Film script: The Silk Road and the unknown East -- 6 part documentary

Eric Walberg

Introduction and Part I

We will take a journey along the most ancient and thrilling road in Man's history, through a mysterious and little known part of the world, but one which has experienced all there is - the great religions have all thrived here at one time or another - Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam; at certain periods great centres of learning and the arts sprang up and declined, as did great warrior-princes. It is a region of violent contrasts - desert, mountains, lush valleys and oases. It is a mix of many races. Until a century ago, it was all but lost to the march of civilisation. Until the fall of Communism, it maintained its shroud of secrecy. With modern means of communications, it is now as accessible as any other destination. I am speaking of course of where East truly meets West - Central Asia.

Turkestan - the name sounds of pastoral romance and adventure. In fact there is no Turkestan. It's a bit like Camelot, a mythical kingdom lost to the annuls of history, or more tragically, like Kurdistan, divided up between many states. There is a Chinese Turkestan (Uiguria), an Afghan Turkestan (centred around Herat and Masar i Sharif), and even an Iranian Turkestan. Until 1991, the heart of Turkestan was Russian dominated. Now most of it is composed of 5 new 'stans' which cover the vast lands from the Caspian Sea to the Tien Shan Mountains. Oddly enough, the only Turkestan you can find on a map is a shabby settlement in Kazakhstan with the spectacular yet mysterious ruined mausoleum of the Sufi mystic Akhmad Yasari, built on Timur's orders. Even in our jet age, it is still far, far away ... from anywhere, and harsh and bleak, but sometimes brilliantly so.
[graphics, maps]
The Silk Road began its long and eventful history in the 2nd c BC, when the Chinese Emperor Wu Ti, hearing of a civilised nation to the West (they turned out to be half way along the future Silk Road - in Afghanistan), sent out an expedition to make contact with them against the Hun barbarians.
He found no military interest, but lots of merchants, fine horses and the mysterious silk, and the far-sighted Emperor began sending well-fortified caravans out with silk to be exchanged for those horses. At that time, China had only ponies to fend off the lightning horseback attacks of the dreaded Huns.
The term Silk Road was coined in the 19thc by a German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. It was not a single road but a vast network of trade routes stretching from China to the eastern Mediterranean. The main northern route followed the northern foothills of the Tien-shan or Celestial mountains to Khorasmia - the oasis south of the Aral Sea (Khiva), and on to the Caspian and Volga, and the Greek settlements on the Black Sea. Advantage: water, Disadvantage: nomads. This was the best known route, and the one which we will more or less follow. The other routes tended to be much more prey to the vicious extremes of climate and geography, not to mention the Huns and their like, and often caravans of hundreds of camels and men would disappear without a trace.
Silk. The Chinese knew they had a good thing, and managed to keep the secret of silk production just that for hundreds of years [till 5thc, when Sogdiana (Uzb, Taj, Pak, Afg) began producing, albeit, lower quality silk]. And there were many, many middlemen on this 10,000km road, with all its many natural and manmade hazards.The Romans developed such a passion for the sensuous material that it was bartered for its weight in gold, having such a disastrous effect on the balance of payments, that in AD 14 the Senate was forced to issue a decree drastically restricting its use.
An alternate sea route was finally discovered by the Romans in the lstc (through the Red Sea to nw India), and used at times over the next millenium when the land route just became too dangerous. It proved to be no safer than the caravan trails, and many a cargo was lost in storms and many a crew sold into slavery. Sailing techniques were primitive, and the last leg - to India - depended on favourable monsoons... Well, we know enough about sailing in monsoons to know better!
[Sir Peter's hat blows of and he trips chasing it]
This great road was not just for merchants. As always happens, men of religion - whether pilgrims, missionaries or refugees, were very much a part of it, though in this realm the traffic was mostly West-East. These hardy souls (or sometimes merely restless ones) brought to Central Asia the creeds of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity. And with religion came manuscripts, art and architecture. And each successful journey required carefully ministered gifts along the way, to whatever Almighty reigned at that time and place. Perhaps this helps explain how such isolated oases as these could flaunt fabulous monuments which, reduced to rubble by invaders, soon gave way to even greater monuments - wave after wave, for thousands of years...

