Central Asian Peoples
Along the Silk Road
August 4, 2013

Along the Silk Road

"Istanbul...Tabriz...Samarkand...Kashgar…Cities along the Silk Road.

Their names evoke a lingering glory—images of gold coins sown to the fringe of a bridal veil, the sway of camel caravans under a relentless desert sun, barren windswept stretches between lush oases. At the height of their power, they were as influential as New York, Dubai or Hong Kong today—cosmopolitan and wealthy—enriched by the trade in—among other things... SILK.

The Silk Road connected the markets of East Asia with those in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe. It was never a single thread stretched taut across the Central Asian steppe like an early superhighway. It was always a loose network of routes—like a braided stream—a flow stitching major trading centers together.

There was so much traffic moving along it by the thirteenth century that Persians and Selcuk Turks built a system of caravanserais—roadside inns, havens for traders and travelers, where they could wash, eat, worship and rest safely for the night—evenly spaced from each other one day’s travel apart.

The Silk Road dwindled in significance when merchants discovered and began using sea routes to shuttle goods between East Asia and Europe. Yet the old land routes remained open well into the twentieth century. It is still possible to find old men and women in the Pamir mountains who remember when camel caravans laden with goods from East Asia wound their way through precarious mountain passes between Western China and Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Union absorbed Central Asia—the area from the Caspian Sea in the west to Central China in the east, Russia to the north and India to the south—in 1917, the region was carved into a series of states whose borders created barriers between cities and peoples who had been connected for more than two thousand years.

Central Asian countries have so long been identified with Russia in the modern consciousness that names like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are unfamiliar to practically everyone but historians and political analysts. In Western minds today, the countries along the Silk Road are often simply a blank on the map.

This series of videos, photographs and stories grew out of a desire to draw back the curtain obscuring the peoples of the region and their rich cultures. It began with a deep conviction that every people group, and the cultures that define them, bear the signature of the Creator. Recognizing that most people in the West either have no idea of what Central Asian life is like—or a negative impression due to the present conflict in Afghanistan and tensions with Iran—we hope to present a gentler, more reflective picture of ancient peoples living in a modern world.

There are flashes of startling beauty along the Silk Road—the golden glow of a sunset illuminating the cliffs above Bamian; the sophisticated lines of the Persian poet Hafez; the languid movements of a Uighur dancer; the sheen of the intricate patterns in an Ushak carpet; the lush green of tea fields on the slopes of the Black Sea; the lonely sound of a shepherd playing a nay in the Turkish countryside.

But there is also brokenness: Poverty, corruption, authoritarian governments, alcoholism and domestic abuse. Central Asians are no strangers to suffering, yet they often bear it with remarkable grace. That grace fills the stories and videos in this series.

For two thousand years the Silk Road has been the crossroads of many faiths. Buddhist, Nestorian, Manichaean and Islamic missionaries and merchants all actively sought to plant their faith in Central Asian hearts. Silk, spices and precious stones were never the only things that moved along the Silk Road—faith found a place alongside commerce. Monastaries were often built beside caravanserais. Mosques are still at home in the center of the busiest bazaars and shopping centers.

Today the dominant agent of change in the region is international trade and the re-opening of Silk Road markets from China to Turkey. The routes once traveled by plodding camel caravans are now paved with asphalt and choked with traffic—trucks loaded with electronics from China, cotton from Uzbekistan, tea from Turkey.

The modern manifestation of the Silk Road may look different from its historical incarnation, but the thread is the same. Kazakh companies bring Turkish engineers to Almaty to grease the wheels of a building boom fueled by oil revenues. Turkmen flood into Istanbul looking for jobs in bakeries and print shops. Persians, Turks and Tajiks mingle in factories in Europe. The economies and peoples once tied together by the Silk Road are integrated again.

Is there a place for Christians among the peoples of the Silk Road? We believe there is. The welcome we received in Central Asian homes along the way is affirmation that there are open doors. The goal is not for western Christians to find a home in Central Asia, but rather for the gospel to find a home in the hearts of Central Asians.

That is the story emerging along the Silk Road.

 Watch from Kashgar to Osh.