Heaven in the rock: The Lapis road.

Luxury in a mater of social convention, naturally driven by a commodity’s rarity and quality, but formostly on a given culture’s system of values, appreciation and symbolism. Different societies held different substances as highly valuable, while regarded other as mundane. The history of luxury goes back to the earliest well defined human cultures, altough a full understanding of its early social and commercial context is still incomplete due to the  obvious lack of written material and perishable nature of possible findings.  Prehistoric evidence  however do show, how as early as the Neolithic times, flints of unusual shades as well as sea shells were much valued merely for their rarity, thus traveling far and wide from their place of origin by the sheer force of human imagination, but a full understanding of the scope of this early netwrok is still missing.

After the Neolithic revolution, as human socities began to take complex social and political shapes, new apriciations and demands came into being. One of the well known luxury items of the earliest civilizations is a matter of curiosity, owing not only to its prestige as a commodity, but also due to the manner in which it traveled and came to be as such.

Lapis lazuli is a rock formed under specific metamorphic conditions, and contain considerable amounts of the blue mineral Lazuraite, as well as other minerals such as Calcite and Pyrite, which appear on the surface of the stone as spots and strikes of white and golden colour.  Lapis was appreciate in the ancient world for its intense Ultra-Marine colour, when specimens of pure-blue, free of impurities where the most sought after. The stone’s vivid colour, as well as its relative softness, made it a desired item among the cultures of the ancient near east, mostly in Mesopotamia and Egypt, where it was used for personal and monumental adornment. The origin of Lapis, however, is to be found no near these centers of early human culture.


There are very few known deposits of Lapis in the old world, and even though the ancient chronicles tell tales of Lapis mines in western Egypt and southwest Iran, the only modernly confirmed deposits lie next to the Baikal lake, in the Pamirs and most of all, in Afghanistan. Badakhshan, in what is today northeast Afghanistan was indeed the only significant source of Lapis Lazuli in the ancient world. From a few scattered mines high in the Hindu-Kush mountains, came the only supply of high quality Lapis Lazuli for the cultural centers of India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and later,  Greece.


lapis 1

The mine at  Sar-i-sang,  Kuran Wa Munjan District ,is perhaps the oldest yet active mine in the world, when its oldest shafts were most probably the ones supplying high quality Lapis to the tresurehouses of Ur, as well as for the burial mask of the child-Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Active only few months a year due to harsh weather conditions, and historically exploited by simple means such as fire cracking , the mines had yield chunks of blue stone who where  chiseled out of the very mountain side, only to be dispatched in the rough far off to the their faceless consumers.

Standard of Ur CA.2600 BC. Lapis, Shell, Lime and Bituman,

Standard of Ur CA.2600 BC. Lapis, Shell, Lime and Bituman,

Not much is known about the exact trade routs linking the mines of Badakhshan with the early civilizations, the stone itself however, along with some reliable written sources can give some evidence of these long buried routs.

The ancient Sumerian accounts tell us of Arrata, a powerful kingdom to the north east of Sumer, which is noted not only as the home of the goddess of war, love and fertility, Inanna, but also as an exceptionally prosperous land, rich in precious metals and gems, as well as artisans qualified for processing them, one of the is Lapis Lazuli.

While modern scholarship failed to prove the very existence or location of Aratta, the mentioning of Lapis processing northeast of Sumer, indicate a possible trade route leading all the way from Badakhshan, through the Iranian highlands, to the city states of Mesopotamia. While this general direction is a matter of simple geographical sense, a firm confirmation of the exact route still had to be backed by archaeological evidence. However, the excavation of a few major Lapis processing centers on the Iranian plateau, gave a better understanding of the trade routes and how they functioned.  Teppe Hissar is a bronze age settlement south of Dāmḡān in northeastern Iran, where large deposits of Lapis waste flakes were found, indicates a major local industry.

Evidence suggest that  while the rough material was initially been cleaned off of  most of  the external impurities at the source in the Hindu Kush, in order to reduce the carrying expenses, most of the actual processing was made in specialised communities along the way from Badakhshan to Mesopotamia, when Teppa Hissar represent the largest center yet to be found on what might be described as the northern Lapis route, this route, probably continuing westwards south of the Caspian sea and down to Mesopotamia, was prominent well till the dawn of the third millennia BC, when it was mostly replaced by an alternative southern route, going through another important Lapis processing center in Shahar i sokht, then continuing south in the direction of Bandar Abbas on the Persian golf, before sharply turning north to Susa and onwards to the Mesopotamian city states.

Trade is highly sensitive to Geo-political changes such as warfare, political crises and  other calamities,and these can easily disturb, cease or divert commercial activity along a given path. As for the history of the Lapis trade, evidence show that unknown events in Iran had brought the Lapis trade into a complete halt during the early third milenia BC, depriving the fertile crescent and the nile valley from its supply of Lapis for some two centuries. These long lost events might echo in the Sumerian account known as Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta.

“Let them..pure Lapis Lazuli from the slab…

Of the holy giparru where you established (your) dwelling.

May (the people of ) Aratta fashion artfully its interior”

(Enmerkar and the lord of Aratta, 38-64)

In this epic composition, Enmerker, king of Uruk, a Sumerian city state, wished to adorn a new temple for the goddess Inanna with the compulsory Lapis Lazuli, however the king of Arrata, said to be situated seven mountain ranges to the east of Sumer, had preferred to hoard the Lapis for himself instead of trading it with his remote neighbours, threatening to bring a real theological interior design crisis to the cities of Sumer. The account tells us that only after Arrata was struck by a famine sent by Inanna herself, and a subsequent aid of grains sent by Uruk, the export of Lapis from Arrata was allowed to continue.

This lovely story might lack a factual ground, but it might, as said ,reflect the Sumerian age-long thirst for the prestigious stone during these “Lapis dark ages”. The so called Lapis crisis of the third century BC, might brought much agony for the Mesopotamian elites, but also brought later fortune to another riverine culture, far to the east, and an opening of yet another trade route.

The Harappan culture, a well developed urban center, and part of the so- called Indus Valley Civilization was one of the most sophisticated early human cultures, and is known for its state of the art sewage systems, almost unrivaled until the modern age. The mysterious events in the Iranian plateau, disturbing the earlier land routs eventually let to the southbound flow of Lapis down to the Harrapan markets. Surprisingly enough, it appears the Harrapanians were not impressed by these brilliant blue stones, and rarely used them themselves, instead they where happy  to transfer them westwards, with the willing monsoon winds, over to their eager western neighbours in Mesopotamia.

The Maritime Lapis trade was done through another middlemen, the people of Dilmun, a small coastal entity on the eastern shore of the Arabian peninsul and modern Bahrain. The Dilmunites , described by the Mesopotamians as great seafarers, used their favoured location and knowledge of Monsoon winds in order to connect between the two great civilizations of the the Indus and Mesopotamia, while extracting considerable profits.

The Dilmunite trade is confirmed by Sumerian and later Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian accounts, and it seems the small kingdom was an important station on the ancient maritime trade routs for most of the few last millennia BC, acting as a portal for luxury goods arriving from the Indian cost and High Asia, as shown by findings of Lapis objects, but also Ivory, pearls, Carnelian, turquoise and other substances.

lapis map

A few good millenias have passed since the heydays of the ancient Lapis trade, the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians have all cleared way for other nations who held other appreciations. More importantly than an admiration of its artisitic and historical usaege, what the Lapis trade can give us is an understanding of way early Eurasian trade systems functioned . Being  mostly imperishable objects, Lapis beads, artifacts and fragments can help us identify trade patterns, ancient industrial centers and cultural connections, where other items such as textiles, foodstuff and other organic materials can not. It is important to emphasise that the idea of a “Lapis road”,  much the same as other famous “roads”, is valid as a framing term only,  useful for the definition of a trade system limited in time and space. Other resilient commodities such as pottery, metals and stones also help us to define an early world trade network, showing the so called Lapis road was merely a friction of an immense prehistoric and early historic network, connecting communities from Central Asia to the Indian ocean, from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean shore and even up north to the Baltic cost. These trade patterns were off course indirect, but they are a powerful testimony of early human connections, which in turn helped to redesign human establishments, imaginary and material culture.

The blue stone of the Sumerian myths might have long been fallen out of favour in face of other, more sought after gems, but its memory still echos in ancient chronicles, poems and masterpieces of the past, in a brilliant example of how human imaginary can even make rocks travel.


Out of the mist- The old Tea Horse Road.

The Chinese Camellia (Camellia Sinensis), better simply known as Tea, is a plant species which its leaves and young buds are used as the most consumed beverage in the world. Its cultivation and trade had been an economic and political catalyst in Eastern Eurasia for centuries, while its usage gave comfort to generations of weary pilgrims, doleful poets and anxious carpet dealers.


Regardless of popular legends rewvolving idle emperors and romantic princesses loafing under Camellia trees, (I’ve tried steeping fresh leaves, it doesn’t work), Tea usage probably started before 1000 BC, when exact dating is uncertain. Initially cultivated in southern west China, in what is today’s provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guizhou, as demonstrated by  the presence of wild C. Sinensis populations in this region, tea was first used for ceremonial and later for medicinal purposes.  As a common beverage, tea drinking only spread after the collapse of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), becoming an important commercial product during the Song dynasty (960–1279AD).

Given its unique chemical profile, the fresh leaves of the Camellia plant can be modified through a fairly simple manipulation which usually includes steaming, oxidation, and final toasting. The oxidation process give rise to certain chemical compounds, (mostly phenolics such as Catechins, Theaflavins and Flavonoids) which gives the different teas a wide and yet distinct range of flavors and aromas. From white and green teas, through the different Wu longs to your favorite brand of Darjeeling or Assam, this entire selection comes from the same humble plant.


Comparison between different oxidation grades in tea.


As far as the Tibetan plateau is concerned, the arrival of the divine beverage probably brought an end to the Tibetan compulsion of drinking Yak butter dissolved in hot water and brought forth the joyful blessing of consuming dissolved Yak butter flavored tea.

The tradition attribute this introduction to a Tang dynasty princess named Wénchéng, who brought it with her to Lahsa, following her forced marriage to Songtsän Gampo, founder of the formidable Tibetan empire.

Tibetan empire at its height.

Tibetan empire at its height.


Songtsän (R.605-649), spend the first years of his reign in fierce unification of the Tibetan plateau, eventually turning on China itself, which typically reacted by sending gifts, including one imperial niece. It is said that her dowry included a few bundles of tea, which was happily adopted by the Tibetan elite ever since.

The imperial expansion continued with Songtsän’s successors, pushing the imperial borders on China’s expense all the way to the Hexi corridor and Tarim basin, and well into Central Asia, where a governor was even appointed in Kabul.  For two centuries the Tibetans struggled for domination of the region, competing with both the Tangs of China and the Abbasid caliphate, a struggle that lasted until the 9th century’s disintegration of central Tibetan power.

The 7th century had known a considerable increase of trade between China and Tibet, when in accord with the common pattern; China supplied its neighbor with textiles, luxury items and ever increasing amounts of tea, which became a staple among the local population. In return Tibet had supplied the Tang court with the one thing China was never manage to produce, in quantity, nor in quality, horses.

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), Horse and Groom in the Wind

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), Horse and Groom in the Wind. Yuan Dynasty.


From the dawn of Chinese civilization, this extravagantly rich and fertile sedentary culture was suffering from relative inferiority in front of foreign invaders. Its sheer size and immense population usually kept it safe from permanent occupation, (although historically around half a dozen Chinese dynasties actually were foreign), but brought China under an ongoing payroll in order to pacify its borders, usually with limited success. China’s inferiority in the battlefield was primarily due to her inability to master the equestrian arts which gave its nomadic foes such an advantage, and mostly the mounted archery.

China’s attempts to adapt its army to the age of bow and saddle had stumbled upon a major difficulty, since the Chinese soil lacks selenium which is crucial for the healthy breeding of horses, which again forced her to trade with her outside enemies in order to acquire the indispensable mounts. The Tibetan horses are not a prime catch, especially in compare with the legendary horses of Nisea, Farghana or even the small but tough Mongol horses, however drastic times take drastic measures, and China made an effort to buy war horses wherever she can. From the seventh century onwards, Tibet had exported to China an increasing number of horses, and in return she received Tea, loads of it.

A sāncǎi style ceramic horse. Tang dynasty.

A sāncǎi style ceramic horse. Tang dynasty.

During the Tang heydays the main trade took through a northern route (The so called old Tang trade road)  Tángfāngǔdào 唐蕃古道), starting in the historical region of Guānzhōng, or today’s Shǎnxī, then winding through Gānsù, Qīnghǎi, passing the Jīnshā river in northeast Sìchuān, before ascending to the Tibetan lands of Qamdo, Nagqu and ending in Lhasa.


