National Geographic : 2017 Dec
138 glass. Samarqand paper. Snow leopard skins. Porcelain. Levantine gold. Exotic animals. (A khan of Khiwa once ordered two water buffalo from Per- sia to be goaded across the Central Asian deserts to his walled city.) And of course God: Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam each coursed along the Silk Road. So did revolutionary innovations such as algebra. So did the bubonic plague. (Scholars think the Black Death first infected Europe at the siege of Kaffa; Mongols catapulted the poxed corpses of their own soldiers over the walls of the Crimean city.) Still it is mostly the silk we remem- ber: an ethereal fabric that ripples like moonlight on water. This Chinese invention so entranced Roman elites that they nearly bankrupted their empire to buy it. Some things never change. There is little truly “old” about the old Silk Road. Today Muslim Central Asia—the main back- drop of Silk Road history—may seem like a for- gotten backwater in the current of global news. Lightly populated, underdeveloped, and most- ly authoritarian, the former Soviet republics that straddle the Silk Road’s antique caravan trails—Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan—attract little outside attention. Their visitors are nostalgia tourists, romantics drawn to Silk Road glories that faded before Columbus. But this musty reputation is deceptive. Just as power- ful empires fought for control of the Silk Road’s riches centuries ago, Asia’s fulcrum remains a cockpit of 21st-century geopolitics. The United States, China, and Russia each jockey for their interests in the strategic region: fighting Islamic terrorism, opening lucrative trade corridors, tap- ping energy reserves. As for jinn, they have bewitched landscapes of Central Asia since before silk was spun. In Islamic tradition, angels were created from light, humans from clay, and jinn from smokeless fire. Jinn have their own kings, towns, and caravans. They are invisible until they aren’t. They don’t like iron. They squat in empty houses. (Don’t sleep there.) A few have converted to Islam and give for a mouthful of water? How old is this Silk Road moment? The sun sets in a chrome sky. Long after mid- night an iota of light winks into existence in the matte darkness of the Qizilqum. It begins to circle us, first close, then far, then close again. A taunt- ing lodestar. “Our rescue car is lost,” Khalmura- dov rasps. He waves his headlamp frantically at the light. But I know better. I keep my cotton-dry mouth shut. It’s jinn. A FEW USEFUL ADDEnDA to some standard Silk Road myths: It wasn’t a road. Less a highway, it was a diffuse web, a shifting skein of thousands of camel trails, mountain-pass bottlenecks, turreted caravansaries, river bazaars, seaports, and lonely desert cairns (spaced eyeshot apart for navigation) that bound together the two great economic centers of the classical world, Han China and the Roman Mediterranean. At its geo- graphic crossroads in Central Asia, where king- doms of middlemen grew rich, the Silk Road’s goods flowed radially in all directions. North to the Russian principalities. South to Persia and the Indus. West to Constantinople. East to Xian. This network of commerce linked tens of millions of lives as far away as Africa and Southeast Asia. The Silk Road wasn’t a camel rut worn in the steppe. It was an idea: the prototype for globalization. Silk was only its brand. A thousand and one other products swayed on camelback along the Silk Road’s sprawling dis- tribution system. Chinese gunpowder. Venetian The Silk Road wasn’t a camel rut worn in the steppe. It was an idea: the prototype for globalization. Silk was only its brand. n Society Grant Your National Geographic Society membership helps fund the Out of Eden Walk project. Discover the Silk Road’s ancient roots at natgeo.com/history/silk-road.