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Travelers Along the Silk Roads Events

Guest Speaker Series

Talks will be held in the Thornburgh Room on the first floor of Hillman Library.
This series is free and open to the public.
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The Rediscovery of Sogdian: The Lingua Franca of the Medieval Silk Road

Thursday, April 18, 2019
3-4:30 p.m  

Nicholas Sims-Williams

Nicholas Sims-Williams 
Emeritus Professor of Iranian and Central Asian Studies, SOAS University of London

The name of the Sogdiana, the region around Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and of its people, the Sogdians, has been known since antiquity. In the west, Sogdiana became familiar to the Greeks at the time of its conquest by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.E., while in the east, the Sogdians were well-known to the Chinese as a race of traders. In both China and the west, the classical texts continued to be read, so that the name of the Sogdians was never forgotten, but their language, once a lingua franca of the Silk Road, fell into total oblivion.
In the first part of this talk, I will concentrate on the beginnings of Sogdian studies, a little over a hundred years ago: the first discoveries of documents and inscriptions in the Sogdian language; the decipherment of the scripts in which they were written; and the identification of the language as Sogdian. In the second part, I shall describe some of the most interesting Sogdian texts, in particular those which shed light on the extent and history of the Sogdian trade networks in the first millennium C.E.

Archived Events

Classic and Contemporary Values across the Silk Road: Today’s Turkmenistan
Monday, February 25, 2019   |  3-4:30 p.m

Victoria Clement

Victoria Clement
Eurasia Analyst at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning at Marine Corps University

Eurasia has been host to numerous dynamic civilizations over the centuries.  Today we see the intersection of their cultures in the post-Soviet states.  In Turkmenistan, there is a renewed emphasis on moral education and social change to shape loyal citizens that brings together secular morality with an Islamic value system and a moral code derived from local meaning.  The Turkmen people are raising their children to create a strong Turkmen identity, while the state seeks to legitimize the regime.  How do the many Eurasian cultures of the Silk Road region interconnect in Turkmen society to shape behavior and attitudes?  What is important to the Turkmen people, and how does that accord with state policy?  In exploring these questions, this discussion will consider the terms Türkmençilik (Turkmen-ness) and terbiýe (upbringing) how those concepts serve both the populace and the state. 


Traveling for the State: Dunhuang Envoys on the Silk Road (850-1000)
Thursday, March 21,  2019   |   3-4:30 p.m  

Xin Wen

Xin Wen
Assistant Professor, East Asian Studies and History, Princeton University

In 1877, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905) coined the term the “Silk Road” to denote ancient routes that connected East Asia with the Mediterranean world. Thirteen years later, in 1900, an obscure Chinese Daoist monk Wang Yuanlu (1851-1931) discovered a cave containing about 50,000 multilingual manuscripts sealed up in the early eleventh century in Dunhuang–a key stop on the “Silk Road” between China proper and Central Asia. The Dunhuang manuscripts collection, as I show in this talk, can shed much corrective light on the ill-defined concept of the “Silk Road.” Unlike the conventional picture of merchants journeying in caravans with their commodities between civilizational centers, Dunhuang manuscripts reveal a world in which the state sponsored the vast majority of trans-regional travels, and most of those who traveled trans-regionally self-identified as envoys. These envoys formed reciprocal guest/host relations with the people they encountered on the road, and interacted with them through the exchange of gifts, the main social lubricant for long-distance travel at this time. While on the road, they conducted diplomatic dealings, but also visited buddhist sites and engaged in commercial transactions; and their identities thus cannot easily be pigeonholed. The tangible goods acquired through the envoys’ trips structurally shaped the agrarian society of Dunhuang by injecting vast amount of luxury items into the local economy, while the intangible prestige these envoys accumulated produced a political ideology in Dunhuang that prized the openness of the road and treated its neighbors as “family on the same road.” In this sense, I argue that Dunhuang was indeed a “Silk Road state”: a state that promoted trans-regional connections relentlessly, and was in turned transformed by its own success. 

From Komsomol to NGO: Experts, Activists, and Changing Paradigms of Development in Central Asia and Beyond
Thursday, March 28, 2019   |  3-4:30 p.m

Artemy Kalinovsky 

Artemy Kalinovsky 
Senior Lecturer, East European Studies, University of Amsterdam 

Throughout the Twentieth Century, Soviet planners as well as western observers saw Central Asia as the most economically and socially “backward” area of the USSR. At the same time, Moscow showcased its development efforts in the region to post-colonial states in Africa and Asia seeking new models of development. Soviet Central Asian experts were sent to developing countries to provide advice on economic planning, agricultural modernization, and industrialization. From the late 1960s, Central Asian experts frequently took part in conferences, workshops, and training programs organized by organizations like the UN Development Program (UNDP). The perceived failure of socialist development models contributed to the centrifugal forces that tore apart the USSR in the late 1980s. After 1991, the newly independent Central Asian states took welfare and growth as political goals and invited international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and individual countries like Germany, Japan, and the US, to help achieve them. Most of these donors subscribed to the “Washington consensus” that stressed fiscal discipline as well as minimum state intervention and regulation – the opposite of what Soviet development presumed - and emphasized private initiative. Looking out from Central Asia, this talk will consider how paradigms of development travel, in space and time, and how they are taken up, transformed, and spread again from seemingly divergent ideologies and models of political development. More concretely, it asks why approaches to economic and social development that emphasized state-led initiatives, large-scale projects, and mass mobilization, came to focus on instead on individual initiative, small scale enterprise, and a limited state role? It challenges the common assumption that these paradigms entered the socialist world only after 1991 and erased what came before.