A programme of Silk Road talks & workshops

To complement the exhibition, the Aga Khan Foundation is running a series of talks to explore the cultural, economic, and social heritage of the countries, cities and regions that lie along the Silk Road.

A programme of workshops related to the Silk Road is also available online and in-person at the Aga Khan Centre (as restrictions allow). These include workshops in Islamic carpet design, Ottoman floral illumination, traditional paper preparation, Persian miniature painting and more. Several workshops are being run in collaboration with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

Talks & workshops

Travelling the Silk Road: from London to Beijing

Join us for a conversation with Christopher Wilton-Steer, creator of ‘The Silk Road: A Living History’ exhibition, who will discuss his 40,000km (mostly) overland journey across Eurasia in 2019.

Over a period of four months, Christopher travelled by car, bus, train, ferry, horse and camel from London to Beijing traversing sixteen countries.

Restoring the Values of the Past: Creating A School of Music in Tajikistan

In this talk Otambek Mastibekov will share why he felt compelled to establish a music school in Tajikistan that focused on the teaching and promotion of madḥiya-khānī, the devotional songs and music of the Badakhshani/Pamiri Ismaili Muslims.

Madḥiya is a poetic genre in Persian and Arabic literature. For the Ismaili Muslims of the Silk Road: Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Western China and Northern Pakistan, madḥiya is devotional singing that embodies the art of music, religion, philosophy and ethics. Known in the region as madḥiya-khānī (singing madḥiya) or qaṣīda-khānī (singing qaṣīda), its origin goes back, according to tradition, to the 11th century poet, philosopher and traveller Nāṣir Khusraw (1004-1088 CE).

Travelling the Silk Road from East to West: How a 14th century Mongol pilgrim became the leader of the church in Iraq

In this talk, Professor Philip Wood examines the lives of Barsauma and Mark, Christian pilgrims from Mongolia who became important players in the politics of 14th century Iraq. This session will explore the conditions under which long distance overland travel and the spread of ideas and personnel across Eurasia was possible during this period.

Professor Wood will also discuss some of the unusual diplomatic links between the East and the West in this period, such as the attempt by the Mongol Ilkhan to organise a crusade against Jerusalem in alliance with the Pope and the king of France.

This talk will highlight how Christianity in the 14th century was not only a European phenomenon and how the Christian communities that this pilgrim encountered in Central Asia had rich histories going back to the 6th and 7th centuries.


How do we construct by hand the beautiful, varied patterns that adorn all Islamic art? What is the significance of these designs in relation to the spiritual tradition of Islam? Join us for a practical introduction to drawing geometric designs.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

Trade, Heritage and Landscape along the Silk Roads

During this webinar chaired by Professor Stéphane Pradines, Professor Roland Lin and Professor Michael Jansen will discuss the Silk Roads and networks between Asia, Africa and Europe.

The experts will focus particularly on the land and maritime routes in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean. With some historical and archaeological examples, the discussants will show how Emporiums, city-States and thalassocracies were created around commercial networks. Along the Silk Roads, not only products were exchanged but people circulated bringing with them new ideas, cultures, and religions such as Buddhism and Islam.

The panelists will develop the idea of intangible heritage along the Silk Roads, and they will share their long-time experience on how to preserve and promote heritage along the Silk Roads.


The city of Samarkand stands at the junction of trade routes between China, India, and the rest of the world. Intellectual exchange facilitated by the Silk Road nourished a rich cultural flowering in Samarkand.

The uniquely beautiful architectural monuments built by the Timurid dynasty in Samarkand in the late 14th to 15th Centuries have a distinct repertoire of geometric design. The Timurid geometric heritage can be divided into two groups – patterns of the common Islamic repertoire and unique patterns appeared as results of experiments with traditional principles; this second group defines the uniqueness of the Timurid-era style. Timurid geometers, obsessed with the development of particular geometric ideas, sought for specific proportions that led to new patterns with harmonious geometric properties. Their research, held within the strict borders of the canonical tradition, revealed unlimited possibilities of the traditional principles for a pattern designer.

In five online sessions, tutor Rajen Astho will lead participants through a sequence of rare and exquisite geometric designs adorning the walls of monuments: the Samarkand Gur Amir complex, Ulugbek Madrasa, and Bibi Khanum Mosque.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.


This course explores the rich and varied floral and animal inspired motifs that were exchanged between China and the Islamic world.

Students will learn to draw and paint fantastical birds such as the phoenix (known as the simorgh in Persian, and feng huang in Chinese). We will also explore cloud and floral designs that entered the Islamic world through the Silk Road ceramic trade. They will complete their own paintings on paper using traditional techniques.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

The Syrian Silk Industry, Computing and the Myth of Queen Elizabeth II’s Wedding Gown

In this talk Russell Harris will discuss his interest in the Syrian silk industry, which was inspired mainly by a mammoth bout of shopping some years ago in the Suq al-Hamidiyya in Damascus.

Russell will discuss the long-kept secret of silk manufacture and how the technology reached the Middle East. He will touch on various points of immense interest to world history, such as the connection between the Jacquard loom and the beginnings of modern computing, the method of producing a ‘programme’ that can create the various patterns of the particular weave of silk termed ‘brukar’ (brocade), and the by-product of the Syrian silk industry (fresh mulberry juice). He will also debunk a commonly repeated myth that Princess (later Queen) Elizabeth wore a wedding dress of Syrian silk.

