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From East and Southeast Asia through South Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and into Africa and Southern Europe, the Silk Road’s ancient trade routes and its many stations connected civilizations for centuries. From the initial trade in silk under the Han dynasty in China to its evolution into a thoroughfare of cultural, economic, and ideological interactions, the Silk Road came to heavily influence numerous civilizations across continents.

We spoke with Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud, a Research Affiliate at the Mittal Institute and the author of numerous books, including “Where Women Rule: South Asia,” and “Mystic Poetry of Bangladesh.” For decades, she has journeyed the Silk Road to learn more about the connections and exchanges of goods, ideologies, and knowledge across centuries and continents, and shared with us some of her discoveries along the way.

Hasna Jasimuddin Moudud

How has your research been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Have you adapted your research processes or faced any challenges in performing your research in this new capacity?

We have not been faced with a situation like this where the entire world has been simultaneously affected by the deadly coronavirus.

I was unable to give a seminar in June because COVID-19 had already spread throughout Asia and into other parts of the world, including the US. In fact, the pandemic has made me more aware of past pandemics that were attributed to the Silk Road, such the Plague, or Black Death, and smallpox. So, I have taken that into consideration and added it to the paper I am currently working on.

We are never really far away from catastrophes, whether they attack once in a hundred years or more frequently. Karma or cause and consequences have been responsible for human behaviors and acts toward the natural world. Human action is responsible for breaking down the balance between nature and humanity. But nothing prepared us for the current pandemic that has affected the entire world at once.

We in Asia are more exposed to disasters than people and policymakers in the US, whose lives are more predictable, while ours are not. Now, it is catching up, no matter how rich or developed you may be. It is a human tragedy we cannot blame on any one people or country — we are all in it. After COVID-19, the world will not be the same or as predictable as it was before.

Can you describe the historical importance of the Silk Road and the geographies that it passed through? What was exchanged on the Silk Road? 

Long before the “Silk Road” was named, silk roads and marine silk roads existed as the earliest highways to carry out trade, winding through developed urban cities and vast spans of desert and inhospitable terrain and requiring travel through extreme weather.

A main commodity was silk from China, but more items were added as valuable trading items. It was also a give-and-take of non-material kinds, including ideas, innovation, and religion. It was a battle to move forward with new ideas and ideologies and replace or readjust the old. Through it, true globalization took place. More and more excavations in recent times show how that map and its timeframe were constantly changing. History is being rewritten every day. 

What does the extensiveness of the route suggest about the connections between different civilizations at the height of Silk Road trade?

The extensiveness of the ancient routes was amazing. First, it was the trading routes from high grasslands and steppes, which ran for markets. Then across continents, through seas and seaports and river ports, into the interior lands. Ancients relics and monuments in off-beat routes show how it must have flourished at one time. These isolated monuments and artifacts needed massive patronization for sustenance.

A relay race to get there as fast as possible and claim jurisdiction over the land was taking place. They were not soldiers with armor — they were ordinary tradesmen carrying trade tools and negotiating for their absentee masters. Patronization brought the finest craftsmen, sculptors, and architects, building out of nowhere. It is the winds of change brought from East to West. Civilizations came to Europe from the East. China was deeply influenced but took the change cautiously and accepted it by fusing it with their own philosophy and way of thinking. I have discussed this to a further extent in my book.

In your research visits along the Silk Road, what were the highlights of your experience? What did you learn in person that you may not have learned through research of texts?

I have the mind of a poet, an adventurer, and a romantic time traveler. In the winter of 1978, I traveled to China, flying over the Himalayas while wearing a silk sari and sipping tea. I imagined how it must have been to travel through these mountain passes to reach for the other side, looking for a spiritual and material market of goods. Ever since, I have visited various parts of the Silk Road, including Tibet and Xian, the beginning of the Chinese Silk Road. As I visited Dunguang at the end of Gobi Desert, I felt a thrill of what it may have been like thousands of years ago.

