Silk Road Monuments


Silk Road Monuments

How has the cultural heritage of Central Asia contributed to the world of today?

Central Asia houses a wealth of monuments, from richly decorated palaces to huge mosques. These not only reflect the period in which they were built, but also the subsequent periods in which they were used and restored. The Leiden exhibition "Silk Road Cities" highlights this colourful history.

Elena PaskalevaElena Paskaleva

Grandeur is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Central Asia. Nevertheless, this region still reflects the impressive civilisations that stretched from modern-day Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan through to China, Mongolia and Russia. Here religions and cultures blended along what we currently refer to as the Silk Road: a network of trade routes between East and West. Today, that rich cultural heritage can still be admired, for example, in the form of monuments.

Did you know? The exhibition "Silk Road Cities" opens on 5 September 2019 in the former university library in Leiden

Gabrielle van den BergGabrielle van den Berg

The exhibition "Silk Road Cities", which opens on 5 September 2019 in the Oude Universiteitsbibliotheek (former university library) in Leiden, shows this unexpected richness as well as the historical context. The exhibition has been curated by Leiden University researchers Elena Paskaleva and Gabrielle van den Berg, in collaboration with the Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society (LUCIS). The basis for the exhibition was the Vici project “Turks, Texts, and Territory – Imperial Ideology and Cultural Production in Central Eurasia”.

Postcard Shahr-i Sabz, Aq Saray (White Palace, 14th century)Shahr-i Sabz, Aq Saray (White Palace, 14th century). Postcard from the series Monuments Antiques, Turkestan Russe, early 20th century.

Telling stories

'This region's history is closely related to the history of its art and architecture', says Van den Berg. 'Each object tells a story about the period in which it arose, but also about the history afterwards. We want to show that in our exhibition.'

"Silk Road Cities" emphasises how political ideologies are expressed in cultural heritage. 'In Leiden, we have an interdisciplinary team that examines this from different perspectives', she says, 'for example, from the perspectives of history, language, architecture and literature. Why did a certain ideology suddenly become successful quickly? How could those rulers maintain their power, and which role did heritage play in that?'

This cross-disciplinary approach often yields new insights, emphasises Van den Berg. As an example, she quotes the prevailing image of the Turkish-Persian world between about 1000 AD and 1500 AD. 'The idea was that the barbarian Turkish and Mongolian nomads descended from the steppes to the Abbasid Caliphate and then uncritically adopted the Persian-Arabic culture of the Islamic population', she says. 'However, that idea is now obsolete. In reality, it proved to be more a case of reciprocal influence.'

Herat, Gawharshad MausoleumHerat, Gawharshad Mausoleum, showing interior and exterior views. Photograph by Elyas Pirasteh, taken in 2009.


That picture emerges from various forms of heritage. 'I study Persian manuscripts and illustrations', says Van den Berg. 'The Persian culture is famous for its beautiful miniatures: illustrations of texts that were passed down in manuscripts until the 19th century. Turkish-Mongolian rulers played a major role in this tradition. They ruled over empires that covered a large part of central Asia and the Middle East. The precious manuscripts were their visiting card. These manuscripts reveal, for example, how one dynasty built further upon another.'

As an example, she mentions the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, an iconic work in Persian that dates from the year 1010. An illustrated copy of this from 1437 has been owned by Leiden University Library since the 17th century. 'Many rulers commissioned a richly illustrated manuscript of this work', says Van den Berg. 'The Shahnama is a royal epic, which for many rulers functioned as a kind of political handbook: what does the ideal ruler look like? Such a book was a tool for spreading and promoting an imperial ideology.'

This was before the book printing era. Books were copied by hand. The copyist could add or remove details. 'That makes such a manuscript a dynamic document that reflects the zeitgeist' says the professor. 'If you examine different versions, then you can see how the boundary between object and text becomes vaguer.' Laughing, she adds: 'With modern book printing that is far less exciting.'

Postcard Turkestan, Yasawi ShrineTurkestan, Yasawi Shrine (late 14th-early 15th century), view from the south, central domed space. Postcard published by Scherer, Nabholz & Co., Moscow, 1914.

The best colonists

"Silk Road Cities" focuses on the monuments in the cities along the Silk Road. 'That is mainly because these are so well suited for a visual representation in an exhibition', says Elena Paskaleva, a specialist in medieval, Central Asian architecture. Her research forms the basis for the exhibition. 'I used old prints, photos and postcards as source material', she says, 'but also documents about the restoration history of the monuments, for example from Russian and Central Asian archives.'

Photos and postcards were regularly produced during the Russian domination of central Asia at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. 'The Russians saw themselves as educating colonisers', says Paskaleva. 'They encountered many monuments as ruins, and the local population did not know how they should restore these. The Russians wanted to demonstrate their prowess in this area. And, in addition, that they had the best of intentions for their colonies. That ties in with the power struggle that was then taking place between the Russians, British and French: who looks after their colonies best? The postcards were meant to show that it was the Russians.'

Postcard Samarqand, Shah-i Zinda complex, Mausoleum of Shad-i MulkSamarqand, Shah-i Zinda complex, Mausoleum of Shad-i Mulk (1371-1383). Postcard from the series Union Postale Universelle Russie.

Timur's Mosque

As an example, Paskaleva mentions a mosque from the period of Timur, who in the 14th and 15th centuries ruled over a large area in modern-day India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and  Uzbekistan. 'In the city of Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, he wanted to build the largest mosque of his time. For this, the entire city centre had to be demolished. However, Timur died before the building was completed. His grandson continued the building. Forty years later, the mosque was finished, but it was far too big and ambitious for its time. Large parts of it soon collapsed due to earthquakes.'

Subsequent rulers restored the mosque based on their own insights. 'In 1868, the Russians arrived in Samarkand', says Paskaleva. 'They wanted to restore the beautiful mosaics to their former glory to demonstrate their civilising influence. However, it transpired that they did not have the means to do this. During the Soviet era, increasingly bigger plans were made for restorations using concrete and steel. But ultimately, the restoration was only completed after Uzbekistan became independent in 1991. Thus it becomes clear that a single monument can have a wide-ranging restoration history.'

People often see this region as barbaric and problematic. 'We want to nuance that view. [...] The power, that strength which culture has, is what we want to highlight.
- Gabrielle van den Berg

Mashhad, Imam ‘Ali al-Riza ShrineMashhad, pilgrims in the inner courtyard of the Imam ‘Ali al-Riza Shrine. Photograph by Elena Paskaleva, October 2016.

Power of culture

Why is research like this important? 'What we want to show, also with this exhibition,' explains Van den Berg, 'is how that cultural heritage has contributed to the world as we see it today.' Now, more than ever, it is vital to understand the background of the regions where there is a lot of political unrest. 'People often see this region as barbaric and problematic', says Van den Berg. 'We want to nuance that view. This region has an incredibly rich history, which still lives on and continues to be very important for the people who live there. That power, that strength which culture has, is what we want to highlight.'

Text: Nienke Beintema

Images taken from Paskaleva, Elena / Berg, Gabrielle van den. (2019). Silk Road Cities: Documented through vintage photographs, prints and postcards. ISBN: 978-90-9032205-6.