During the five dynasty and early Song periods, there was a steady increase of demand for both Chinese tea in Tibet as well as for horses on the Chinese side, and a testimony for this trend is brought by an 11th century official, stating that “The Westerners have begun to bring good horses to the frontier. All they desire is tea”

. In order to tax and regulate the exchange of goods between the two cultures an official office was established by the Song administration, known as the tea-horse bureau (Chámǎsī 茶马司).

It was in this period when the route we know today was established, when one branch starts from southern Yúnnán, in the tea producing regions of Xīshuāngbǎnnà and Pǔ’ěr. Before heading north through Lìjiāng, Zhōngdiàn (today’s Shangrila) and Lǐtáng. In the Tibetan town of Lǐtáng the road was joined by the northern route, starting from Yǎ’ān, another important tea growing region, as well as a major commercial hub. From Lǐtáng the road pressed on up the Héngduàn mountains and through the vast Tibetan plateau, all the way to Lhasa and further to Nepal and India.

This description is off course an over simplifying one, as same as the better-known “Silk Road” to the north, the “Tea- Horse Road” (Chá mǎ dào 茶马道) is a late 20th century conceptualization of a lucid network of steep routs and mist covered paths, and as other coined terms such as the Musk Road leading from Tibet to Central Asia, European Amber Road and even the maritime Silk road along the shores of the Indian ocean, are all later definitions of long lasting cross-cultural exchange systems, ever changing according to political, economic and ecological conditions.


Main routes of the “Tea-horse road”.


Tea is a relatively sensitive product, as an organic material it is sesetive to the harms of bad storage, extreme weather changes, and packaging in tea-bags.

The tea that was commonly exported to Tibet was usually produced from a sub-specie of the Chinese Camellia, known as “Big leaved Tea” (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) which still grows in its natural form in the mist covered slopes of Yunnan and northern east India.

Camellia sinensis var. assamica.Yunnan.

Camellia sinensis var. assamica.Yunnan.

The processing manner of the exported tea came as an outcome of the need to transport it in bulks up the mountainous routes, sometimes through towering passes of five thousands meters and more. In order to ensure its safe arrival, the tea was dried and pressed into molds of various shapes, than wrapped and packed before being dispatched up the mountain trails.

This compact tea is known today in China as Pǔ​ěr​ tea (普洱茶), and classified into two categories, “Shēng” (生茶)  meaning, live, or raw, and “Shú” (熟茶) which means ripe, or cooked.

Originally the pressed tea all belonged to the “Shēng” category, which is green or lightly oxidized tea, which by the influence of time and climate underwent through additional oxidation, and slowly aged while receiving a much darker colour, deeper tones and aromas and a much heavier and somewhat sweetish flavor.

Pu'er cakes.

Pu’er cakes.

A Pu'er tea shop. Kunming.

A Pu’er tea shop. Kunming.

On normal terms, it is recommended to consume tea up to two or three years from its production, Shēng Pu’er is the only tea that improves with age, arriving its prime when aged ten years or more, in condition it is stored properly.

The growing demand for Pu’er tea had resulted in the 1973 invention of a bacterial process that managed to produce a somewhat similar result in a considerably shorter time, and the result, the so called “Shú” Pu’er is fairly close to genuine aged Shēng Pu’er.

It is interesting to mention that a few years back China had known a “Pu’er bubble”, when analysts have speculated a dramatic increase of value in the Shēng Pu’er market, which resulted in frenzy investments in Pu’er “cakes” in order to harvest future profits. Nonetheless it is seem today that these speculations where highly exaggerated and this trend had died off since.


“There is no unclimbable mountain, nor path that could not be conquered” -A Tea-Horse Road proverb.

I met Jashi by the concrete cladded banks of the Jin river in Chengdu, Sichuan. After a few paper cups of sugarcane juice and few more pots of tea in a local western style coffee shop with him and his wife Chen, I was thrilled to find out the Jashi was no stranger to the mountain paths of Yunnan, and despite its commercial decline in the last few generations, was indeed fragmented, but otherwise fairly active till the recent years, enabling highland communities access to basic commodities such as salt, spices, medicine and of course, tea.

After a few days we sat in a flourishing apple grove, where Jashi was kindly willing to answer my questions.      .

By Jashi’s own definition, The Tea-horse road is a commercial, cultural, and communication network, economically based on Tea and other products and on horses or mules as its mean of transportation (Although footed porters were common in the past)  . This rough highland routes network connects different ethnic groups and communities along the fringes of the Tibetan plateau and Himalayas, all united and dependent on one another in order to acquire everyday essentials .Tea had been a crucial part of the Tibetan diet at least for the last one thousand years, used to warm up the long cold winters, as well as a digestive when combined with the grain and meat based Tibetan diet.


Tibetan cuisine.  Tsampa, Yak meat and butter tea.

Tibetan cuisine. Tsampa, Yak meat and butter tea.

Jashi joined the route in his youth, like many before him, the need to make a living pushed him to join the caravans linking the remote towns and villages doting the fringes if the great Tibetan plateau, but also the desire to harden his character and develop manly skills.

According to Jashi, such a caravan was organized either by local business owners who commissioned a party to deliver needed commodities, but most often was assembled by individuals who sought profit by trade.


Such an individual, a route leader oddly nick-named “Mǎ guō tóu” (Horse -pot- head) had to prove himself capable of recruiting the right men and a sufficient amount of pack animals, when such a party would sometimes include around fifty men, and doubled in mounts. En route the leader’s part was to manage the daily routine, locate the suitable routs and camping grounds, and to be able to upper hand any unexpected incidents along the trail.


One such incident, which also demonstrate the special relationship between men of the Tea Road and their horses, occurred when one of the pack horses named Dzero (“grassland eagle”) had slide and fell off a cliff down to the river below, and perished.

With no hesitation, a party had descended down along the cliff side through a perilous path in order to find the horse’s body. After the corpse was found the men have build a wooden platform. Adorned with wild flowers, the deceased comrade was then laid on the platform, while prayers and mourning songs were chanted in his honor.

“Oh my comrade,

You will always remain with me on the route,

But you leave me here, and going to heaven,

While I endure the hardships of life”.

Jashi say that hearing this, tears went down the dead horse eyes.

He explain that horse and men share an intimate bond, a real companionship and mutual dependency, a horse and his owner genuinely understand each other, and just like humans, horses have emotions and are able to smile and cry.


Despite the historical decline of the Tea-Horse Road, commercial traffic on the ancient routes connecting Yunnan, Sichuan, Tibet and Nepal lasted at least until 2006, with the opening of the new Lhasa rail road, it was this year when the Chinese government decided one-sidedly there is no more need for this outdated mean of transportation and initiated a last trade party to commemorate the history, and the end of the Tea horse road. Partly financed by the government and partly by local tea shop owners the profits were used to construct seventeen schools in villages along the road. Despite the official abolition of the road, some regions are naturally too remote to use the new Chinese build transportation networks, and cars, motorbikes, and even horses are still being used to connect these isolated regions.


Tourists in LiJiang old town.

Tourism in Lijiang’s old town.

Since the early 1990’s, there is a growing interest revolving the old tea horse road.  With the combined effort of scholars, local businessmen and officials, the old road network is now more popular than ever, among local tourists as well as internationals. This development had help reshaping Yunnan’s image, from a remote and marginalized part of China into a center of ancient international trade and cultural exchange. This process offers many possibilities as well as considerable threats for local communities and environment. The constant growth of visitors (Over five million overseas tourists in 2013,), might possess a real threat for both local communities, becoming over dependent on tourism, and equally for the region’s natural resources and biodiversity.  The coming years will be decisive for whether this land of tea and mists will preserve some of its unique historical, environmental and cultural heritage, or fall into over development as many other part of China before it.

Only time will tell if this land of clouds will keep some of its hundreds of years old charm, and its aromas of mountain mist, the lush grove, and the tea leaf.

A former caravan inn (Mǎ guǎn 马馆). Will probably be turned into a boutique hotel, or worst, demolished. Old LiJiang. 2014.

A former caravan inn (Mǎ guǎn 马馆). Will probably be turned into a boutique hotel, or worst, demolished. Old Lijiang. 2014.

A LiJiang elder who use to work in the Ma Guan as a child. LiJiang 2014.

A Lijiang elder who use to work in the Ma Guan as a child. Lijiang 2014.

porters  2

Tea porters, carrying up to 200 kg of brick tea.


Packed tea bricks. Xiangcheng, Sichuan. 2014.

Packed tea bricks. Xiangcheng, Sichuan. 2014.

Wandering: Jews of the Silk Road.

שֶתּוֹלִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם וְתַצְעִידֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתִסְמְכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתַדְרִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתַגִיעֵנוּ לִמְחוֹז חֶפְצֵנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשִמְחָה וּלְשָלוֹם

