Between Istanbul and Ürümqi

The new Silk Route is an old story

Hillary Clinton took a Silk Route initiative. Hewlett-Packard is distributing its computers from China using a Silk Route railway. The OECD is sponsoring the construction of a Central Asian railroad. And the EU is promoting a transport corridor between Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. They all are referring to the re-opening of the Silk Route. Bruno de Cordier explains the reality behind a legend and a brand.

Did the Silk Route ever really exist? It did, but not as a route or road connection. It was an extended network of caravan routes and trade roads that connected the economic centers in China, the old Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire, from the Antiquity far into the Middle Ages. The region that we know today as Central Asia and that is most associated with the route, was more of a transit area and a crossroads than a junction.

The first transcontinental road network across Central Asia came about when, from 138 B.C. onwards, regular trade traffic was established between China and Persia. Three centuries later, political uproar in China put a temporary stop to that intercontinental traffic. A new economic dynamism in China and the active role of the Sogdian city states and trade settlements in Central Asia from 460 to 560 allowed the Silk Route to bloom a second time. But that ended as well, due to the stagnation of the Sogdian states and the rise and competition of the Arabic sea trade with India and what is currently Indonesia. In the Central Asiatic transfer zone, however, a logistical sector had emerged, with warehouses, pack animals, stopping places and accommodation, bankers, moderators and interpreters and armed escorts. Some cities and regions had those craftsmen and products on offer for which there was great demand.

The name ‘Silk Route’ was created in 1872 by the Prussian geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. Much more was transported and traded than the Chinese luxury product silk, which appeals however so much more to the imagination. Also daily utilities, food, horses and other pack animals, slaves and, not unimportantly, knowledge of traditional crafts and religious and political ideas found their way to buyers through this route. The viability of the Silk Route was dependent on political stability and integration. The transcontinental traffic received a new impulse with the involvement of Central Asia, or parts of it, in great political-economic spaces like the one under the Abassid Caliphates of Bagdad (754-840), with their golden dinar and Western markets, and under the Mongol Khans (1240-1330) with their centralized system of toll collection and security.

After a new period of decline after the disintegration of the Mongol Empire, the definitive end arrived when Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese seafarers as of the late fifteenth century mapped sea connections between Europe, India and China and set up their own network of harbours and trade posts. In the Central Asian region the old caravan roads with camel transport remained in use for centuries after that, until Russia, which annexed most part of Central Asia between 1800 and 1880, started with the construction of railroads. With the closing of the southern border of the Soviet Union - the socialist superpower that took over the Russian imperial space - in June 1936, the main countries of Central Asia where cut off from the wider Silk Route sphere until 1991.

The Silk Route today

Today, the old area of the Silk Route extends from western Turkey until Ürümqi and

Kasjgar in the eastern part of the People’s Republic of China in the east, from point to point about 5000 kms. In the south, Iran and the Persian-Arabian Gulf form the borders, in the north the steppe of Kazachstan. In the middle of that land mass with its 430 million inhabitants are the five ‘Stans’ that are most associated with the Silk Route. The old times of the transport and exchange system are far behind them.

The East-West trade that, in the end, makes the most use of the old Silk Route is drug trafficking.
The Silk Route today mainly exists in the imagination of tourists and in political discourse. Several Central Asian rulers and regimes, since their independence from the USSR, regularly point to the heritage and greatness of the Silk Route. The idea of a renewed, modern Silk Route has motivated since the 1990’s, when, after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, the states of Central Asia could once again have direct contact with their neighbouring countries in the wider region, a number of attempts to promote the economic integration in Central Asia.

One of the first international structures that, in 1993, proposed concrete projects to connect the different transport and telecommunication networks of the states in the old Silk Route sphere, was the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), based in and virtually led by Iran. The ECO is a South-South cooperation, founded in 1985, and expanded in 1992 by the accession of six former USSR states. Since then the EU (TRACECA) and the US have founded their own Silk Route programs. They fit in to what the French political scientist Pierre Hillard describes as a way to take political and economic control over states and societies by helping to create and direct regional economic blocks. The promoting of trade traffic directed towards the South and West aims to further weaken the now still crucial position of Russia in Central Asia and the rest of the old Soviet Union.

‘Silk Route identity’?

However, it is not as if an average Central Asian person today has the feeling of having a ‘Silk Route identity’. There is of course historical and cultural heritage that was formed by and inside of the Silk Route system, but that is not, or at least not consciously or visibly, present in daily life within the current societies. A Tajik from a mountain village in the Pamir will not feel connected to, let’s say, an Iranian from Tabriz or an Uyghur from Ürümqi, because once upon a time their respective residential areas were part of the Silk Route. Other identities are at the forefront today, like national identity, regional background and religion. Moreover, three generations of sovietised life had a deep social and cultural influence on Central Asia. Most Central Asian people, for instance, will turn more towards Russia than to the South for labour migration and political inspiration.

That doesn’t mean that among local entrepreneurs and in the informal sector there are no economic activities that in one way or another connect to the trade and traffic from old times. Bazaars, shopping centers and import firms with names and signs that refer in different languages to the Silk Route are to be found everywhere in the ‘Stans’. Most often these are places where, except for local agricultural products, mass consumption goods of mostly Chinese and Turkish produce are sold.

Some products, like electronics and terrain vehicles, today find their way to Central Asia through Dubai, the Iranian island Kisj, and other main points on the Persian-Arabian Gulf. The East-West trade that, in the end, makes the most use of the old Silk Route is drug trafficking.

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