Monday, July 19, 2010

Leanne Ogasawara: "The Road to Oxiana"

Leanne Ogasawara's "The Road to Oxiana" (featured in Kyoto Journal's "Silk Roads: Samarkand to Nara" issue, which she guest-edited) explores Silk Roads-era battles between empires that set the stage for conflicts over territory and resources that continue to reverberate in Central Asia today:
The almond groves of Samarqand,
Bokhara, where red lilies blow.
And Oxus, by whose yellow sand
The grave white-turbaned merchants go

— Oscar Wilde
1000 years before the infamous "Great Game," which was the name given to the intense rivalry that existed at the turn of the century between Czarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in Central Asia, there was another "Great Game." This older rivalry occurred between the Chinese, the Arabs, the Tibetans, and Turkish peoples.

And the region they were fighting for, you ask? Well, it was the same old stretch of land-- a stretch of land that has somehow remained right smack in the middle of everything for 1000 years.

To the East was China, and such was China's greatness under the Tang dynasty that none save the Arabs to the West were said to rival her. Rome had long been overrun, and for all intents and purposes Byzantium was in a state of great decline. The Arabs-- in what was a stunning rise to power-- after toppling the Persian Sassanian dynasty in 637, had next turned their attention to those lands to the East.

Despite the astonishing speed at which the countries of the Middle East came under the power of the Arabs and Islam, the nations of Central Asia, which had long been part of the Persian sphere of influence, proved to be a much tougher nut to crack. As the Arabs made increasing encroachments into areas long considered by the Chinese as being part of their sphere of influence (particularly that of Transoxiana) the Chinese and Arabs saw increased fighting occur along China's Western borders.

The Chinese, however, also had the Tibetan Empire (which had reached its zenith during Tang times) to the southwest and various nomadic peoples (such as the Turkish Uighurs and Mongols) with their shifting alliances and shifting moods to the north to contend with as well. Perhaps what is most surprising, as Susan Whitfield points our in her fascinating book, Life Along the Silk Road, is that these empires and super-powers clashed in places that were not only thousands of miles from their home bases, but were in some of the most remote spots on earth. The battles almost exclusively occurred on frozen mountain terrain or in desolate and burning deserts.
Read the rest of the essay here and visit Leanne's beautiful blog, Tang Dynasty Times, which explores fascinating (and usually much more peaceful and collaborative) exchanges over the Silk Roads in lyrical detail.

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