National Geographic : 2017 Dec
SPIRITS OF THE SILK ROAD 145 word “algorithm” is a Latin garbling of his name—helped invent algebra. He calculated the length of the Mediterranean (correcting Ptolemy). The Central Asian polymath Al-Biruni wrote more than a hundred books, among them a detailed anthropology of India and a study titled The Exhaustive Treatise on Shadows. (Al-Biruni observed that jinn were “the impure parts of the erring souls, after they have been separated from their bodies, who [the souls] are prevented from reaching their primal origin, because they did not find the knowledge of the truth, but were living in confusion and stupefac- tion.” Which sounds plausible to me.) The Silk Road’s noisy bazaars of alien prod- ucts and ideas—Renaissance European, ancient Greek, Indian, Persian, Chinese—stoked this intellectual explosion. So did a new school of religious thought called Mutazilism, which in- jected rationalism and logic into Islamic religious doctrine, fanning scientific inquiry. “ There were practical reasons too,” Gavkhar Jurdieva, an architect in Khiwa, tells me. “ To survive in this desert you need farming. And to farm, you need to understand irrigation, and that requires engi- neering. We used math to feed ourselves.” Ultimately it couldn’t hold. Weakened by dynastic struggles, the caliphate began to crack at the edges. A purifying movement called Asharism took root against “outside elements” of thought: This smothered most fields of scholarly research beyond religious study. The Mongols sacked Bagh- dad in 1258. The light of a gilded era blinked out. Busloads of tourists now ogle Khiwa’s relict palaces, madrassas, minarets. The Uzbek gov- ernment has bottled the Silk Road’s faded glories into an open-air museum. I park two cargo don- keys in a nearby village. I sit sunburned and lip cracked in a posh café. The cappuccino machine hisses like jinn. Sipping its magic, I think about At the height of its power the Muslim world flourished precisely because it was tolerant, open, inquiring. The freewheeling and polyglot spirit of the Silk Road was one key to this. National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek feeds his donkey Mouse after another day foot- slogging through Uzbekistan’s Qizilqum desert. The sands were littered with potsherds from centuries of prior caravans. Follow his global storytelling walk online at OutofEdenWalk.org and on Twitter (@PaulSalopek).