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DAWN - The Internet Edition
August 18, 2002





Reviving the Silk Road


By Dr Syed Amir

A colourfully painted and lavishly festooned Pakistani truck, with strings of multicoloured beads hanging from the front and sides, standing in the midst of Washington Mall, within a short distance of the US capital and the White House, would be an unusual sight any day. It is especially so now, when high security consciousness has made it nearly impossible for any strange vehicles to reach the heart of this capital city. Some 350 exhibits that had been brought to this city to celebrate the cultural diversity and history of countries along the celebrated, ancient Silk Road.

This cultural festival was opened on June 26, 2002, at the National Mall by Prince Aga Khan and Senator Kennedy. The gleaming Pakistani truck, created by two Karachi painters and craftsmen, Jamil-ud-Din and Haider Ali, was much like those one sees daily plying on the Karachi roads, perhaps only a bit cleaner. Here, however, it became a novelty and an object of great curiosity, with many visitors taking photographs and wide-eyed children, fascinated by its embellishments, posing a variety of amusing questions. The truck and its creators attracted attention even from the Washington Post as both were the subject of a recent feature story.

The annual celebration, termed the Folklife Festival, sponsored by Washington's renowned Smithsonian Museums, takes place around fourth of July, America's Independence Day. Since its inception in 1976, it has focused on ethnic, cultural, regional or tribal customs of different communities in the United States and around the world. The purpose is to emphasize unity among this mosaic of cultural diversity.

This year's theme was the Silk Road and the commemoration of the ancient caravan route that brought many people of dissimilar cultures, languages and religions together. This social intercourse promoted new ideas and helped disseminate knowledge across the world, besides advancing trade and commercial ties for hundreds of years. In its glory days, the Silk Road linked Italy in the west to Japan in the Far East. Vast stretches of this route ran thorough Islamic lands, crisscrossing fabled cities like Tashkent, Samarkand, Herat and Kashgar. The Silk Road touched present-day Northern Pakistan and continued on to Constantinople and Venice.

During the reign of mighty Kublai Khan in the 13th century, the famous Italian explorer, Marco Polo, travelled through the southern branch of the Silk Road to arrive at the court of the Mongol emperor at Khanbalik, the site of present-day Beijing. The celebrated 14th century Muslim traveller, Ibn Batuta, also journeyed on this road. The modern-day Karakoram Highway connecting China with Pakistan runs for 1,260 kilometres largely along the rugged ancient Silk Route and crosses the territories of numerous ethnic groups. The blossoming trade and commercial ties brought prosperity to all the countries along the route. Chinese techniques of silkworm breeding, pottery and paper making and iron smelting seemed to have spread to Europe through contacts among traders, merchants, monks and missionaries. In return, the Chinese received precious stones, metals, spices, cotton and fruits. In the end, the opening of safer sea travel in the later 15th and 16th centuries made the Silk Road obsolete.

The festival had taken more than two years in planning and preparation. It aimed at recreating the ambience of the ancient Silk Road as it existed centuries ago. It highlighted landmark cities that lay on the main trade routes, their folk culture, music, religion, knowledge and everyday activities. Some 400 artists, musicians, artisans, dancers, singers and craftsmen came to Washington to participate, some of them barely spoke or understood English. Among these were Muslim silk weavers and cotton embroiderers from India and Uzbekistan, paper makers from Japan and China, Pakistani stone carvers, and famous Jamdani textiles weavers from Bangladesh, all demonstrating their exquisite craftsmanship to admiring onlookers at the festival. Even though the weather was hot, over a million people are estimated to have visited the exhibition.

The festival comprised four main pavilions, Venice, Istanbul Crossroads, Samarkand, and Xi'an, evoking the major landmarks on the road. Each had a gigantic tent dedicated for display of its culture, art and music, while huge replicas of the historic sites of the city stood outside. A model of Ayasofia mosque greeted the visitors to the Istanbul pavilion, while Samarkand section was decorated with a replica of its "registan" square, a three-sided plaza containing remnants of a mediaeval mosque and a mausoleum. Inside, artists from Uzbekistan, resplendent in traditional and colourful dresses, entertained the crowd with classical music and dances. Turkish artists performed in the style of centuries' old Ottoman music traditions, while others demonstrating the devotional Sufi dances.

The organizers had meticulously planned special events for each day, interspersed by scholarly lectures at the nearby museum buildings for these wishing to explore various subjects in greater details. There were ample rest stops, where food and drinks drawn from a variety of ethnic sources were readily available. Children were amused by storytellers, puppet shows, and game shows. They could even play musical instruments and learn to paint. For adults interested in fine Chinese or Japanese ceramics, there were live shows by craftsman of porcelain production.

When the show closed its doors on July 7, 2002, most of us agreed that the aspirations of Mr Yo-Yo Ma, the renowned cellist and festival director, that "the Silk Road, connecting cultures, creating trusts will help promote collaboration and a sense of community and inspire a fascination with the culture of the Silk Road", had been amply fulfilled.