Those who traveled the Silk Road were not just traders, but adventurers, not knowing where they were heading. Once, I met a young man in a lonely run-down Silk Road station, who told me that he would like to take the journey like his forefathers did. Someone who looks at the stars at night and lets his mind flow to a faraway land and galaxy after galaxy. The mountain or the sea calls him. It is the call of the unknown, to conquer what is beyond, like it did to a young Alexander the Great.

I liked being in Mongolia and feeling a limitless horizon, which you cannot experience or imagine without being there. Or the ancient towns in China, as they were hundreds of years ago. Or Indian temples in Ajanta and Elliora; Buddhist monuments in Vishaka Pattanam in India; Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka; Mohashthangar, Wari Battedwar, or Moinamoti in Bangladesh. It is an endless list of names of places that result from human endeavor.

The Silk Road, to me, is a symbol of human yearning to be part of the greater world. The traveler is a true globalized citizen in an unknown world — unlike today’s globalized world, which can be reached quickly by plane, by internet, and by visual imagery. The ancient Silk Road was the road of imagination; it attracted a variety of people, from Sufis and scholars to thieves.

You’ve spoken of a Silk Road connection between Mongolia and India through China and Bangladesh. What does this suggest about the connections between these locations?

Yes. It was Buddhism that connected Mongolia and China to India through Bangladesh. The ancient tea horse road, which is older than the Silk Road, is a lesser known Silk Road that carried tea to Tibet and India in exchange for money and pilgrimage. I have tried to connect the routes possibly taken by early travelers and traders.

What steps do you think are essential to take in order to preserve the heritage of the Silk Road? Is anything currently being done?

China has emerged as an economic powerhouse in the world in the twenty-first century, evolving from the opium-dependent nation it had once been in the nineteenth century. Opium was introduced by the imperial British Raj of the East India Company in 1825 by supplying opium and raw cotton in exchange for tea, porcelain, and silk. India was famous for its fabrics, spices, and semi-precious stones, dyes, and ivory. Iran for its silver products. Rome received silk, spices, fragrances, jewels, ivory, sugar, and luxury goods.

While many different kinds of merchandise traveled along the Silk Road, the name comes from the popularity of Chinese silk in the West, especially in Rome. The Silk Road’s routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, and up through Mesopotamia to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain. Takht-i-Bahi is an Indo-Parthian archaeological site of an ancient Buddhist monastery in Mardan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. The site is considered among the most imposing relics of Buddhism in all of Gandhara and has been “exceptionally well-preserved.”

The only way to preserve existing ancient Silk Road stations and monuments along the way is to declare them as World Heritage Sites. Some of it is already preserved in China, but much more needs to be done. UNESCO designated the Chang’ an-Tian Shan corridor of the Silk Road as a World Heritage Site. In my earlier books, I called on the Chinese side to take such initiative. It will not be just Chinese, Mongolian, Sri Lankan, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, or Singaporean, but a common human heritage.

After the Taliban destruction and war in Middle East, monuments need to be protected by a world body that gives responsibilities to governments, much like the seas and oceans that do not fall under any single country’s jurisdiction. Whether it is for tourism or historical reasons, they should all be immediately declared World Heritage Sites. China is already taking such steps. UNESCO should be strengthened further to identify and preserve initial duties.

Thank God there are still enough people in the world who will appreciate and understand the importance of such sites. I think ordinary people will decide. We must preserve it for the future — and for our present, as well. China alone cannot rebuild the Silk Road; it needs to create confidence first. Countries must come together to create a global world of inclusion and trust. Dictatorship or militarization cannot preserve a lasting peace. We need a lasting peace in this world. The Silk Road can help bring it. I hope to hear from our students how they see it being achieved and how to guard these heritage sites. 

What’s next for your research, and what information do you seek to learn?

China: How will China choose to survive post-pandemic? With vast economic power, or through cooperation or coercion? Moving forward, China will be a very important subject to watch.


☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.