“that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace”   (The Wayfarer’s Prayer)
(To A.A, my friend and guide through the dunes of life)
An Tian was exited.
The young Mandarin fastened the sleeves of his black robe and rushed through the capital’s smoky alleys until he entered a modestly constructed hall, not far from Xuanwu gate of the city walls.
A native of Kaifeng, the scholar came to Beijing seeking for a position within the ranks of local civil service. Before heading north, An tian learned that a group of westerns arrived in China, and not only that these foreigners had received the Emperor consent to settle down in the imperial capital, they had also got a permission to build their own house of worship. An tian’s source also claimed that the foreign party where strict adherents of a one almighty god, and that they were not Muslim, a well-established creed in China of the time.
For An Tian, that could have meant one thing only. Entering the house, An was greeted by a bearded European, who after short explanation was extremely delighted to meet a local co-religionists led him to the main prayer hall where they stood in front of four aura adorned figures. Following his host by kneeling in front of the picture, An tian curiously inquired why the painting only shows four of Jacob’s twelve sons.
And that is the story of the strange meeting between the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and An tian, the Jewish Mandarin of Kaifeng.
A Mandarin and a Gentlemen. Mateo Ricci.
A Mandarin and a Gentlemen. Mateo Ricci.
The Roman oppression of the great Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, 70 AD, traumatic as it was, was not the main generator of Jewish communities outside of their Middle Eastern motherland. Earlier waves of  invasions and subsequent deportations as well as pure economic reasons had contributed to the gradual establishment of Jewish communities, from the western Mediterranean to Iran and further east, and from the Caucasus to the Yemen.
Early Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran are well documented as early as the 7th century BC, uprooted from their traditional professions of agriculture and artisanry, many of them turned to mercantile activity, banking, and even as mercenaries.
In fact, these prosperous communities have eventually played a significant part in the reconstruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, erected under Persian imperial approval, 516 BC. The Roman destruction of the Jewish homeland contributed to the growth of the diasporic communities when many prisoners of war and slaves were redeemed by local families, as obliged by the Jewish lore. As an outcome of this gravity shift, from the original community in Palestine, to the Mediterranean basin and beyond, the Jewish population had come to rely more heavily on trade, a phenomena common among immigrates, who lack access to local lands, but on the other hand possess multilingualism and overseas connections, two qualities prove beneficial for international trade.
Under Islam, starting the 7th century, this tendency intensified, when the influence of heavy taxing such as land tax and the Jizyah, a Per-Capita tax levied on non-Muslims, had generated Jewish migration from agricultural lands, and into the cities, a process that was encouraged by the late Abbasid political crisis, and weakening of central power along the 11th and 12th centuries.
The social fixation of Jewish communities to a predominantly urban setting, a process that had taken place in the Medieval Islamic world as much as it occurred in Christendom, made the Jews much more dependent on of their neighbors’ favors, and left them prone to arbitrary violence and exploitations. This social condition however, obliged them to take whatever advantage possible, when many of them turned to money lending, banking and of course, trade.
Historically, there is a strong connection between trade and the establishment of a human population far from its place of origin, in what is known as “Trade diaspora”, as can be seen in other examples such as Muslim, Armenian, Indian diasporas, and many more. The members of such a community are usually defined by the force of a common language, religion or other practices, contributing to their sense of unity and common interest, sometimes enabling them to establish their domination of a certain territory or field of commerce. A good example of such a network will be the Sogdian diaspora, which dominated the Inner Eurasian trade with China during late antiquity.
One of the first early medieval accounts of a Jewish trade network refers to a mysterious trade guild named the Radanites . The etymology of the name is unclear, but some had claimed a Persian origin, deriving from the word combination of Rah (Road راه- ), and Dana ( knowing – دانا), meaning, “those who know the way”.
Not much is known of this long gone trade guild, although scarce Muslim sources give an interesting account of their activity:
” These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman, the Frank, Spanish, and Slav languages. They journey from West to East, from East to West, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the West eunuchs, female slaves, boys, brocade, castor, marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Firanja (France), on the Western Sea, and make for Farama (Pelusium). There they load their goods on camel-back and go by land to al-Kolzum (Suez), a distance of twenty-five farsakhs. They embark in the East Sea and sail from al-Kolzum to al-Jar and al-Jeddah, then they go to Sind, India, and China. On their return from China they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to al-Kolzum and bring them back to Farama, where they again embark on the Western Sea. Some make sail for Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans”                                                                                                                                   (  Ibn Khurdadhbah, – Kitab al-Masalik “Book of Routes” 846 AD)
The alleged success of the Radanites can be attributed to their ability to perform as middlemen in the much divided world of the early middle ages. The rise of Islam and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire had much reduced the Mediterranean maritime trade, while preventing Muslim and Christian traders from crossing the geopolitical borders of the day by land. This interreligious rift enabled Jewish traders to act as independent commercial force, while established a far-fetched trade network, stretching from the Carolingian west through the Islamic lands and all the way to China.
The 9th century collapse of the Tang dynasty in China, and constant warfare among the Nomadic forces of Central Asia had made long range trade impossible and apparently fostered the final collapse of the Radanite trade network sometimes between the 10th and 11th centuries.
Due to insufficient external sources and the complete lack of inner sources we can only speculate the extent and historical significance of the Radanite network. It is feasible that a few fragments of Judeo-Persian manuscript found in Chinese Xinjiang province, a fragment of a Selichot (Hebrew: סליחות‎) prayer found in the Dunhuang-Mogao Buddhist grottos, and the exiting 2011 finding of the so-called “Afghani Geniza”, a hoard of commercial and religious manuscripts dating as early as 1005 AD, are indications of Radanite activity, but these are no more than speculations at the moment.
A letter in Judeo-Persian dealing with financial and family matters
A financial document. Judeo-Persian, 10th century (?). Afghanistan.
Apart from its important commercial position, the Radanites might have played a political role as well which proved crucial in Medieval Eurasian history.
Religion, in contradiction with the common belief, is not always a matter of spirituality, and this notion is especially important when we deal with Nomadic politics. Adopting a new religion is a common practice among a rising nomadic elite. It gives the nomadic ruler the chance of symbolically announce his independence, while simultaneously gaining legitimacy from a favored group, or acquiring new political and commercial advantages. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a steppe ruler to hold more than one religious or political title, while possessing more than one source of legitimacy.
This exact need was the reason for the conversion of one Steppe Empire to the least expected religion around.
The 7th century rise of the Turkic Khazar tribes on the expense of the deteriorating Göktürk Empire, had enabled them to form an extensive empire in Pontic steppe, north of the Caucasus and between the black and Caspian sea, that bore their name in the Persian language ever since, (Darya-I Khazar دریای خَزَر).
The Khazar proximity to the Abbasid Caliphate’s on one hand and the Byzantine Empire on the other, made the Khazar leadership make an theologically unexpected but otherwise a considerably pragmatic choice. It made Judaism the state religion.
וְהוּא הָיָה מִשְׁתַּדֵּל מְאד בְּתורַת הַכּוּזָר עַד שֶׁהָיָה מְשַׁמֵּש בַּעֲבודַת הַהֵיכָל וְהַקָּרְבָּנות בְּעַצְמו בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם, וְכָל אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִשְׁתַּדֵּל בַּמַּעֲשִׂים הָהֵם, הָיָה הַמַּלְאָךְ בָּא אֵלָיו בַּלַּיְלָה וְאומֵר לו: “כַּוָּנָתְךָ רְצוּיָה וּמַעַשְׂךָ אֵינֶנּוּ רָצוּי”, וְגָרַם לו זֶה לַחֲקר עַל הָאֱמוּנות וְהַדָּתות וְהִתְיַהֵד בַּסּוף הוּא וְעַם רָב מֵהַכּוּזָרִים.
“And (the King) immersed himself in the Khazar lore, and preformed the rites by himself with much devotion, and all while devoting himself to that, an angel had appeared at night, say: “Your intention is much approved, while your acts are not” and by that he investigated the faiths and religious till accepting the Jewish faith, and with him the Khazars in multitude”
This quote from the “Kuzari” by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, an apologetic composition of the 12th century, represent a common theme in the history of religions and nations, a wise ruler is summoning a religious debate in order to choose the right faith for his realm. In his work, Yehuda Halevi is using the debate theme in order prove the superiority of the Jewish faith upon Islam, Christianity and the Aristotelian Metaphysics.
Fictional as that story might be, the conversion of the Khazar Kaganate (618–1048) elite, perhaps under Rhadanite influence is a historical fact, well documented by Arab, Byzantine, Armenian, Zoroastrian and Khazar sources. Despite that, Judaism was never exclusive in the Khazar realm and the typically religiously tolerant nomads and their sedentary subjects freely followed an array of practices including Islam, Christianity, Tengrism and perhaps even Buddhism.
With the Khazar Kaganate’s 11th century disintegration under the pressure of Oguz Turkic groups and the Rus principalities came the end of the Jewish influence on the Steppe people, even though several given names of the Seljuk founding family such as Israel, and Daud, might be a sign of lingering Jewish-Khazar influence within the steppe region. What ever happened to the Khazar Jews is hard to answer, some might have converted, some might have joined existing communities in central Asia or Eastern Europe. Today it’s a popular topic among racists, nationalists and empty headed people of all creeds and religions, so we shall leave it at this point.
The story of the Khazar conversion shows how even an exclusive, non-missionary religion such as Judaism, might be accepted by a nomadic empire under the right social and political condition. Furthermore, it demonstrates the Jewish presence in Eurasian commerce.
Naturally, the Jewish presence south of the steppe in the lands of greater Iran goes back even earlier. An interesting  4th century evidence of Jewish presence in Central Asia comes from the Babylonian Talmud:
רב שמואל בר ביסנא אילקע למרגואן אייתי ליה חמרא ולא אשתי, אייתו ליה שיכרא ולא אשתי… משום שימצא דשימצא”  
(בבלי,ע”ז לא ב)
“Rabbi Samuel Bar Bisna came to Margiana (Merv), but did not drank the wine served to him, suspecting it was not Kosher (=used for Pagan practices)”
This Rabbinical piece of evidence might indicate a well-established Jewish community deep in the heart of Asia, when later Bukharian Jewish traditions from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan trace their origin back to the time of the first Jewish exiles, deported during the Assyrian onslaught of the 7th century BC. Be it a descendant of the Assyrian exile, or a later Persian origin, this ancient community of traders and artisans, now almost completely extinct in its motherland, the Bukharian Jews are among the oldest ethnic groups in Central Asia, well pre-dating the later Turkic migrations that shaped its medieval and modern history.
Jewish_Children_with_their_Teacher_in_Samarkand-Sergei Prokudin-Gorski.
Another Interesting evidence indicating the existence of a prominent Jewish community was found in the region of Ghur, central Afghanistan. The Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Persian Inscriptions and tombstones on site suggest Jewish presence for at least five hundred years when the earliest inscription dates from 752 AD, An interesting figure when accounting the chronological proximity to the Chinese Tang dynasty heydays of the Silk routs (And to the An lushan rebellion which destroyed it, but that’s a different story).
The history of early Jewish presence in China is shrouded in mystery. Some claim Jewish presence in China’s western regions as early as the time of the Han dynasty (C. first century AD), and Judeo-Persian fragments found in Xinjiang are dated to around the 8th century. Jewish traders of Persian origin might have arrived China during the Tang Dynasty, when an influx of foreigners, Muslims, Nestorian Christians, Manicheans and Buddhists entered the middle kingdom via the Silk routs, turning Chang An to the most Cosmopolitan and vibrant city in the world at that time.
A foreign big nose on a Bactrian camel. Tang dynasty.
The community’s own tradition dates its establishment to time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), with the coming of Jewish traders from the Xīyù (Western regions, i.e, Xinjiang), allegedly after been invited by the newly established Song dynasty. However, due to the fact that historically the Chinese did not distinguish much between Jews and Muslims (Bearded, weird religious concepts, no pork), hard evidence regarding these early times are tricky to find.
Most of the evidence regarding Jewish presence in china therefore comes from external, non-Chinese sources, usually Muslim and Christians, such as Ibn Zayyd of Saraf who recorded Muslim and Jewish casualties in the Huang chao revolt of the late 9th century. Other travelers of the Mongol age such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta also report of Jewish presence under the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, a time of great movement of populations and commercial activity across Eurasia.
An interesting tale gives away another evidence of Jewish presence in the Yuan domain of the 13th century. After been extremely insulted by a Muslim delegation refusing to eat the non-Halal meat that was served at an official banquet, the furious Qubali Khan released the following decree:
“Chinggis Khan was born and collected all the various countries from
where the sun rises to where it sets and made them follow [Mongol]
customs. Among these many diverse peoples only the Muslims
[objected] saying, “We do not eat food [prepared in] Mongol [fashion].”
[Chinggis Khan thus] asked, “Being protected by Heaven we
conquered you. You are our slaves, but you refuse to eat our food….
….saying “We do not eat what other
people have slaughtered,” and because they harassed the common
people, it has been decreed: Muslims and Jews must eat meat
regardless by whom, [or how] it is slaughtered. They are forbidden
to kill sheep by slitting the throat. They are forbidden to perform
circumcision. And because they are supposed to pray five times a
day, if they do so twice and pray [ten times a day], then they will
As a consequence of that, many foreigners had left the Yuan domain in search of other, more tolerant territory to profess their trade, by that contributing to the future poor condition of the Yuan economy, which eventually contributed to its downfall.
Its Kosher-like Christmas. Kublai Khan. (1215-1294)
Scholars today believe that China use to have quite a few substantial Jewish communities, mostly along the coastline, in Hangzhou, Ningbo and the most famous community, in Kaifeng, where a major synagogue has stood, constantly being rebuild as most Chinese wooden made structures, but otherwise keeping a westward orientation towards a forgotten city on a mountain.
Not much was left of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, some elderly residents of the old Hutongs are might be the descendants of An tian and his family. The communities’ last synagogue was destroyed in a flood during the mid-19th, accompanied by the death of the last Rabbi around the same time.
The Chinese culture has a known ability to assimilate new comers, Turks, Mongol, Manchurians, all gave in to the silken comforts and scholarly depths of the middle kingdom. Even the Huge Muslim community (In Muslim scale, not Chinese of course) seems more Chinese then strict adherents of the Sharia. And historically the community needed frequent doctrinal waking calls to remind it it’s an off -shoot of the Dar al Islam. The Jewish community didn’t have much chance in front of the all-embracing Chinese-ness. It was just too small to remember. Too small to remember its own language, it scriptures and its own history, and in Judaism, remembrance is everything.

The Lotus in the sands

Xinjiang, otherwise named Eastern or Chinese Turkestan, has known throughout its long human history frequent shifts of populations, languages and religions, all leaving their mark among its yellow sands and red cliffs. Being one of the only possible routes linking China proper and the western lands, it had been an important cultural junction between the two regions from a fairly early stage.




The establishment of the first direct contacts between the Chinese Han court, the kingdoms of Transoxania and the later Kushan Empire, around the first century AD, had fostered what is modernly known as the Great silk road, starching from China`s agricultural heartland through the mountains, river valleys and arid plains of Central Asia and the ancient cities of Iran, eventually linking to the Mediterranean trade centers of the Roman empire.

A false image of the Silk Road will be that of a huge camel train, departing Chinese Xian while pressing through the gigantic Eurasian landmass, eventually halting in some Roman town to unload its heavy burdens of silks, jades, tea and rare spices while exotic maidens in transparent garments sprinkle the camels with rose water and feeding them with peacock meat Shish kebabs.

Samarkand, Vasily Vereshchagin, 1842.

The Silk Road, perhaps more properly addressed as the silk routs, is an abstract term for a complex and often changing network of routs and paths, linking different cultural and ecological zones while usually delivering a much more trivial selection of commodities. Grains, simple textiles, herbs and medicines, dyes and dried fruits were delivered from the agricultural centers over relatively short distances, while typical steppe originated products such as furs, honey, fish glue and slaves were carried by what we can call a trans-ecological transmission, from the grasslands of the north to the arable lands to the south. This does not goes to say that luxury items such as silks, jade, precious metals and rare exotics did not own their place, but these held the lesser share of the overall trade volume.

Material products were not the only thing shifted through these trans-cultural networks. Humans carry with them not only their belongings but also their thoughts, concepts, ideas and knowledge, therefore technologies and religions found their way across the Eurasian highway no less than rolls of silk or loads of barley. One of the religions that have its history tightly connected with the Silk Routs is Buddhism.

Buddhism was founded by the Sakya prince Siddhartha Gautama around the 5-6th century BC. The Buddhist path, The Dharma, emphasized the cultivation of moral and mental qualities indispensable for the Buddhist ultimate goal, the Nirvana, a state of all conceiving awareness to the true nature of things, and a consequent release from the endless chain of birth, death and rebirth.

Desire, attachment, death and rebirth. The wheel of Samsara and 6 realms, Tibetan Thangka.

Desire, attachment, death and rebirth. The wheel of Samsara and 6 realms, Tibetan Thangka.

