still being felt.

After my first trip across the Silk Road in 2003 I began to devour, wholesale, as much scholarship on it as I possibly could. And one thing that became very clear early on was that the official narrative of the Silk Road wasn’t anything close to the reality. Sadly, it has been extremely slow going. (I now have an extensive library–at least two hundred books and countless scholarly articles relating to the subject. And growing.) Most of the scholarship is either at least a century old, or in Russian, German and French–of which I only speak one. (The Russian scholarship suffers from the Marxist dialectic, as well.) And yet I found a lot of truth in the old saw, ‘read an old book and learn something new.’ Even before I read Beckwith’s book my ideas had shifted drastically towards his own. His book was a much appreciated validation of my own.

More after the jump.

However, Christopher Beckwith’s book, which I reviewed in brief a few weeks ago, goes a long way toward rectifying this. The pollination between East and West is much more tremendous than we think. The sheer amount of ideas and innovations which moved from East to West are enough to give one pause: paper, the divine right of kings from China via Persia, Islamic motifs in Western sacred architecture, religious iconography including halos, paper currency, the stirrup–this one alone had a massive impact on Europe. The list is long. But the most profound idea that emerged from the littoral states of the West’s contact with the great Asian hinterland is the millenia-old dialogue between ‘the other’ and the settled states. And then their is the troublesome problem of those pesky Indo-Europeans, who migrated from the Pontic Steppe sometime around 3,000BC and took with them a cultural complex that would literally change the world: the domestication of the horse, the wheel and the chariot. And the concomitant spread of the linguistics that forms the basis of existing languages from the Indian sub-continent, to Iran to Western Europe. And dead languages whose sounds can still be heard in the Tarim Basin.

While I don’t have much truck with ‘world systems’ theorists the sheer amount of evidence behind the idea that the West could not have arisen without pollination from the East is inescapable. But it’s a very complicated story and sadly one that doesn’t fit into a snap narrative. Too much energy is spent on Central Asian studies now that focus on only the last hundred or so years. It simply has to go much, much further back in time than that. It’s also a subject that is endless fascinating. For me, the conquest of Central Asia by the Russians is much less interesting that the role of trade between China and the Steppe Nomads hundreds of years before Christ. The Chinese, who adopted much of the cultural complex of the Indo-Europeans needed horses. What did they do? They slowly encroached on the lands of the Steppe Nomads to feed their war machine. (One Chinese emperor nearly lost everything, surrounded by a horde of horseman in the dead of a Chinese winter, as he was. By the way, our word for horde comes from a region of China called the Ordos Loop. Google it.) When the nomads fought back the decided to trade. The Chinese traded silk and the nomads horses. A revolution began. (And no, I am not oversimplifying.) The old world, although tenuously linked, was linked forever after this. Silk soon began appearing in great amounts in Western markets–and with it so much more.

The genius of Beckwith’s book isn’t the reinterpretation of Central Asian history, although it is quite an achievement. The genius is in the questions he raises. One question he brought up was this: how is it that between the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD the great states of the world at the time underwent wholesale and violent religious revolutions? What, for lack of a better turn of phrase, was in the wind? Big, and new> meta-questions such as this one pepper his book.

Regardless, if you are in New York City and have a chance to see the exhibit please do. I would love to hear more.

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Sean Paul Kelley

Traveler of the (real) Silk Road, scholar and historian, photographer and writer - founder of The Agonist.

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  • One question he brought up was this: how is it that between the Seventh and Eighth Centuries AD the great states of the world at the time underwent wholesale and violent religious revolutions? What, for lack of a better turn of phrase, was in the wind?

    I’ll take a wild guess. Violent religious revolutions occurred to make the natural unnatural and to create a new and artificial naturalness. In other words, the transformation of the ancient goddess worshipping societies to a society ruled exclusively by male deities required a seismic shift in the consciousness of humankind that could only be achieved through violence. What was in the wind was the seed of kyriarchy.

    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

  • I don’t understand your use of the word “littoral” in this context.

    You imply all coastal states, when maybe you mean mediterranian states.

  • The Greeks & Romans had well established male dieties well before the seventh & eight centuries AD (and to be politically correcr, AD is so christian, the term now is CE).

    Or maybe you are referring the growth of Christianity, and the rise of Islam?

  • The history of the Mother of the Gods elegantly illustrates how ancient divinities were not static types, but rather expressions of cultural systems that responded to historical change, and through this the very important issue of the connection between religion, cosmogony and politics is raised. The way a society conceives sovereignty in the religious domain must be related in some way to the way it conceives sovereignty in other domains, as in politics. (pdf. pg, 15)

    Isis, especially, was promoted via numerous aretalogies (‘praises published in stone’) as tyrant (tyrannos) of every land, as the Queen of heaven that arranges the paths of stars, sun and moon, as creator (who separated heaven and earth), who founded and established civilization, who, as Queen, governs rivers, sea and wind, thunderbolts and seamanship and lords over fate; or as she herself with complete confidence proclaims to the hapless Lucius (Apuleius, The Golden Ass, XI, 5): ‘I who am the mother of the universe, the mistress of all the elements, the first offspring of time, the highest of deities … foremost of heavenly beings, the single form that fuses all gods and goddesses …’ The latter an oft-repeated epithet of Isis in inscriptions: myrionyma, Isis of the thousand names, Isis the supreme encapsulation of all other deities. As an inscription from Capua (CIL X, 3800) has it: te tibi una quae es omnia – you are the one and all. (pdf. pg, 6)

    …..The march of the Great Mother (Isis)through the Mediterranean world spans a long history …..The Mother of the gods was an irresistible power … that had to be defined and controlled. (pdf. pg, 15)

    Tolerating prostitution is tolerating abuse and torture of women and children.

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