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THE SILK ROAD HERITAGE IN KAZAKHSTAN

Text by Vitaliy Shuptar

Kazakhstan’s heritage epitomises the profound influence wrought by that once hugely significant artery of commercial and diplomatic relations, the Silk Road. Without the diverse settlement and cultural enrichment achieved and sustained by the Silk Road over many centuries, it is unlikely that modern Kazakhstan would be as vibrantly and kaleidoscopically varied as it is.
Many urban centres, trade and craft settlements, caravanserais and monumental religious structures owe their existence to the Silk Road and to the merchants, preachers, travellers and adventurers who traversed all or some of its length.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historians date the emergence of the Silk Road around the second century B.C., when  Chinese merchants first attempted to penetrate the Mediterranean and the Middle East through Central Asia. At that time, the principal commodity traded by the caravans was Chinese silk; but silk was not only a commodity: it was an international currency too. Moreover, it was not the only merchandise traded along the Silk Road: also important were spices, tea, mirrors, glass, coins, silverware, linen, ceramics, weapons, horses, medicine, precious stones and furs.
And material goods were not the only items that moved along the Silk Road, which was also of inestimable importance in the traffic of ideas. Thus, Buddhism - which played a key role in the Turkic Khanate -  is believed to have reached China from India along the Silk Road through Central Asia. Christianity also spread along the Silk Road, Nestorian Christians taking their message with them as they travelled the caravan routes as early as the beginning of the fifth century. Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism (the latter a synthesis of Zoroastrianism and Christianity) both made progress along the Silk Route from origins in Iran. But the most widely and successfully propagated religion was Islam, which in most areas of the Silk Road countries prevailed over other religions. Remains of structures built as early as the ninth century testify to the formation of urban Muslim cultures on what is now the territory of Kazakhstan. Numerous mosques and other buildings including the Khodja Akhmad Yasavi, Aisha-Bibi and Karakhan mausoleums and the underground mosques in Mangystau, were constructed between the ninth and the twelfth centuries.
The Silk Road was not a single road connecting East and West. Rather, it was a network of roads each of which fluctuated in importance in accordance with shifts in geopolitical conditions. In this process some roads were replaced by others, which in turn lost their significance as caravans again chose to visit different areas. One section of the Silk Road, known as the Steppe Road, passed through what is now South, South-East and West Kazakhstan. Evidence for the existence of other sections of the Silk Road has been found in other parts of Kazakhstan.
Inhabitants of what is now Kazakhstan began to participate in the economic activity of the Silk Road around the sixth or seventh centuries. At that time the Turks of the Turkic Khanate, a major power, benefited from their key position as intermediaries between the then producer of silk, China, the principal broker in the silk trade, Iran, and the main consumer of silk, Byzantium. The Turks in effect became the owners of much of the Silk Road, and benefited both economically and politically.
Nevertheless trade on what is now the territory of Kazakhstan flourished most spectacularly between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, after the collapse of the Turkic Khanate. This period accordingly saw the development of the Steppe Route.
The most significant Silk Road cities of South Kazakhstan were Otrar, Taraz (also known as the City of Merchants), Djamukat, Kulan, Sayram (or Ispidjab), Sauran, Signak and Turkestan (or Yassi). Rapid commercial development underpinned major advances in welfare, science and culture. This period saw the construction of many buildings still regarded to this day as architectural masterpieces.
Today the city of Taraz, which made such an important contribution to the success of the Steppe Route, could be said still to deserve its old name of City of Merchants: the city market is still there, still functioning, and still huge. Archeologists meanwhile continue to unearth further signs, albeit less immediately obvious but no less persuasive, of what life was like there: recently they have found a mosque which they date to the sixth or seventh century. Interestingly, this structure appears to have functioned originally either as a church or as a Zoroastrian temple.
Not far from present-day Shymkent, Sayram (also known as Ispidjab, and in ancient chronicles also referred to as the City on the White River) also made its contribution to the success of the Silk Road. A densely populated and economically and politically strategic city, it possessed a number of covered markets where weapons and metals were the main items traded, as well as caravanserais particularly popular with merchants from Samarkand and Nahsheb.
There were many other urban centres in Kazakhstan. Kaylik, the Karluk capital, whose population was a mixture of Muslims and Christians, was famous for its markets; and visited by foreigners from as far afield as north-west Europe, like the Flemish monk Guillaume Rubruk. Talkhiz (or Talkhir), another important urban centre located in the foothills of the Zailiyskiy Alatau, was a major entrepot.
The various roads of the Silk Road extended from South Kazakhstan into the North-West, the Priaralye. Not far from present-day Kazalinsk was the renowned Oguzs capital, Zhankent (or Yangikent), famous in its day for its ceramics and coinage.
Remains of the Silk Road have also been found in West Kazakhstan, where the most important cities on the northern branch, which passed through Ustyurt, are Kyzyl-kala and Saraichik, where archeologists have identified remains of caravanserais and craft settlements. The route passing through Ustyurt to the north of the Caspian came into existence as a result of an arrangement between Byzantium and the Turkic Khanate to bypass Iran.
The Silk Road retained its essential characteristics and functions up to the sixteenth century and the discovery of the maritime route between Europe and South-East Asia. Other reasons for its decline included ferocious internal wars which destroyed once-flourishing urban oases, and China’s decision to close its western frontiers.
And yet the Silk Road continues to exist, albeit in altered form. Today, as hundreds of years ago, merchandise and ideas, and people of every nation and religion, continue to travel its length. It is still the bridge par excellence between East and West.

Discovery Kazakhstan
Travel guide#1/2008

Discovery Kyrgyzstan Travel guide #10/2008

 

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