The Silk Road: History, Culture and Commerce
Kazakhstan’s Silk Road Heritage
The rising sun was just starting to color the high peaks of the high, jagged Altai Mountains. Wearing a blue and red woolen skirt and yellow silk blouse, the young woman lying on her side might have been asleep.
That is how she was found, in her tomb – called a kurgan – where she had lain, perfectly preserved in a block of ice, for more than 2,400 years.
The ‘Ice Maiden’ as she is known, was discovered in 1993. But millennia have passed since Scythian traders buried their dead on this high steppe and in the surrounding caves of the Altai Mountains.
This tomb is just one of hundreds; some estimates say 700 or more and represents a mere fragment of Silk Road History. These kurgans and caves have been the focus of a UNESCO effort to address the destruction of the permafrost due to climate change.
Preservation of the Silk Road’s heritage corridors provides an opportunity to promote global tolerance and understanding. This intricate network of trade corridors connected East with West, Greek with Chinese and brought silk to ancient Rome.
The vast camel caravans that plied these routes carried more than merchandise. Ideas, religions, philosophies, technologies, and even diseases were exchanged in these ongoing activities of commerce.
These ancient trade routes created the world we know today. To nominate them as Heritage sites is a new concept. For sheer scale, the scope of a project such as this is unmatched. There was no single route but a labyrinth of roads, crisscrossing the vast steppes and deserts of Central Asia and China.
As routes prospered, oases were developed and settlements established for the provisioning of the caravans. When a passage was abandoned, because of banditry or the discovery of a better route, the town would be deserted. Many of the ruins of these ancient villages just vanished, sinking down beneath the desert sand.
Time is Running Out
To save and preserve the enduring history found along the ancient Silk Road, the involvement of all 27 Silk Road countries is necessary. The 7,000 kilometers, over which the Silk Road spreads, stretches from the Mediterranean to Xi’an in China. Coordinating this type of international effort requires a global perspective, naturally a case for UNESCO.
With this clear imperative, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), set in motion the “Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue” project in 1988.
This evaluation assessed the impact of the routes on the shared heritage of Asia and Europe. The attention of the international community was captured by the expeditions and scientific exploration. Including the Silk Road on the World Heritage List protects these crucial remnants of vanished cultures.
Restoring archeologically significant sites is not enough; they need international protection for the future. These locations will fit firmly under the umbrella of UNESCO as they apply for inclusion as World Heritage Sites. The regional headquarters of UNESCO is based in the former Kazakhstan capital, Almaty since 1995, and are affiliated with the National Commissions of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The State of Play
Since 2000, Kazakhstan has been involved in creating a protected area in the Altai-Sayan Eco-region together with Russia, China, and Mongolia. In 2011, Russia and Kazakhstan signed an agreement to establish a cross border reserve, effectively combining the Katunskiy Biosphere Reserve in Russia and Katon-Karagaiskiy National Park in Kazakhstan. The resultant super park would be nominated for inclusion as one of UNESCO’s worldwide network of biosphere reserves in 2014.
In 2006, China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan began work on the proposal of the Tianshan heritage corridor with a submission deadline of 1 February 2013. This was the first of the priority, multinational cultural passages.
The Ashgabat Agreement (May 2011) identified the highest priority corridors within the five Central Asian countries and China. In total, fifty possible Silk Road Heritage Corridors were recognized at the 2nd meeting of the Coordinating Committee, successfully convened in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, in May 2011.
The 3rd Silk Roads Coordination Committee Meeting was held in Kyrgyzstan in early September 2012. The work of this committee was preparing the draft proposals for possible submission in early 2013 to the World Heritage Centre for examination by the World Heritage Committee as the Heritage of humankind.
Kazakhstan’s World Heritage Successes
As the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee approaches in June, the outcome of the applications for inclusion has yet to be seen. Kazakhstan is well versed in the process required by UNESCO and has three properties successfully included in the World Heritage List.
The Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yaswi was included on the list of world heritage sites in 2003. Built between 1389 and 1405, by order of Tamerlane, for an illustrious, 12th-century Sufi master, it is located in Southern Kazakhstan.
In 2004, the petroglyphs of the Tamgaly Gorge, in the huge, dry Chu-Ili Mountains joined the list. There are some 5,000 rock carvings, dating from the second half of the second millennium BC, in this protected area.
In 2008, in addition to manmade treasures, Kazakhstan added an important and valuable wildlife area to the World Heritage list, Saryarka – Steppe and Lakes of Northern Kazakhstan. This reserve protects widespread, largely undisturbed areas of the Korgalzhyn and Naurzum State Nature Reserves, wetland areas of importance for substantial populations of globally threatened, migratory water-bird species.
Since independence in 1991, Kazakhstan has positioned itself as an active and involved player amongst the five Central Asian Republics (CARs). Underpinned by a vast cache of natural resources, the ninth largest country in the world has addressed challenges from decades of Russian occupation. While simultaneously looking to the future, Kazakhstan’s participation in international projects and organizations signals a genuine commitment to multilateral involvement.
Working with China and completed in 1990, the first Eurasian Land Bridge (known as the “New Silk Road”), connects China’s Xinjiang to Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan. When the New Eurasian Land Bridge was finished in 2011, Lianyungang was connected to Rotterdam. This route through Kazakhstan opens new economic possibilities in much-neglected regions of Central Asia.
By supplying a central route within the best transport network in the region, Kazakhstan connects its neighbors with Russia, and Europe and facilitates tourism. Expanding the economy is a key priority for Kazakhstan.
In promoting peaceful and mutually advantageous coexistence with its neighbors, Kazakhstan is also piloting the way for a visa-free Central Asia. This concept envisages the region functioning much like the European Union, allowing travel unimpeded by excessive paperwork. Historically, border crossings between the Central Asian Republics, China, and Russia have been subject to stringent controls and lengthy time delays, hindering the passage of travelers. At the Third Silk Road Ministers Meeting, a milestone was reached as the ministers expressed their commitment to improving visa policies and border crossings.
By being a dynamic participant in the initiative to preserve the ancient Silk Road corridors, Kazakhstan is assisting the preservation of the unique cultural heritage of the region. Of all the Central Asian Republics, Kazakhstan brings its understanding and experience to the table on UNESCO Silk Road Heritage Corridor projects. The World Heritage List would be well served by Kazakhstan’s increased participation with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.