Buddhism, starting as an integral part of the local Indic-Dharmic fabric of religions and practices, had gone through a transformation unprecedented in the Indic world; it became universal, offering a remedy for the omnipresent maladies of human existence. The Buddhist universal transformation is linked with two factors proved crucial for most of the Buddhist history, namely royal patronage, and commerce; these two factors have met their complete fulfillment during the reign of the great Mauryan emperor, third of his name, Asoka the great (r. 268–233 BC).



During Asoka’s time, the Indian subcontinent had gone through a tremendous economic growth, which brought forth a widespread support of the merchant communities and guilds in Buddhist monasteries and institutions, while in return benefiting from the hospitality services offered by the Buddhist monasteries. Asoka, a devoted Buddhist himself, converted after witnessing the absolute horrors of his own infamous Kalingan campaign, had personally supported the early Buddhist community, either by direct sponsoring, or by simple improvement of road infrastructure and safety.

With the combined movement of merchants and monks along the trade routes, Buddhism gradually struck roots in the different kingdoms and chiefdoms of central Asia. By the second century BC, It was already flourishing in Hellenistic Bactria, which produced the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha. These masterpieces can be regarded as one of the peaks of human artistic achievements, in a graceful blend of Indic spiritual symbolism with Greek realistic naturalism.


By the first centuries before and after the Common Era, Buddhism was already well established in the then still Iranian domains of central Asia, and archeological findings confirm the Buddhist presence as west as modern Turkmenistan, deep into the Parthian territory.

On the other end of the Iranian world, Buddhism has made his first penetration in what will become the most important center of Buddhism outside of India at that time, the oasis city states of the Tarim basin, in today’s Chinese Xinjiang.

Tibetan sources date the arrival of Buddhism to Khotan to the year 84 AD, however the Tarim basin did not become a major Buddhist center until the second century, when the Han dynasty established its chain of military garrisons. The introduction of Chinese agricultural technology into the region enabled the Tarim oases to support a much larger communities then before, which in turn could host permanent religious institutes. This development enabled Buddhist monks to settle down, while constructing monasteries, temples, stupas and other establishments along the trade routes.

The most important city in the north of Tarim was Kucha, reaching its peak between the 6th and the 9th century, when it was the most populated city in the Tarim region. The city was fairly cosmopolitan at the time, inhabited by mostly Iranian, Tocharian and Indian communities. Xuan Zang, our most beloved Chinese- Buddhist- pilgrim- traveler of the 7th century described Kucha as tremendously rich and fertile city, enjoying a favorable location on the trade routes. He points out that in and around the city there are more than a hundred monasteries occupied by more than five thousand monks of the Sarvstivadan school, who “read the scriptures in origin”, Sanskrit that is.

Paper fragment. Sanskrit in Kharoṣṭhī script. 3th-5th century AD, Eastern Xinjiang.

The Sarvastivadan School is one of the earliest schools of Buddhism, belonging to a branch known as Nikaya Buddhism. Early Buddhism described life as a burden, caused by the suffering inherited in the overflowing manifestation of the different aspect of reality through the human consensuses, resulting in desire. This desire to maintain what gives us pleasure, and reject what cause us inconvenience results in pain, in suffering. It doesn’t mean that life is an unbearable torment, but that our mental interaction with the world results in ever-flowing reactions that could never give any kind of full and lasting satisfaction.

Therefore the early Buddhist movement was based on close monastic communities where its members were seeking individual salvation through meditation and a strict moral code. The Sarvastivadans and other early schools such as Mahasamagika, Dharmaguptaka and the Mulasarvastivada continued this approach but eventually disappeared or merged with later schools of Buddhist thought. The contemporary Theravada school common in Sri Lanka and South East Asian is a descendent of this monastic tradition. It is important to stress that these early school parted mostly on the basis of their monastic code, the Vinaya, rather than based on crucial dogmatic matters.

From around the second century BC, a new movement had sprouted inside the early Buddhist monasteries. This movement gradually developed literature which had stressed somewhat different aspects than earlier schools of Buddhist thought, namely the correct path for enlightenment, the nature of conciseness and additional development of the Buddhist logic tradition.

The most well-known aspect of this movement eventually dubbed as the “Mahayana”, or great vehicle , is the Bodhisattva, a being so immersed in compassion, it postpone its own achievement of full enlightenment in order to aid all sentient being to achieve the same goal.

Guan Yin, Bodhisattva of compassion, the Chinese feminine  form of Avalokiteśvara .

The Mahayana movement most probably started in India itself, but continue to develop and mature far to the north, in Gandahara, Bactria and in the Tarim basin of Xinjiang, which by the second century became a major hub for Dharma teachers, translators and monks from India, Iran and china, all sitting together in monasteries in Khotan, Turfan, Kucha and other centers, translating and copying Sutras and other scriptures from various Indian and Iranian languages into Chinese, while preparing the way for the propagation of Buddhist seeds into the fertile Chinese soil.

The question of Iranian influence on early Buddhist ideas is still under debate, but it had been suggested that Mahayana concepts such as the future Buddha Maitreya and the idea of a post-life “Pure land” which gained immense popularity in the later East Asian Buddhism had come from the Iranian world. Considering the numerous monks, translators and missionaries of Iranian stock active in the formatting years of Chinese Buddhism, (One of the them, Ān Shìgāo 安世高 ,was actually a Parthian royal before heading east as a Buddhist monk) it will not be surprising, but nonetheless this influence is still questionable.

A Chinese and west Asian (Iranian? )monk. Bezeklik, Xinjiang.

One of the important figures of this vibrant era was Kumārajīva, ( 344-413), a Kuchan monk and a translator. Kumārajīva’s early education was based on the Nikaya Sarvastivadan school, but later on in his life he inclined towards Mahayanian ideas. His colossal Chinese translational work includes Nagrajuna’s “Root verses of the middle path” (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā), a selection of “Perfection of wisdom” (Prajñāpāramitā) Sutras, such as the diamond sutra and other important Mahayana sutras, such as the Lotus, Amithaba and the Vimalakīrti Sūtra.

These details may seem trivial or even dull, but for anyone who has even the slightest interest in Buddhist culture and philosophy, it must be stressed that the Tarim basin was the gateway which made Chinese and subsequently the entire East Asian Buddhist culture even possible. Everything that tend to arouse the western appetite for Buddhist exotica, the Shao Lin monks, the impressive Tang dynasty Pagodas in Xian, and the Japanese Zen gardens and one hand clap, might have not come to being without the establishment of the Tarim basin centers of learning and translation. More than that, given the eventual extinction of Buddhism in Central Asia as well as in its Indian cradle, the Chinese translations of the Mahayana sutras are the only channel (along with the Tibetan traditions) through which these where actually preserved as a living tradition.

In the recent generations with the discovery of ancient manuscripts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asian China, modern scholarly can now reassess the Buddhist transmission along the Silk Roads, and subsequently even to question certain choices that were made by early translators into the Chinese language, followed by our own understanding of these materials.

At the turn of the 19th century, a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu had made a discovery that will eventually be recognized as one of the most important in the history of Buddhist research.

Wang, a native of Hubei and former recruit of the Qing imperial army, has arrived at Dunhuang in the Gansu province sometime around the 1890s. Self-appointed guardian of the Buddhist Mogao grottos outside of Dunhaung, Wang has taken the task of cleaning, maintaining and “restoring” the ancient monastic complex, after decades of neglect and deteriorating.

Abbot Wang of Dunhuang .1907


One hot 1900 summer’s day, Wang’s hired laborers were busy clearing the sand and sediments out of one of the caves when all of sudden one of them spotted a crack in one of the murals. Suggestively showing the outline of a doorway, the plastered and painted wall drew Wang`s attention and he ordered to break it down. As the cave’s wall was taken down piece by piece it reveled something that was well sealed for a millennia. It was scrolls, thousands upon thousands of scrolls.

The Dunhaung scroll collection represent so well the central Asian world in which it was created. It contains manuscripts in several languages, including Chinese, Tibetan, Sanskrit, old Uyghur, Sogdian, Khotanese and even Hebrew. The content of those scrolls revolves around anything from Buddhist Sutras to Tibetan administrative reports, Daoist commentaries on the Dao de jing and religious scriptures of the now extinct Nestorian Christianity and the dualistic Manichean faith. One Buddhist sutra was even touchingly dedicated to a deceased ox by its loving owner, imploring it will not again be reincarnated into an animal form, suffering under human hands.

The most celebrated specimen of the Dunhuang collection is probably the 868 AD Diamond (Vajracchedikā ) Sutra , translated by our very own Xuan zang, and what is the earliest known printed text, press copied centuries before Gutenberg even laid his hand on a block print letter. The printed scroll, composed out of five sections, was most probably copied as an act of merit. In Buddhist tradition the coping and distributing of a Sutra, an embodiment of the Buddha itself is considered a blissful act, which benefits the scribe as well as the person who commissioned it with unmeasurable Karmatic advantage. In fact, many of the painted grottos themselves are an outcome of vast donations made by groups, individuals and entire families, many of them traders, giving alms to the local monastic community, while contributing to their Karmatic balance as well as to the Buddhist artistic legacy on the way. This patronage system reaffirms the direct connection between trade and the spread of Buddhism and its ability to thrive in the Central Asian network of desolated oases.

diamond sutra

Diamond sutra of Dunhuang. 868 AD.


As such, this collection is indispensable for our understanding of many fascinating matters such as the Tibetan early imperial history, the Sogdian vast Eurasian trade network and most of all, the manner through which Buddhism was transmitted overland from India, trough greater Iran and eastwards into China proper, while reveling some of this important link between China and a now a completely lost world of the Central Asian Buddhism.

As we know today, Wang’s “library cave” was sealed sometime around the late 11th century, why it was sealed no one knows for sure. A claim was made that the manuscripts were hidden in the face of an upcoming Muslim invasion. Other theory suggests the texts were fallen out of use, and sealed away due to their sanctity, not much unlike the famous Jewish Geniza of Cairo. After the cave was discovered, Wang’s hoard of manuscript laid in the dark for some years, while the Chinese authorities repeatedly refuse to pay it the appropriate attention. Eventually the word of the hidden stash reached the ears of several western explorers, researches, treasure hunters, and all of these combined. At that time, clues of mysterious lost Buddhist kingdoms lying silently in the sands under the Muslim upper-layers of Central Asia had captured the western imaginations and dispatched rival expeditionary missions, British, Germans, French and Japanese all racing for fame, glory and knowledge.

French Sinologist, Paul Pelliot in the library cave. 1908.

Eventually the first to reach the caves and obtaining the lion’s share of the catch was the British-Hungarian Jewish explorer, Sir Aurel Stein. Stein and his faithful Turki (what we call today Uyghurs) crew accompanied by Stein’s legendary fox terrier, Dash II, managed to persuade Wang to sell a large portion of the collection, that was sent to London along with other manuscripts and artifacts from Khotan, Miran and other lost stronghold of the Dharma.

Stein and his team, including the dog.

Following Stein others came, buying off most of what’s left of Wang’s manuscripts and striping, sometimes brutally removing some of the more exquisite murals of Dunhunag, Kizil, Bezeklik and other Buddhist grottos of the eastern Silk Road. Some of the finest of them where sent to Berlin by the a German expedition where they have been permanently attached to the museum wall, only to be completely destroyed by the allied forces bombardment of the German capital during the second world war.


The Modern Chinese approach to these western expeditions see them as no more than tomb raiders and thieves, clawing at Chinese historical heritage under the twilights of the crumbling Qing dynasty. Despite the fact that these early archeological expeditions were indeed inseparable from the European colonial legacy, and were part of an open arms race to fill up Europe’s museums with artifacts, considered western property by divine providence itself, the question what would have happened to the Dunhuang collection if it was to stay in China remains open. Given the international recognition the scrolls of Dunhuang received while been preserved, studied and recently digitalized and uploaded online, and on the other-hand the sheer distraction of Chinese historical heritage during the upheavals of the Chinese civil war and especially during the ridiculously destructive “Cultural revolution” , we can only assume the fate of this irreplaceable collection if had not been taken to the west.

The Cultural revolution.


Either way, the information gathered from textual and archeological findings, from Xinjiang and Gansu as well as from other central Asian locations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Transoxania, enable us to reconstruct a long lost world of flourishing Buddhist monastic and lay communities. These communities were firmly connected to the Central Asian and Iranian cultural worlds, and its members wrote Sutras and commentaries in their own native tongues while imbedding their own imprints on a then living Buddhist culture. Perhaps future research will allow us more understanding of this lost world of Central Asian Buddhism.




Stupa kashagr




Life and death in old Kashgar.

The death of cities is not a rare event in the history of Xinjiang. Nomad invasions, shifting sands, and changing river courses had all taken their toll of numerous urban centers and settlements, which left their disintegrating corpses along the fringes of the Taklamakan desert.


gaochang ruins. Xinjiang.

