Friday, 3 December 2010

Evidence of connection ii

I recently railed about the compartmentalised view of history in which societies are viewed as separate entitities and the connections between them de-emphasised.

Of course societies have always been connected by trade and the like, one need only look at the spread of lapis lazuli, found only in Afghanistan, around the world.

My original post fired off a minor enthusiasm about whether an anglo saxon cleric called Sighelm ever went to India and from that I've found a bigger more interesting puzzle - assuming that he did go all the way to India - how did he get there?

The answer is of course obvious - he followed one of the well established spice trading routes, either via Baghdad and the Gulf, or via Alexandria and the Red Sea, or even, more exotically by following the silk route to Samarkand and then across the Karakorum and Hindu Kush to India.

All of these were well established routes, and ones which have persisted up to recent times, to the latter half of the twentieth century.

It's only with divisions of recent times caused by the advent of Stalin's Soviet Union, the wars in Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution and the war in Iraq that these traditional trade routes have been disrupted. These long, hard, journeys would have seemed perfectly sensible to a nineteenth century Russian or or an early twentieth century British traveller - after all Eric Newby travelled overland to the Hindu Kush, as did Robert Byron to Iran, Afghanistan and Tibet.

And, I've always been quietly amazed by the fact that Agatha Christie travelled with her husband, Max Mallowan, to his dig in Nineveh by train. Not because of the length of the journey, but because it was possible - Orient Express to Istanbul, and then on across Syria via Aleppo and on to Iraq on the Baghdad railway.

And of course it seemed perfectly sensible to British colonial administrators to govern the Trucial states from India and to use the Indian Rupee as a currency not only in the Gulf, Aden and Oman, but also in the British colonies in East Africa, and when one sees Kenyan security guards in a Dubai shopping mall it seems as if the wheel has turned full circle.

A consequence of the divisions of the last fifty or sixty years is that we have become extraordinarily ignorant of the cultures and history of central asia and the role of these cultures in mediating the trade between India, China and the west, be it Byzantium. Rome, or late medieval Europe.

As a for instance, a story periodically surfaces that there are the descendants of one of Crassus's lost legion living in a village of western China. Now it has been claimed population in Lanzhou area had caucasian characteristics and DNA studies do confirm that western DNA markers are present.

Lanzhou is traditionally the endpoint of the silk route through Xianjang to Urumqi, so other opportunities for irregular unions (and western looking babies) doubtless presented themselves due to passing western traders. It's also worth not forgetting that the original Tokharian population of the area were caucasian in appearance.

Equally, because the area is not that far from Bactria it's not impossible that Crassus' legion myth had some basis in fact and that some Roman trained soldiers (or their descendants) ended up in Xianjiang, and that the story was perpetuated to explain occasional western looking babies born in villages.

The other key thing about these trade routes is that they are persistent. Again an anecdote.

In 2002 I was sitting in a roadside cafe in northern Greece close to the Albanian border. As I sipped my coffee a convoy of old Albanian-registered Mercedes sedans, loaded up with an extraordinary range of domestic paraphenalia and packing cases drove past, heading back towards Albania while an Iranian truck went past in the opposite direction.

At the time I said something flippant about the Albanian mafia going shopping in Istanbul, but I was probably more than a little right, but what I actually saw was a traditional trade route re-establishing itself...

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