[Opening shots of Sir Peter in Samarkand]
Samarkand is a magical, evocative word - Milton speaks of 'Samarchand by Oxus, Temir's throne'. It was the fantasy of Goethe, Handel, Marlowe ... For Keats Samarkand was 'silken' with its caravans bearing Chinese treasures, while Oscar Wilde, throwing botany to the winds, wrote of
The almond-groves of Samarcand,
Bokhara, where red lilies blow,
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go.

Central Asia, with Samarkand at its heart, has produced or inspired some of the great poetry in history. Omar Khayyam immediately comes to mind, with his Rubiat, translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald.
[QUOTE re Samarkand]
It rings with a landlocked strangeness, and was the seat of an empire so remote in its steppe and desert that it only touched Europe to terrify it.
[Sir Peter in the central square]
Samarkand itself dates from 530 BC, then called Maracanda, when it was recorded that Alexander the Great 'paused there in his mad career', which meant that it celebrated its first 2500th anniversary in 1970 as a sleepy Soviet backwater. It's SECOND 25ooth anniversary, as decided by further finds and sanctioned by UNESCO, takes place in 1997. Samarkand has been called the 'Mirror of the World', the 'Garden of Souls', the 'Fourth Paradise'; a city which, for better or for worse, is at long last open to the vulgar gaze of tourists, who, year by year in ever-growing numbers, 'take the Golden Road to Samarkand'.
Let us start our journey along the Silk Road with one of the most breath-taking events of world history:
[map, paintings of Alexander and his campaign, death of Cleitus]
Alexander's empire 4thc BC
At the time that Alexander swept across the Near East into Central Asia, he met and conquered the Sogdians, who were a highly cultured, relatively peaceful Persian civilisation. Alexander soon succumbed to the decadent charms of Persian living. The dry climate of Turkestan and the tainted water had led the Macedonians to indulge freely in the strong local wines. He even came to adopt the sensible and comfortable native dress. Indeed he later tried to insist upon those who approached him making the deep Persian prostration or 'kow-tow' - an act which aroused much resentment among the Macedonians, who considered it appropriate only to a god. Persian ostentation and effeminacy were having an even worse effect on Alexander's generals; it got to the point that even he had to put a stop to things. Plutarch gives some examples: one general sent camels to Egypt to fetch his favourite 'powder' for use when wrestling. 'Have you still to learn,' asked Alexander, 'that to make our victories perfect we must avoid the vices and follies of those we have conquered?' Such moralisings fell strangely from his lips.
Still, he swept through Central Asia, scaled the mountain stronghold of the Bactrian chieftain Oxyartes, whose lovely daughter Roxana, he fell in love with and married in Balkh, a few hundred kilometres south of Samarkand, in present-day Afghanistan. He conquered what he thought was India (Punjab) the next year, and 4 years later, while preparing to march into Arabia, he was struck down by a fever and died.
All other attempts to conquer the world since must pay homage to this spectacular feat. It's as if the Apollo missions set up colonies on Mars. Indeed, medieval legends abound concerning Alexander, in his flying machine propelled by griffins (straining to reach prey dangling convieniently out of reach), or exploring the ocean depths in his glass diving-bell.
[Sir Peter in mountain village surrounded by 'descendants' of Alexander]
There are remote mountain villages of blue eyed, fair haired natives in Tadjikistan that proudly trace their lineage to Alexander and his army. But that is another story.

This is 6 half-hour documentary films appropriate for educational and tourist promotion purposes. For further information, contact me.


Part 1

Introduction, covering the script material from Alexander the Great, Hsuan-tsan and other pre-Islamic events. (pre-7th c)


Part 2

Islam vs the Mongols (7th c - 13th c)


Part 3

Tamerlane (14th c)


Part 4

The Timurid Renaissance - Shah Rukh, Gawhar Shad, Ulugbek, Babur (15th - 16th c)


Part 5

Decline and the Great Game (17th c - 19th c)


Part 6

From Russian Turkestan to Independence (20th c)