However, it is much less common to witness a city die and revive at the exact same time. Until you reach Kashgar. On the long day’s travel from the Kyrgyz city of Osh and through the Irkeshtam pass, I pictured to myself what it will be like – after all, it had been a longtime dream to visit the fabled queen of the Chinese Silk Road, a city shrouded with stories of trade, religion, and espionage.

Pressing through the now-bustling main streets of modern Keshi, as Kashgar is known in Mandarin, I tried to locate the sites I knew only from chronicles and textbooks. The legendary old British consulate, the “Chini Bagh”, or the Chinese garden as it was known, is now overshadowed by the monstrous modern Chinese hotel of the same name, while the old red and white brick house behind is serving as a family owned restaurant, showing little of its past glory, when weary explorers, diplomats, and agents passed through its gates. I tried to guess where the old city wall had once separated the Oasis’s sheltered premises from the perilous surroundings, and where the small European cemetery once stood, firmly planted on the Kashgar riverside, before disappearing under blocks of commercial and residential buildings.

So, not much is left of the old sites of my dreams and highly romantic imagination. More than that, since the year 2009 the Chinese administration had started a several years and tens of millions dollar project that included the demolishing and rebuilding of Kashgar’s old quarters. The ancient mud-brick, wood, and reed-mat houses have been toppled down and replaced by new, modern concrete structures.


kashgar dis 2

A stroll through the streets and alleys of Kashgar’s old town is a weird, and to a much extent, melancholic experience. It gives the same feeling as when you walk into a room where a random party has taken place, and all that is left are empty plastic cups and partly-eaten pastries. You enter the silent labyrinth of side streets, acknowledging that someone had changed the set, but without realizing what the former play actually was.


And it’s not that the city had been razed off the face of the earth. On the contrary, the old city is pretty much still there. Albeit built of modern materials, the basic design was left somewhat true to the original, and with mud-based plaster and carved wooden window panes , there is no real reason why in a hundred years, these houses will not become a classic in their own right. So what is actually the problem? Well, Welcome to Ye Olde Kashgarland.


Cities don’t really last long; like the snake’s scales they are in an ongoing process of change and movement, replacing and reconstructing their particles throughout the years in an ever-lasting cycle of regeneration. it’s the balance between the old and the new that makes a human settlement vital, a society which acknowledge the needs of the future, as much as it has a genuine connection with its past. Great cities are those that manage to preserve that unique inner essence that defines their spirit, while not becoming a dead museum on one hand, or pursuing a sterile future on the other.

It’s easy to accuse the Chinese leadership of maliciously plotting to destroy the cultural heart of the Uyghur homeland in order to eradicate any national aspiration they might have, but despite the fact that The PRC government is keeping the Uighurs under the boot, China’s policy in its Central Asian domain is more complex than that.

The Chinese have always had a developed historical perception, keeping a meticulous account of their histories for at least the last two thousand years. Most Chinese people I’ve met had a pretty profound knowledge of their past, and references to important events and figures of the long Chinese history are interwoven into the Chinese cultural life, national memory, and even into the Chinese language itself.

Given that, it’s hard to grasp this notion when we take into account the obvious recent decades destruction of historical centers in Beijing, Chengdu and other cities inside China proper.


A Hutong in Beijing.

A Hutong in Beijing.



Children play on the ruins of a Hutong. Beijing.

Children play on the ruins of a Hutong. Beijing.

In the last few decades China has undergone an overwhelming economic growth, and much was spoken of its ability to withstand the last global crises while largely maintaining its impressive annual growth, but this did not come without a cost. The Chinese appetite for rapid modernization had inflicted a hard blow on its cultural heritage, perhaps the worst since the infamous cultural revolution of the late 1970s. Pristine landscapes are being mowed down by bulldozers, as new highways and interchanges are being built to connect China’s mega cities, while ancient towns and Hutong neighborhoods are being replaced by new residential compounds and shopping malls.

Giving the Chinese’s famous deep historical perception, it is hard to grasp this self-destruction of its past in such a massive scale. Is it solely a governmental policy intended to maintain the promise for economic growth instead of political freedom, no matter the cost? Or is it simply a Chinese down-to-earth functionalism, favoring the needs of the hour over conservation of China’s cultural and environmental heritage? Sometimes it seems as if the Chinese approach to the Chinese landscape is similar to the design of a traditional ink painting, when the ideal form of nature is more important than the actual natural reality. As an example it’s not rare to see the destruction of a scenic site of natural beauty while replacing it with a recreational “scenic spot” with an idyllic construction of fiberglass water spring and concrete waterfalls, or the erecting of a concrete image of a classic Chinese town of old, with curvy bridges and stylish lanterns, sometimes where an actual old town use to stand.



"Early spring" by Guo xi. Song dynasty.

“Early spring” by Guo xi. Song dynasty.

History as an amusement park.

History as an amusement park.

The story of Kashgar represents a similar, but yet a somewhat different version of this story. China is a huge country, and although what we call the Chinese, otherwise known as the Han people, compose a majority of more than 90% of its total population, there are 55 officially recognized ethnic groups in China. The massive Han group forms the major support base of the Chinese government. During the last decades the Chinese administration has managed to silence any real call for political change by supplying the Chinese growing “middle” class the promise of a constant economic growth. For the other, less fortunate mass of Han Chinese, the option of immigration to China’s periphery holds its own promise of a better life, with governmental tax reduction, and the option of escaping the one child policy, its an offer many cant refuse, and thousands are heading west by the train full.

The Han immigration to Xinjiang, similarly as the population shifts to Tibet and Inner Mongolia, represents the Chinese government’s need to reinforce its firm hold of these provinces, as much as it’s meant to ease the social and economic tensions in the densely populated China proper, while as said, offering the new immigrants a chance for better life in the Chinese periphery.

In Addition, Xinjiang holds a prime status in China’s aspiration for economic and political leadership in Asia. Besides its important deposits of coal, fossil fuel, metals, and other resources, crucial for china’s development, it holds once again, as centuries ago, a central importance in China’s connection to Central Asia’s post-soviet republics, and onward to Russia, the Middle East, and eventually Europe in what is now promoted as “The new Silk Road”. In this newly-forged political and economic network, gas pipes are being stretched from east to west and modern commodities such as Chinese manufactured cars, and cheap washing machines, are carried on rows of white lorries, replacing the textile, grain, and rhubarb-laden camel trains of the historical trade routes.


Petrol instead of camels. "The new Silk Road".

Petrol instead of camels. “The new Silk Road”.

Karamay oil field. Xinjiang.

Karamay oil field. Xinjiang.

The region of Xinjiang has known it’s high and low tides under the Chinese sway, although very rarely coming under direct Chinese domination. The final incorporation of the region into the Chinese superstructure had occurred under the Qing dynasty and resulted in ongoing waves of uprisings and revolts, and with two exceptions of short live independent republics (1933-1934, 1944-1949), usually ending up being overrun by the superior Chinese forces, be it Chinese warlords, Guomindang  or CCP.

When following Chinese-Uyghur relationship throughout the last two centuries, the pattern becomes vividly clear. Given the obvious historical, religious, and cultural connection of the Uyghur, and the other ethnic groups (Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik etc) in Xinjiang to the central Asian milieu, the Chinese political and cultural dominance is a hard one to swallow, especially when the one in question is the highly-involved and ideologically profound rule of the PRC.

Given the Uyghur historical aspiration for political and religious independence, the Chinese central government has always had to keep a watchful eye, while simultaneously making an effort to incorporate the Uyghur community into its vision of a so-called multi-cultural and ethnically diverse China, reshaping and remolding the local culture to its harmless multi-cultural Chinese version. The reshaping of Kashgar seems to serve this exact purpose.

Back on the main streets of the new-old city, one cannot ignore the feeling that the contractors must have been at some stage working for the Disney Company.  The old hole-in-the-wall workshops have been replaced with neatly standardized shops, decorated with uniformly made signs, obviously designed first for the Han and foreign tourists.  On several street corners you can spot cast bronze sculptures of artisans, vendors, and musicians, replacing the actual ones who might have sat and worked there before it was made into an engineer-designed sidewalk and parking lot.

The situation is not at all monochromatic; there is no doubt that the improvement in sanitation, water supply, and street lighting benefit the indigenous Uighur as well as anyone else, as some of them admit themselves. However, as long as the PRC government will not prove its sincere effort to improve the lives, not only of the Han population, but of the entire people of Xinjiang, while allowing it to fully enjoy the new economic opportunities which lay in this resource-rich land, the internal tensions will surely will not only not come to an end, but will intensify.

ins mak

Perhaps the story of Uyghur Kashgar who turned into a Chinese amusement park is the story of all of us on a Chinese scale.  “The museumification of the world is today an accomplished fact”. Our hyper-transmitted media-bound consciousness, combined with Lonely Planet-herded mass tourism, roaming on a UNESCO list universe, has made the separation a complete fact. When the world is no longer experienced as it is, but as an abstraction of once natural, flowing usage; when objects and locations are no longer experienced as they are, but as layered levels of meanings and symbols that are to be processed and consumed on Facebook, Twitter, and Flicker; there is perhaps no more place in the world for an old musical instrument maker and his trade, only for his bronze-cast shadow, on a tourist-attracting main Street, in a dusty Central Asian town.



Demons, saints and black pens.

Anyone who read Maurice Sendak’s book, “Where the wild things are” as a child, was surly captured by the imaginative illustrations within, and will probably be happy to get introduced to his spiritual forefather, the 15th century Turkic painter, Muhammad Syiah Qalam, AKA Muhammad of the black pen.




Almost nothing is known for sure about the painter’s life. Most of his known works are situated in the Topkapi palace’s library and are collected in albums known as Murakka.

The Murakka albums are collected pieces of calligraphy and illustrations from separate sources, achieving popularity in the Islamic world, starting the 16th century. Due to the fact that these pieces of art where usually gathered from all around Dar al Islam, researchers occasionally find it extremely challenging to determine their exact dating and origin. This is particularly true regarding to the works of Siyah Qalam.

Daemons fighting over a horse leg.

Demons fighting over a horse leg.

Despite the initial obscurity, modern research commonly dates Syiah Qalam`s time and place to 14th or 15th century`s Khorasan, although some dispute this notion and place him in Shiraz of the 16th centuey. In addition, it is hard to determine whether Siyah Qalam was indeed a real person or actually a school of art, joined together around a common style, nonetheless, these illustrations are no less then magical.


The unique Siyah Qalam style had no precedent with anything been done before in the Islamic world, both in regard of painting techniques, as well as the themes in use, and these include a delightful blend of nomadic life scenes, Sufi dervishes and an array of monsters and demons, perhaps representing remnants of the local central Asian Pre-Islamic folklore.


The Syiah Qalam style apparently represents mostly East Asian material culture and physical features, but contain Middle Eastern and Hellenistic influences as well. These mixed sources of influence are a unique product of the rare cultural- historical time frame, brought forth by the Mongol empire

. This massive empire, arrving its peak at the late 13th century, had generated a colossal momentum of inter-cultural exchange, shifting products, ideas, technologies and entire populations from one end of Eurasia to the other. The Siyah Qalam style represents a sheer example of the Mongol empire’s Eurasian melting pot.

As an example of these continental exchanges, the Siyah Qalam demon drawings hold a striking resemblance to the Tantric Buddhist guardian demons, known as Dharmapāla, as well as to Tang dynasty tomb guardians. This renewed encounter between Buddhism and Islam, five centuries after the eventual diminishing of Buddhism in central Asia, could have never accured without the Mongol horde’s shattering of Eurasia’s cultural boundaries.

Yama, A Tibetan- Tantric Dharmapala.

Yama, A Tibetan- Tantric Dharmapala.

A Tang dynasty tomb guardian.

A Tang dynasty tomb guardian.


The picture above truly represents the unique Siyah Qalam style, depicting a couple of  demons, when one of them is playing an Iranian Kamanche (A spiked fiddle), while the other is apparently pouring wine from a distinctly Chinese blue and white porcelain ware. Oddly enough both of them are wearing jewelry and chained is stylistc manacles, strange days in post Mongol Eurasia.


It’s important to point out that the now iconic Chinese blue and white porcelain, best known for its Ming dynasty specimens, could have not come to being without the import of Cobalt blue oxide technology from Iran to China under the great Mongol exchange. Moreover, the representation of this artifact in a Siyah Qalam painting enables us to date it to a period no earlier than the 14th century.

Many of the Siyah Qalam illustrations depict a central Asian world that is very much a pre Islamic one. A world of wandering story tellers, roaming about under the steal gray sky and between dusty yurt camps, telling their fables which bind history and imagination, humans and demons, reality and dream.

A nomadic camp.

A nomadic camp.

Despite the strong pre Islamic influence, some of the paintings represent scenes from the lives of Sufi dervishes, which wandered between the borders of the vast steppe and the sedentary world to the south. One of the most active Sufi orders (Arbabic: Tariqat) in the Transoxania and Khorasan region, was the Qalandaryya tariqa.

