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Central/South Asia: The Silk Road Runs Through It

Uluh-Beg, a madrasah in the Uzbek town of Bukhara, on the old Silk Road trade route (AFP) April 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Silk Road, from the Mediterranean to the Far East, was once among the most important trade routes in the world. It remains an iconic "crossroad" for East-West relations, but the countries it crisscrosses are poorly understood outside the region.

London's Asia House and the British Council organized a recent forum that asked whether Central Asia's heritage can help better inform outsiders about a frequently misunderstood region.

References to the Silk Road inevitably bring to mind the former glory of the great cities along this ancient trade route.

"Hundreds of years ago, the countries of Central and South Asia were very well known to the imaginations of people elsewhere in the world -- really because of the import and export of goods along this network of trade routes that went from China all the way to eastern Mediterranean, from the Far East to Europe," says Emily Campbell, the British Council's head of design and architecture, who chaired the March 29 gathering. "Since then, these countries have fallen into obscurity or the perception of those countries among people in the West has become very skewed."

Uzbek academic Faizullaev argues that an important aspect of all Silk Road nations is that their specific identities can be explained by what he calls "crossroadness."

Campbell says inaccessibility and political obstacles have contributed to the region's isolation. Many of the old Silk Road countries were under Russian or Soviet rule until 1991.

Word Travels Fast

Campbell says those countries have now emerged from that situation.

In an age when information travels so much faster than cargo, visual cues for distant lands can be important. The region is flush with them -- from the 4,000 intricately woven pieces of Kazakhstan's "Golden Man" suit, to the Persian blue tiles reminiscent of lapis lazuli, or the carpets of Bukhara. Architectural treasures include Samarkand's mausoleum of Tamerlane (Timur) the Citadel of Herat, and countless others.

But can such imagery translate into tourism and trade revenues?

Observers say the concepts of a modern identity and how to project it outside the region are a hot topic in Central Asia.

Alismer Faizullaiev, a professor at Tashkent's University of World Economy and Diplomacy, calls elements of national identity -- like national heroes, languages or linguistic mixes, and common history -- "identifiers."

He points out that identity is a social constant and can be chosen, altered, or even manipulated by political regimes. But he says there is also a need for modern identifiers.

The Burana Tower is all that remains of the old Silk Road city of Balasagyn, Kygyzstan (UNESCO)

"We are very proud of our history, culture, and identity," Faizullaiev says, "but at the same time it's important to go [forward], not just look back. And I believe that [in] the branding of [the] Uzbek nation -- or any other nations, like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, etc. -- it's important to bring together two parts -- something from the past and something from the future."

Parsing Pointers

Faizullaev argues that an important aspect of all Silk Road nations is that their specific identities can be explained by what he calls "crossroadness."

The term recognizes former trade-nation status -- including being shaped, in part, by their constant trade contacts.

The British Council's Campbell agrees that there is a need for modern identity "pointers." She says they can be based on tradition -- for example, typical ornamental patterns in textile design or in applied arts and crafts.

Campbell called architecture one of the most "visible" new identity pointers. Well-preserved ancient buildings, palaces, or mosques hold great attraction. But she says there are also striking modern buildings, for instance in Kazakhstan.

"Sir Norman Foster, one of our own architects, has just built this Center for World Peace in Astana, which is an astonishing building," Campbell says. "Architecture will undoubtedly be part of our campaign. And I anticipate that some of that will be to do with the idea of regeneration -- the idea of making the old into something new, into some kind of contemporary proposition, which Britain and indeed many countries in Europe are very, very good at doing."

Potent Reminder

Rory Stewart is a best-selling travel writer and director of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to preserve local buildings and traditional crafts in Kabul. He has walked extensively in the Silk Road region -- including tracing the Afghan exploits of the founder (Babur) of India's Moghul Empire for his widely praised book, "The Places In Between."

Stewart agrees that the term "Old Silk Road" remains the best identity pointer for the region and should be revived. He points out that in the old days, it was the cities that mattered most on the old route.

"The idea of nationhood there is relatively recent," Stewart says. "The distinction between these countries was really the distinction between cities, not between states. Afghanistan itself, of course, largely came into being in the late 18th century."

Stewart describes Kabul as an old trading city that desperately needs more investment to become an identity symbol, but he remains hopeful that much can be accomplished.

In Bukhara in southwestern Uzbekistan, for instance, the number of visitors has doubled to 420,000 a year. That rise owes much to investment attracted over the past six years due to the fame of the Old Silk Road.

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