Roy Forward is presenting his course Wonders of the Silk Road for us this term, using the glorious architecture, textiles and ceramics from the region to tell the story of the route which crossed Central Asia linking China to Europe. We asked him to tell us a little bit about the course and the conversation proved to be as rich and varied an experience as the fabled route itself.
Roy’s travels have taken him deep into Central Asia and through landscapes totally foreign to someone who grew up in Tasmania.
“Driving through the desert is exciting because there is so much of nothing—you’d get out to marvel at a crane’s nest—and then you come across someone on a camel, just out there in the midst of nowhere,” he said.
The Silk Road was, in fact, a network of land and maritime routes, forged in the wake of armies such as those of Alexander the Great, Timur and Genghis Khan who rampaged across Central Asia looking to expand their empires.
“The routes were so diverse going right up into Siberia so there’s not one silk route, but the shortest and most picturesque is from East to West from Xian in China, across the deserts into what used to be the Persian Empire and it becomes Europe pretty quickly after that.” A stable empire brought peace and prosperity.
“Traders liked it when there was peace and the best way to get peace was when a single army came through—a military force which put down any internecine conflict.”
Great cities were established and for a time Central Asia was the centre of learning and culture—leading the world in advances in architecture, art and science and attracting people from all over the known world. But if cities like Bukhara, Khiva, Tashkent and Samarkand rose with the empires, so did they fall.
“Not many places lasted for long and there are enormous archaeological sites of cities which are no more, just walls remain.”
These sites are now popular tourist sites and Roy recalled a moment on a recent tour, “you get up on the top of these ramparts and get this view over nothingness and imagine Genghis Khan or Tamburlaine appearing on the horizon and wondering if your time’s up…”
The cities which have survived, or have been rebuilt are a magnet to the modern traveller. Bukhara, with over 140 architectural monuments, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site as is Samarkand where the Tomb of Timur is found; little remains of ancient Tashkent but it’s now a beautiful, planned modern city, rebuilt by the Russians after a devastating earthquake in 1966. But it’s Khiva which is Roy’s favourite city. The ancient walled royal citadel is now a living museum.
“Within the walls it’s like walking back in time. Many of the mosques and Royal Palaces are now museums you are free to walk around…from the walls you can watch the sun set over the minarets, it’s amazing.”
It’s through the glorious art, architecture and archaeology which remains—desert ruins; mosques and madrassas; dazzling tile work; Turkish ceramics drawing inspiration from Ming Dynasty porcelain; Chinese or Indian statuary with a distinct Hellenic influence—that Roy will illustrate the story of those who travelled the Silk Road and the connections which were formed along the way.
Don’t miss your chance to learn the many Wonders of the Silk Road in Roy Forward’s new short course.
Where to next for Roy? He’ll be heading back to Central Asia but this time he’s heading along the north-south axis of the trade routes down into the Caucasus, which have recently opened up to tourists. A new adventure awaits.