Dervishes, perhaps Qalandryya Sufis.

Dervishes, perhaps Qalandryya Sufis.


The origin of the Qalandryya had lost through the mists of time, but it seems that its birth is linked to that of another mystical group, known as the Malâmatiyya. This movement, originating in 9th century Khorasan represents one of the earliest stages of Islamic mysticisms, and in fact during the first phases of its existence, its members were not even regarded as Sufis by the major Sufi groups centered in Bagdad, but as an entirely separate group. This movement as well as the later Qalandryya, are examples of the central Asian mystical traditions, which might have been influenced by outer-Islamic sources, namely Shamanism, Buddhism and others, all present in the central Asian crossroads of the time.

The Malâmatiyya’s spiritual path held that the lower layers of the human soul, the Nafs(نَفْس,) corresponding with today’s modern idea of Ego, may even intensify under the influence of the mystical path, with all the self and social esteem which accompany it. Therefore, only attacking the Nafs by constant guilt and blame (malâma, ملامة) will eventually eradicate the stone hard Ego.

The Qalandryya, flourishing in central Asia starting the 11th century, was mostly active outside of the scholarly centers of the Iranian cities and the Middle East, and inclined to unorthodox approach, decentralized organization and even accepted into its ranks runaway slaves, convicts and other lowly members of society. These colourful bands roamed around the margins of the Islamic world practicing unorthodox methods which included music, dance, wine drinking and other obscenities for the purpose of spiritual elevation. These practices were obviously disopproved by the orthodox Muslim cleargy of the days, as well as among members of other Sufi Tariqat, such as the later Naqshbandyya, which strongly opposed the Qalandryya’s “drunk” Sufism.

A Sufi dinner.

A Sufi dinner.

The Siyah Qalam paintings vividly depicts these vagabond-mystics while practicing music, dancing ecstatically, conversing or simply submerged in meditation, and it appear that the artist, or artists knew their world intimately, perhaps actually being one of them.


Unfortunately, while lacking any textual description, Muhammad Siyah Qalam’s art had remain vague to us, and we can only assume the mythological and symbolic world they describe. This faded world of demons, shamans, wandering Sufis and nomads, a world of lost Turkic epics and forgotten musical tunes have remained blocked to our modern ears.

We can only hope that someday in the future, perhaps in some dusty library in Istanbul, Delhi or Tabriz there will be discovered an old manuscript that will shed some new light on those ancient depictions of central Asian life, which had faded long ago.




A Thousand celestial meadows: Kyrgyzstan.

The land of Kyrgyz actually started hundreds of kilometers to the south, far from the Bor Dobo pass and the road to Sari Tash. The dusty unpaved road goes past sad-looking villages, while a handful of boz üy tents, or Yurts, dot the dull green slopes of the surrounding mountains, a constant reminder that we are no longer in the Tajik lands of Iran, but well into the Turanian domain.


The delicate-faced Kyrgyz man in the back seat gazes into the distance with his pale brown eyes, his hands occasionally slipping down his felt hat and his thinly-bearded chin as we pass by a crumbling nomad graveyard. A silent prayer escapes his lips. In a familiar Soviet mixture of divide, conquer and Marxist social theory, the prominently Kyrgyz territory of the Eastern Pamir was conjoined with the Tajik SSR in 1924 during the national delimitation process that carved new-born soviet nations out of the existing overlapping blend of political, religious, tribal, regional, and local identities.


Many waters have flowed down the slopes of the Tian Shan since the Kyrgyz left their ancestral pastures between the Baikal and the Altai, and claimed the land west of the Horrible Taklamakan desert and east of the fertile lands of the Fergana valley. The land which we presently know as Kyrgyzstan, a lacework of mountains and dry Lands, lush pastures and arid hills, has always been a trans-civilizational crossroad, defining borders not only between steppe and sown, nomadic and sedentary, but also between spheres of influence, marking the borders between the Sinic world to the east, and the predominantly Iranian world of Central Asia.

The "Celestial mountains" -Tian shan.

The “Celestial mountains” -Tian shan.

kyrgyz map

This notion is true despite the fact that until circa the first millennia AD, the oasis city states around the Tarim basin were occupied mainly by Iranian people, since the flourishing of these geographically-secluded settlements was made possible only in direct association with the Chinese civilization to the east. The growing volume of trade flowing through the Tarim bottleneck under the Han Dynasty and westwards to the realm of the Parthian empire eventually enabled cities such as Kucha, Kashgar, and Turpan to accumulate not only material wealth but also to develop as centers of culture and learning and to become an important Buddhist stronghold in central Asia.

A west Asian monk, perhaps Iranian. 9th century Buddhist art, Bezeklik, Xinjiang.

A west Asian monk, perhaps Iranian. 9th century Buddhist art, Bezeklik, Xinjiang.

From the very early stages of Eurasian trade networks, this inter-civilizational buffer zone had come under the control of several nomadic superpowers.

The Kushans (Chinese: Yue zhi 月氏), the Hephthalites, Göktürks, the Uyghur Khaganate, and others, had all profited from the inflow of goods as middlemen, taxers, as armed escort and mercenaries and, in times of need, as simple looters and bandits. These nomadic entities had immense influence on the actual existence of these networks, which are very sensitive in nature to geopolitical changes. A wise trader or a Caravan leader would have thought twice before setting out to the perilous frontiers outside the cities, before knowing to a certain degree that the road is safe from marauding horsemen, as road safety and stability is the core of any trade network.

The northern silk road, linking the Tarim basin to central Asia.

The northern silk road, linking the Tarim basin to central Asia.

And the nomadic states were all but stable. Based on fragile networks of loyalty and tribal identities, as well as on varied and sometimes contradicting patterns of succession, these empires were prone to constant internal warfare and fragmentation. The question of whether you should defend and tax a passing camel train or simply rob it while enslaving half its men, was as much a question of politics as it was of economics, which usually had no real distinction in the world of the steppe.

It was through this exact pattern that the Kyrgyz came to inherit the lands that now bear their name. Originally nomads of Siberian stock, dwelling in the Yenisei valley, the Kyrgyz are described in the Chinese Tang dynasty chronicles as having blue or green eyes and red hair, insinuating a possible link to non-Turkic lineage.

Coming under the powerful Uyghur Khaganate’s sovereignty 758 AD, the Kyrgyz eventually overran their former masters, sacking the Uyghur capital of the Orkhon valley in the year of 840 AD. The new Kyrgyz khanate’s expansion brought its tribes west of their original homeland, eventually settling around their current location after they submitted to the great Mongols starting from the 13th century, a process that ended around the 15th century.



Uyghur_khaganat. c.745-940.

Uyghur_khaganat. c.745-940.

An Uyghur_khagan.

An Uyghur_khagan.

Traveling around Kyrgyzstan’s mountain pastures, known as Jai loo, gives a sense of how much – despite decades of Soviet economic control, collectivization, and the influence of modernity – the Kyrgyz are still loyal to their nomadic past. It is true that there are almost no more pure nomads in Kyrgyzstan as is the case in other parts of Eurasia, and most of the herding families keep permanent housing beside their traditional yurt, only heading up the mountains during summertime to give their livestock a chance to fatten up.

A Jai loo, lake song kul, central Kyrgyzstan.

A Jai loo, lake song kul, central Kyrgyzstan.



Despite that, the Kyrgyz seem to be very proud of their nomadic heritage, a legacy that gives them a sense of common unity in front of other ethnic groups,  especially the sedentary Uzbeks who dwell in the agricultural low lands of the Fergana valley.

A stroll through the peaceful side streets and Bazars of Osh, Jalal Abad, and Uzgen will give neither hint nor clue regarding the bloody events of the 1990 and 2010 ethnic violence, when Kyrgyz and Uzbek clashed on the streets, ending with hundreds of casualties, and severe damage to property.

City of Osh, a view from Suleiman Mountain.

City of Osh, a view from Suleiman Mountain.

The source of hostility lies in the prominent Uzbek position in the economy of the Fergana region, especially in relation to the mostly newly-immigrated Kyrgyz population, which suffered from lack of proper housing and employment.

The process of Soviet nation building, as well as the later post-soviet one, also gave its back-wind to the process, when the newly-formed republics hurried to find national founding fathers to replace the fathers of Socialism decorating the city squares. The towering statues of the legendary Manas, the hero of the national Kyrgyz epic composition carrying his name, can be seen in almost every town around the different Kyrgyz Oblasts, giving a reminder of an old- young nation, still struggling to find its place and identity in the troubled waters of central Asian politics.


Caravanserais: The Strongholds of the soul.


دل ای سلیم بر این کاروانسرا مبندکه خانه ساختن آیین کاروانی نیستد

“Oh innocent heart, in this Caravanserai do not lay your trust, for making a home is not the habit of wanderers”  (Sa’adi)


Caravanserai is a Persian term, referring to a closed compound used to accommodate travelers, usually merchants and pilgrims, providing them and their beasts a much needed shelter from the hostile environment. These kinds of institutes, once common around the pre-modern Islamic world, from Anatolia to the Arabian desert, from north Africa to the borders of China, played a crucial role in vast commercial and religious networks, delivering humans, materials, and ideas, throughout the Eurasian continent.


The Caravanserai networks, also known in the Middle East by the Turkish name of “Han”, were based on stone, mud brick, or fired brick structures, square or rectangular in shape, which usually had no more than two floors, surrounding an open or roof-covered central yard.

The Caravanserais were built along the major routes, usually up to thirty kilometers apart, and ensured the safe travel of traders and pilgrims, but were also used as symbols of authority and as tax stations. In some cases the actual financing for construction and maintenance of these institutes came from local benefactors, but in most cases it was provided by the ruling authority itself. As such, many of those inns, in Iran, Anatolia, and other places, were richly designed and ornamented, with elaborate Ivan portals, colourful glazed bricks, and dynastic dedication inscriptions, as worthy of a royal institute.

Sultanhani Caravansera, Seljuk. Anatolia, 13th century.

Sultanhani Caravansera, Seljuk. Anatolia, 13th century.

The architectural origin of the Caravanserai and its rise as an institute lies in the forming years of the Arabic empire. The Islamic conquest of the vast territories of North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia formed buffer zones between the culture centers of the newly conquered lands, such as in Greater Syria, Mesopotamia in Iran, and the lands that lay beyond. These outer zones, such as in the Maghreb and Transoxania (Arabic: ma wara al nahar), were an attractive destination for Islamic fighters, known as Ghazi, who found in those regions a fertile source for holy war against the unbelievers, as well as a rich source for looted goods.

At the end of a hard day’s work of fighting and pillaging, these rough men of war found a safe haven in modest citadels, strategically build to allow them to observe and control their surroundings, but also used as places of study and spiritual contemplation.


These archaic bastions, scattered along the borders of Dar al Islam, were known as Ribats, and had eventually given their name to the Murabitun (dwellers of Ribats) dynasty which ruled North Africa and Al Nadalus until the 12th century AD, as well as to the capital of modern Morocco, known as Rabat. These names are a far echo for the expanding Islamic frontier, stretching towards the horizon by way of the sword, but also by the pen, the written word, and the scales.

With time, the Ribat forts gave home not only to fierce holy warriors, but also to wondering Sufi dervishes and Muslim merchants. These two groups found in the vast borderland, which lay far beyond the urban centers, a much desired destination for lucrative commercial and religious activity.

A gathering of Sufi dervishes. Khiva, 19th centrury.

A gathering of Sufi dervishes. Khiva, 19th centrury.


These enterprises gave weight in their own right to the spread of Islam, especially among the nomadic Turkic groups that roamed the sea of grass that stretched across northern Eurasia.

These Ribats, with their commercial and religious functions, eventually became the model for the later Caravanserai networks, although earlier sources of influence, such as the Sassanid fortifications and postal stations, as well as the Roman Castrum forts, also gave their architectural weight to the design.

Caravanserai- A general plan.

Caravanserai- A general plan.

Deyr Gachin Caravanserai, A Safavid secondary use of a Sassanian fort. Iran.

Deyr Gachin Caravanserai, A Safavid secondary use of a Sassanian fort. Iran.

The first Caravanserais to be built in the manner we recognize today were probably constructed under the Karakhanids (840–1212) and the Ghaznavids (977–1186), Two Turkic dynasties that ruled the borderlands of Transoxania and Afghanistan. From these realms the style continued to develop under the mighty Turkic empire of the great Seljuks (1037–1194), which propagated it far and wide in Iran, Anatolia, and throughout the Middle East.

Rabat-i Malik Caravanserai, Karakhanid, 11th century . Uzbekistan.

Rabat-i Malik Caravanserai, Karakhanid, 11th century . Uzbekistan.

Rabat-i sharaf, on the road from Merv to Nishapur. Seljuk, 12th century.

Rabat-i sharaf, on the road from Merv to Nishapur. Seljuk, 12th century.

The heydays of the Caravanserai networks, at least in the Eastern, Persianate part of the Islamic civilization, lasted throughout the time of the Seljuk Empire, when after the destruction period of the Mongol invasions, started a time of considerable revival and expansion of the system, under the Safavids of Iran, and to some extent by the Ottoman Turks.



With the break of European commercial domination, especially through the maritime trade route to China, central Eurasia had fallen into economic crisis, caused by the dwindling flow of goods through its ancient trade routes. In consequence, the once-bustling shelters for voyagers and wanderers had fallen into disuse. With no revenues to enable well-needed maintenance, they fell into ruin, their elegant arches crumbling, and only the owls finding a resting place within their desolate walls.

Today, some Caravanserais had been partly restored as Archeological and tourist sites, with fine examples that can be seen in Turkish Anatolia, Armenia, Iran, Uzbekistan, and as far as the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. Some old Caravanserai were even restored and brought back to life as boutique hotels, and though these renovations usually give a rather extravagant appearance in contrast to the Caravanserai’s rustic image, it can still be regarded as homage to this once-central institute.

Shaki Caravanserai, Azerbaijan, 19th century.

Shaki Caravanserai, Azerbaijan, 19th century.

In literature, the road-Inn, the Caravanserai, was held (when not portrayed as a flea-infested, dubious place) to be a place of refuge, a source for warmth and comfort in a hostile and inhospitable land, and figuratively, as the search of one’s soul for salvation. This theme can perhaps be seen as a far echo for the Ribat fort, and their housing of bands of rag-wearing Sufis, searching for the presence of the divine, far beyond the borders of the known world.

The famous blind Aşık (minstrel) Veysel (1894-1973), born in Anatolia at the end of 19th century, compared life to a Han (The Turkish word for Caravanserai) with two doors. Perhaps he borrowed this deterministic image from his own grim life experience, which included turning blind by smallpox, the death of his parents at a young age, and his departure for a life of destitute wandering accompanied by his lute (Bağlama), and perhaps he had meant that life has only two certainties, the two doors, which are birth and death.


Uzun ince bir yoldayım

Uzun ince bir yoldayim
Gidiyorum gündüz gece
Bilmiyorum ne haldeyim
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Dünyaya geldiğim anda
Yürüdum ayni zamanda
Iki kapılı bir handa
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Uykuda dahi yuruyom
Kalmaya sebeb ariyom
Gidenleri hep goruyom
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Kirkdokuz yil bu yollarda
Ovada dağda cöllerde
Düşmüşüm gürbet ellerde
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

Saşar Veysel işbu hale
Gah ağlayan gahi güle
Yetişmek için menzile
Gidiyorum gündüz gece

I am on a long and narrow road

On a long and narrow road
Walking all day and all night
Unaware of the condition I am in
Walking day and night

From the moment I was born
I started walking right away
In an inn with two gates
Walking day and night

Walking even in my sleep
Seeking a reason for staying
Eyeing those who are leaving
Walking day and night

Forty-nine years on these roads
On the plains, mountains, and deserts
Stuck in these foreign lands
Walking day and night

Veysel is bewildered to this situation
It makes him cry some, smile some
Trying to reach a destination
Walking day and night

Tash rabat, 15th century, Kyrgyzstan.

Tash rabat, 15th century, Kyrgyzstan.



The Jewels of Badakhshan.

ساقی با وفا منم,  دم همه دم علی عل

It seems there is nothing that reflects the spirit of Asia better than its mountain ranges. From the Caucasus to the Altai, from the Kunlun to the Himalayas; these mountain ranges carve their way through the Asian landscape, defining its history, its people and their culture.

Traveling through the Pamirs reflect this notion in its most soaring expression.

Situated at the eastern part of Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan, the Pamirs are among the highest mountain ranges in the world, when some of its peaks top well beyond seven thousand meters in altitude.


Historically isolated by the force of its unforgiving topography and harsh climate, the Pamirs, also known as Badakhshan (بدخشان), “A Ruby” in poetic Persian, harbor a dense network of river valleys, packed with Mulberry, Poplar and Apricot trees, which are home for the Pamiri people, of the Eastern Iranian ethnicity.

The high inaccessibility of the region, especially before the age of motors and explosives, left it usually beyond the direct control of central Asia’s major power centers, and its arid mountain slopes and green river valleys, pretty much to their own devices.

Early travelers such as Marco polo, and the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (玄奘- 602-664 AD), who traveled through the Pamirs on his way to India, left some description of the land and its people, mentioning among the rest their blue and green eyes, which distinguish them from the people around. This assertion is true to this very day.

Although economically marginal, Badhakhshan had its role in the what is commonly known as the silk roads, hosting its southern route, which stretched from Kashgar and Yarkand through Tash Kurgan, on the modern Chinese-Kyrgyz border, and across the Wakhan valley. From Wakhan  the route junctioned again to the Chitral valley and grater India to the south, and westwards to the city of Balkh, in today’s Afghanistan.


Despite its isolation, Badakhshan’s location at the heart of Asia had linked it inevitably to the frequent upheaval and clashes of its neighboring kingdoms and empires. The Pamir’s proximity to the lush and much desired Fergana valley brought it under the shadow of countless struggles between the warring states around. Sassanids and Macedonians, white Huns (Hephthahlites) and Kushans, and even the Han Chinese and the Tibetan empire at its peak, marched through it on their path to establish a firm hold of the region.

The eights century AD sow the incorporation of central Asia into the expanding Arab empire of the Umayyad, although decades of revolts and uprising went by before the region was completely pacified.

The Islamic expansion brought forth tremendous social, ethnic, and commercial changes. The gradual Islamization of the region, although was not usually made by force, brought forth the disappearance of local traditions and religions. The age old Avestan practices gave way to the Faith of Allah and his messenger, and the last active Buddhist monasteries where abandoned, after almost a millennia of rich presence in central Asia.


The establishments of the eastern Islamic civilization, first by the Umayyad and Abbasid, and later by local Iranian and Turkic dynasties, brought forth an immense immigration waves of Arabs, west Iranians and Turks, which had changed the ethnic and demographic map of the region. The merging of those groups with the local Soghdian and Tocahrian communities had formed what we know today at the Tajik people.

The rest of the indigenous east Iranians were forced to retreat to the high mountain havens of the Pamirs, where their descendants dwell to this day, preserving some of the original languages of their forbearers. Today, despite years of Soviet and later Tajik national cultural oppression, some local eastern Iranian languages such as Shugnanai, Ishkoshumi and Wakhani are still spoken in the Pamirs, although the number of native speakers is gradually dwindling , with the realistic concern of their extinction within the next few generations.

The people of the Pamirs hold a great deal of national pride, strengthen by the long standing resentment between them and the Tajik central government in Dushanbe, especially after the bitter years of the civil war (1991-1997) and the economic collapse which followed.

Although the war came to a halt more the ten years ago, the hostility between the local population of Badakhshan and Dushanbe still stands, the burnt government buildings in the GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province) capital of Khorugh, an outcome of the last clashes of May 2014, stands as a silent reminder of this long standing tension.

civil war

The hostility between the Badakhshanis and the government is based on tribal and regional differences, as well as continuing discrimination, but a prominent religious element plays a major role in this game as well.

The Islamic expansion of the eights to the tenth century brought forth the gradual conversion of most of the central Asian people to Islam, and predominantly, its Sunni version.

The Sunnis compose roughly ninety percent of the world’s Muslim community, while the rest are defined as Shiites, and hold a majority in only a few regions of the Islamic world, predominantly Iran and Iraq, and smaller population in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, India and the east African coast.

The source of the separation and rivalry between the Sunnis and Shiites is rooted in the formation years of the young Islamic community, when the fourth Kahlifa and prophet Muhammad’s son in law, Ali ibn Abi Taleb, was deposed of his position as the political and spiritual leader of the Islamic nation, in favor of the Umayyad family. The Umayyad “coup”, was grasped by the supporters of Ali as a sinister treason against the prophet’s family and his divine legacy. The rivalry between the supporters of the house of Ali, also known as Shiitu Ali (the party of Ali) , and the Umayyad Caliphate resulted in the massacre of the direct descendants of Ali in the battle of Karbala (680), an event that will shape the Shiite notion of martyrdom and its historical perception, till this very day.

The Shiite position as the oppressed “Underdog” of the Islamic world had shaped the creed’s religious psyche and gave its spiritual path a distinct flavor. The Shiite perception of history as being terribly diverted from its natural course, i.e. the Islamic leadership of the direct descendants of Prophet Muhammad through the seed of Ali. The years of persecutions by the Sunni majority made the Shiite community extremely prone to factionalism, eschatology, and deep messianic tendencies. The Shiite harsh social reality and notion of sacrifice were channeled towards the anticipated return of the Mahdi, the hidden Imam, the direct heir of Ali and Muhammad, and the bearer of divine light, who will lead his people to their right and just position.

As mentioned, the Shiite tendency to eschatology and Messianic anticipation naturally made it prone to religious fragmentation over the question of Imamate, the religious leadership of the Islamic nation. In the Shiite tradition, this position hold a special quality, a divine essence or light that went by divine providence through the house of Ali, and channeled through a linage of spiritual teachers which are the embodiment of god’s massage to its people.

A tragic superstar-Imam Ali

A tragic superstar-Imam Ali

In short, as result of these frequent disagreements regarding the identity of the true Imam, the Shiite community has fragmented into few separate branches throughout the last millennia, when the major split occurred between the Itna’asariyya and the Sab`iyya. The Itna’asariyya or “twelver” Shiites, got their name for their constitution of a 12 Imam’s cycle, and are mostly predominant in today’s Islamic republic of Iran. the Sab`iyya, or “seveners” Shiites better known as Ismailyya, had again split into few branches, when the most well-known of those, are the Nizari Ismailis.

In the west, the Nizari branch is famous, or perhaps more appropriately, infamous, for the activity of Hasan-I Sabah, AKA, “the old man of the mountain”, the legendary leader of the Assassin order of Alamut, which had cast its shades of terror throughout the Islamic world of the 12th and 13th century. Legend has it that Sabah and his followers use to lure young men through administration of Cannabis, or Hashsih (hence the name, Ḥashshāshīn, which became Assassins in the European tongues) to perform their suicidal missions of murder, which made generations of Vizirs and princes throughout the Sunni realm sleep with one eye open.

It was only with the disastrous invasion of the Mongol hordes, under the command of Hulegu Khan (1256), that the Nizari stronghold of Northern Iran had been destroyed completely and most of its inhabitants massacred, as the Mongol tradition required. Only then the dignities of the Sunni caliphates could have finally sleep at ease, that is, if there had been anything left of that caliphate after the Mongols went through it.

Mongol siege of Alamut. (1213-1214)

Mongol siege of Alamut. (1213-1214)

Despite the Mongol onslaught, the Nizari Ismailis did not perish in Iran, and the community continued to exist undercover, in a practice long known to them, known as “Taqiyya”, disguising themselves as regular members of the Sunni community, and later as Sufis or Twelver Shiites, in order to keep on and hold their practices in a hostile environment. This situation proceeded alternately, until the 46th Imam, known as the Aga Khan, had moved to the Indian subcontinent under British support and established his community on the open in 1848, after settling in Mumbai.

Hasan ali shah, Aga Khan I.(1804-1881)

Hasan ali shah, Aga Khan I.(1804-1881)

The Aga khan linage continued, and had widely been accepted by the different Nizari-Ismaili communities as the sole representation of the Imamate chain. The current 48th Aga Khan, Prince Shah Karim (b.1936), is a well-known businessmen, but also a philanthropist and an establisher of a number of charity funds, development networks, as well as a research center for Ismaili studies, and other academic centers.

It is not certain when the Ismailyya was actually firmly established in Badakhshan. Although one of the of the Samanid rulers of the region, Nasr ibn Ahmad (d. 914), had actually converted publicly onto Ismaliyya, this had been a short phase, and the Sunna soon returned to its dominant status. It is appear that the ismaliyya was permanently propagated in the Pamirs by dai’s (missionaries) during the Alamut period, and after that fall of Alamut, the local community had known alternating periods of separation from the main Ismaili centers in Iran, and eventually as said, accepting the divine status of the Aga khan lineage during the course of the latter half of the 19th century. In fact, it was the persistent philanthropic aid of the Aga khan in Badakhshan during the havoc years of the civil war that saved the population from the brink of starvation. The broad scaled activity of the Aga khan foundation is still the most noticed provider of services in the Pamir, replacing the lacking governmental ones.

Karim Shah, Aga Khan IV. (b.1936)

Karim Shah, Aga Khan IV. (b.1936)

The ancient Badakhshani culture, despite well rooted unto the slopes of the Pamir mountains, decades before the arrival of Islam, had managed to dress the old Pamiri foundations with new Islamic attire.

The most obvious feature of the Badakhshani –Ismaili culture is the Pamiri dwelling. A simple mud or baked brick flat roofed structure from the outside, similar to many other rural housing around the world, it conceals a genuine architectural gem.

Entering a Pamiri house, after having the shoes removed, one will usually walk through a simple entrance hall which includes a siting area (Poga), defined by an elevated platform and a couple of wooden posts. Turning into the main living space (Tshid), you will enter a square hall, again defined on all sides by elevated platforms, sometimes adorned with carpets. The entrance to the lower level is through a portal made out of two poplar wood posts, connected with a richly decorated upper piece (Butshkighidj). The entire ceiling is supported by a total of five posts (Sotun). The number five is by no means accidental, and the setting was made to commemorate the supreme position of Prophet Muhammad and his family members, Ali, Fatima, Hussein and Hassan, known in the Pamir as the Phanj-tan.


But the most striking feature of the Pamiri house is not the warm, almost Tibetan -monastic like design of the main hall, but by its celling, for almost every Pamiri-Ismaili house is defined by its uniquely shaped four layered sky-window, known as the Chahar-Khone. The origins of this design are uncertain, but some attribute it to the Pre-Islamic past of the region and connect it to the Zoroastrian four elements. As such, the first layer represents the earth, the second layer represent the water element, the next one represent fire, and the last and highest layer, represent the air. It is also said, that prior to the adoption of Islam, the five columns used to represent the five arch-angels of the Avestan religion, Surush, Mehr, Ardbon, Zamyod and Ozar. In Addition, the three main walls of the living quarter, use to represent the three realms of life on earth, namely Flora, Fauna, and the world of man.


A portal to heaven- Chahar Khona.

A portal to heaven- Chahar Khona.

The Ismaillis of Badakhshan, despite being Muslims, do not use mosques as their house of worship, but a structure named the “Jamat-khone”, or house of gathering, which conceptually hold somewhat of a resemblance and perhaps a real connection to the prayer halls of other Shiite groups in the Islamic world, such as the‎ Ahl-I Haqq (اهل حق) of western Iran and the Alevis of Turkish Anatolia.

The design of the Jamat khane is generally similar to that of the Pamiri house. Although today it is usually bigger and more elaborately ornamented, in the past any regular housing could have been used for that purposes. Inside the prayer hall it is common to see artistic depictions of Imam Ali, as well as pictures of the respectable Prince Karim, the current Aga Khan. In addition it is common to spot, along with copies of the Koran, volumes of the poetry of Nasir Khosrow (1004 – 1088), the patron-saint, and the founding father, according to local belief, of the Badakhsahni Ismailyya.

The fact that the Ismaili community used the common Pamiri house as a place of worship enabled its survival despite the waves of religious persecutions under the Soviets, especially during Stalin’s reign of terror, when other religious institutions, such as Madrasas, Mosques, churches and synagogues where confiscated or completely destroyed.


Unlike the other Muslim communities, the Ismailis preform only two daily prayers (Namaz) .Also, in contradiction to the Sunni practice, men and women pray together with no separation, when sometimes sacred music, known as Madah, is being performed, accompanied by lyrics taken from the poetry of Nasir khosrow, Jalal a din Rumi, passages from the holy Koran, or local compositions. The Madah music is known among the Ismailis for its spiritual and healing powers (Qudrat, or Baraka).

The main instrument used in the performance of Madah music, is the Pamiri Robab. This traditional six string instrument is made out of the Apricot tree, when the sound box is covered with hide from the back of a cow (some sources claim that Horse skin is used), and the Strings and frets are traditionally made out of sheep’s guts. The overall shape is said to resemble a human figure, asserting the connection between heaven and the human world through the divine power of music.



A good Pamiri luthier knows how to locate a suitable tree to be used as row material for the making of the Robab. A tree of good age, but not too old, straight and free of  knots is suitable for the craft. The tree is cut down in the autumn, when the sap flow is low, and it is free of leaves and fruits. On the coming spring, three or four trees will be planted as a replacement for the cut down tree.

After the tree was cut down, the timber will be soaked in water for a period of few months to one year, and then buried in snow for the winter time. The next stage is to cover the timber with cow’s dung, which will enable the timber to dry. This aromatic stage may take up to four years.

Unfortunately, not many luthiers are left in the Pamir to pass down the knowledge, perhaps as few as ten in the entire region, all of them are more than fifty five years old. As a consequence,  the tradition of musical instrument making in the Pamirs is facing an almost certain extinction unless measures will be taken soon. Masaii, a local luthier we have met in the village of Andorov, half way between Khorog and Ishkashim, is crafting some unusual and to say the least, creative instruments. He admitted that not many makers have left to preserve the old craft, but that he is training his grandsons for the trade, so perhaps there is still hope, after all, for the Robabs of Pamir.

Masaii- The unusual luthier of Andorov.

Masaii- The unusual luthier of Andorov.

Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, played an important role in the Muslim communities from the days of their creation. Usually removed from the mainstream orthodox practices, but at the same time inseparable from the core of Islamic culture, its adherents seek the intimate connection and final reunion and assimilation with the divine presence. Diverse as it is united by its ultimate goal, Sufism have always had an important status in central Asia. Many Sufi orders (Tariqat), which differ in their methods and practices, had sprung out from this vibrant corner of the world, best known are the Naqshabandyya from Bukhara, Yasaviyya from the Kazakh steppe, and the wondering dervishes of the Qalandari Tariqa.


Perhaps the most famous Sufi teacher, at least in the west, is Jalal al din Rumi. Active in Anatolia (In modern day Turkey), but a native of Balkh, Rumi’s writings and poetry are much revered throughout the Muslim world, especially in it’s the eastern, Persiante part, as well as in the west. The Mevlevi order, which was formed by his disciples in Konya, is famous for its iconic whirling meditation, in a practice known as Dhikr (ذکر), a gathering for the purpose of spiritual elevation and ecstatic union with the higher realms. Different tariqas had developed different approaches and methods to perform the Dhikr, some involve musical instruments, such as the frame drum (Daf) , the reed flute (Ney) and different kinds of long necked lutes, some only include a silent prayer, in a path known as “Sober” Sufism, in contradiction to the “drunk” ecstatic practice of others.




Despite obvious similarities between some Ismaili practices in the Pamirs, and the Sufi path, namely the usage of music and poetry during the religious rites, and documented connection between the Nizari Ismiliyya and at least one major Sufi order, the Nimatullah Tariqat, it appear that Sufism was never dominant in this region of central Asia. Despite the absence of solid evidence of dominant Sufi activity, a legend has it that the propagation of the faith in Badakhshan was made by the hands of the Chilmurid, forty wondering hermits or dervishes, and shrines of their honor, adorned with Ibex and massive Marco polo sheep horns are scattered around the villages of the Wakhan valley and other places.




In the village of Yamg, not far from the Afghan border used to live a local dervish named Mubarak Kadam Wakhani, (1843-1905). Although not having a normal Sufi initiation through the guidance of a spiritual teacher, Wakhani connected himself voluntarily with the Malvevi order after reading Rumi’s poetry. He leaved his entire life in Yamg village, wondering and meditating on the bare mountains and in the dark ravines around the valley, and writing poetry in the classical Persian forms used by his Sufi predecessors. His direct descendent, Aydar Malikmadov was happy to show the Sundial his grand-grandfather designed, meticulously made to show the time of the equinox. Wakhani made the calculations and crafted the device only to die a few months before the first time of operation, certain it will work perfectly, and preparing his own grave in advanced, how Sufi of him.

The Mazar (mausoleum) of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani.

The Mazar (mausoleum) of Mubarak Kadam Wakhani.

Visiting the old sage’s mausoleum, before heading down the mighty Phanj river and up the Pamir highway, gave a  reminder that the true gems of the Pamir, are not the celestial white peaks, crisp watered lakes or its lush green apricot orchards, but its people. The men, women and children we met along the way, with their ever welcoming houses, sincere smiles and honest curiosity, these people, who went through decades of religious persecutions, Soviet cultural oppression and a cruel civil war, but non the less never lost their humanist essence, which remained bright and shining through the thick dust of harsh reality,  they are the true jewels of Badakhshan.



In the gates of Turan

Long before the age of certainty and harsh facts, there ruled the mighty king Fereydun. The just and pious ruler, who liberated the world of men from the hand of his predecessor, the tyrannical monarch Zahnak, has ruled for five centuries, before giving in to the teeth of time. Acknowledging the last days of his reign, he summoned his three sons, Salm, Tur and Iraj and informed them of the order of succession and the parting of his kingdom into three part. Salm, the eldest, shall receive Rum, the western part of the kingdom (today’s Anatoloia), the second son, Tur, will rule the eastern part, beyond the Amu Darya river (the Oxus, in today’s modern Uzbekistan), whilee youngest and most virtues Iraj, will reign the  kingdom’s prime land, Iran.

The two elder brothers where much envy of their younger sibling, and slayed him. Iraj’s son and heir, Manūchehr, sworn to make vengeance upon his father’s killers, and marched into Tur’s domain.

Thus began the epic clash of Iran and Turan.

Salm and Tur murder Iraj

The realm of Turan represents the dark, the barbarous and the chaotic,  standing in complete contradiction to the Iranian cultural and enlightened order.  the Iran-Turan wars went well beyond the matters of territory and culture, and dealt with the questions of good and evil, pure and impure and above all, the ever whirling sphere of destiny, casting its unbearable wights upon men and beasts.

This theme is the one which threads through the storyline of the great Persian epic poem,  the Shahnameh (شاهنامه‎), by the tenth century author, Ferdowsi (940-1020), who based his composition on the pre Islamic Histories and mythologies of Iran.

The origin of the primeval distinction between Iran and Turan lies in the early differentiation  between the sedentary agriculture based societies of central Asia, and the pastoral nomadic or semi nomadic people to the north. At that time these tribes where composed out of tribes of Iranian stock, and not the Turkic groups, penetrating into the area not before the tenth century AD.

Historically speaking, Iran is not the limited territory of the modern Islamic republic, but a much more vast land, ranging from Anatolia and Azerbaijan in the west, through the Iranian plateau, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Ferghana and all the way to the Tarim basin in what is today the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang.


This definition is made on the ground of linguistic and ethnic distribution in those territories prior to the Turkic and later mongol invasions.

Iranian people such as the Soghdians established prosperous trade centers in what is today`s Samarkand and Bukhara, thriving on the trade routes stretching  east to west. Far to the east, the people of Kocha and Khotan sat on the margins of the terrible Taklamkan desert, writing commentaries of the Buddhist scriptures in their own Iranian languages.

The people of Afghanistan and Tajikistan largely speak Iranian dialects to this day.

And Turan?

Turan is the steppe.

The steppe is an ecological zone stretching across  northern Eurasia, from Manchuria in the east, through Mongolia, modern Kazakhstan, southern Russia and the Ukraine, and all the way to Hungary in the west.

The steppe is composed out of temperate grassland and shrub lands,  originally unsuitable for agricultural cultivation.

This ecological niche was first exploited by human populations, only with the development of the appropriate means of transportation, enabling people to transfer themselves, as well as their belongings across the sea of grass.



The domestication of the horse, occurring around southern Russia ca. 4000 BC, as well as the invention of the wheel, enabled people to venture far and deep into the previously impenetrable steppe,  allowing them to exploit its lavish grassland for pastoral purposes.

A new human society was born.

Pastoral nomadism is a specialized economical system, relaying on the periodical migration of an entire human population in search of pasture for its herds. The domesticated horse, first used for carrying carts and later for actual riding, enabled the nomadic population to really solely on its livestock, and to hold a vast number of herd animals, especially sheep and goats but also Bactrian camels and sometimes, cattle.

The horse also enable the nomads an entirely new thing, so far unheard of in human history, the swift mobilization of fighting men from one location to the other.


The pastoral nomadic economy is unfortunately not an autarky , and there are some products which the nomads, be it due to their  surroundings, or their social and  economical structure, can not obtain on their own. grains, metals, textiles and even luxury goods were indispensable for the existence of the nomadic societies, and this factor had linked them with an unbreakable bond to the sedentary cultures.

The common method of obtaining those  materials was trade, exchanging  steppe originated goods such as furs, glue, honey, and slaves for the much needed products of the agricultural lands.

However trade was not always an option, so raids and extortion where an acceptable way of extracting the desired commodities.

Historically, the cultivators feared the pastoralists, and for good reason. The nomad,s absolute mastery of  equine warfare, along with his utilization of the mighty composite bow, made him an intimidating foe, absolutely unmatched by his sedentary rivals.


In this regard, the epic struggle between Iran and Turan, represents a far echo of the ancient rivalry between two distinctly separated cultures, which much differ in their political and economical organization, as well as in their social values.

Even today, a travel through the Eurasian continent,and especially central Asia, is a journey through multiple layers of  contacts and clashes between societies, cultures, values and material cultures. these ever overlapping lairs is what make these journeys so fascinating, allowing us to look back at the dawn of human societies as well as the way new cultures are formed through an ever flowing tides of complex and colourful transfusions.

And that’s what this blog is all about.