Tulle Embroidery & Dried Flowers Workshop with Olga Prinku

A full-day workshop in flowers-on-tulle embroidery as part of the Making Paradise and Silk Road exhibitions at the Aga Khan Centre. You will learn the basic techniques of embroidering with dried flowers and have the opportunity to create your own richly coloured and textured geometric design.

Sport and Nation Building along the Silk Road: Football and identity politics

In many states along the Silk Road, there is a strong link between sport and national identity. Various sports are promoted as ancient as the state itself, and become associated with an identity politics upheld by the state. In recent decades, football has challenged other sports and has become a global dominant force particularly when it comes to finances and popularity.

Football fans from Turkey in the west to China in the east support their local and national teams. Football today is not only a dominant financial player, clubs across the world are also supported by religious and ethnic communities and are represented at various political levels. This talk by Leif Stenberg, Dean of Aga Khan University International – Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, will present and discuss the role sports, especially football, play within several local and national contexts in countries along the Silk Road.

The Idea of the Silk Road: Historians Debate and Discuss This Modern Concept

Among idealised models of premodern connectivities few can compete with the appeal of the Silk Road and the way it projects modern notions of open trade and cultural exchange, religious and racial tolerance, and dialogue onto the past. While invented barely 150 years ago, the Silk Road is now probably the most famous and most frequently cited road as a quick Google search will confirm.

Khodadad Rezakhani will discuss the use and abuse of the term in the field of world history and how the term reinforces eurocentric historiography. Revisiting the coining of the term (die Seidenstrasse) in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, Arezou Azad will discuss what we actually know about trade and commerce in Central Asia in antiquity, and how the idea enables modern economic, cultural, and infrastructure projects to integrate the region. Zhan Zhang will draw attention to the reinvention of the Silk Road in China from the late twentieth century onwards. Finally, Aslisho Qurboniev will discuss the reception of the idea of the Silk Road in Central Asia, a region that is central to the idea, from the 19th century to the Soviet and post-Soviet period.

The event will be chaired by AKU-ISMC’s Professor Sarah Bowen Savant.

Introduction to Arabic Calligraphy

Participants will be introduced to the training process of becoming an Islamic calligrapher. Using traditional tools and materials, they will begin emulating letters of the Arabic alphabet and have a go at writing their own name.

The workshop will be lead by Soraya Syed.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

Introduction to Islamic Geometry: 4 and 8 fold symmetry

How do we construct by hand the beautiful, varied patterns that adorn all Islamic art? What is the significance of these designs in relation to the spiritual tradition of Islam? Join us for a practical introduction to drawing geometric designs.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

Interaction between Silk Road Communities: Ismaili Inscriptions and Manuscripts as Witness

This talk by Dr Karim Javan from the IIS-Ismaili Special Collections Unit, presents some aspects of social interaction between different communities of the Silk Road in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and India. The findings presented in this talk are based on textual documents found among Ismaili communities of these regions or inscriptions on rock or gravestones related to the Ismaili Imams in central Iran around Anjudan and Mahallat. The inscriptions that will be shared in this presentation were almost unknown to contemporary Western scholars of Ismaili studies and were identified during recent field work that took place in 2018.


Explore the vibrant brickwork patterns that adorn buildings along the Silk Road. Learn about the symbolic meaning of these patterns and observe their evolution throughout this historic route. Then, learn to construct geometric patterns drawing on examples from two monuments – one in Samarkand, and the other in Herat. Complete your patterns using colours relating to the symbolism of paradise.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.

Travelling the Silk Road – a practical guide

Have you ever dreamed of travelling along the Silk Road, of visiting the architectural wonders of Iran, shopping in the ancient bazaars of Uzbekistan, traversing the Pamir mountains of Central Asia or tasting the culinary delights of Western China but weren’t sure how to start planning such a trip?

Then please join us for this talk by four seasoned Silk Road travellers who will share their varied experiences of journeying along the world’s most celebrated trade route.

Jonny Bealby and Marc Leaderman from Wild Frontiers, writer Caroline Eden and photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer will discuss how to travel the Silk Road, when to go, the challenges of travelling independently, what’s it like to travel as a woman, how to give back to the communities encountered along the way, what’s it like if you are a vegetarian and much more.

The Pamiri House: A Case Study of Silk Road Dwellings in ‘the Roof of the World’

The case of Pamiri House: a presentation about the architecture and design of the Pamiri house. The symbolism of the Pamiri house is explained in pre-Islamic and Islamic context.

Weaving Paradise

Join artist Shorsh Saleh for a participatory flat-weaving (kilim) workshop at the Aga Khan Centre. Participants are invited to design and weave miniature flat weaving around the theme of paradise, using traditional flower motifs. Participants will learn how to design a kilim and use basic flat weaving techniques on a portable loom and have the chance to make a unique traditional kilim.


Images of Buddha Amitabha can be found in many sacred sites along the Silk Road, from the Dunhuang Caves in China to India, Nepal and many other places throughout the world. In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, veneration of the Buddha is a path to achieving a higher consciousness and eternal bliss in the present.

In this class, you will learn to paint the Buddha Amitabha in his traditional representation – seated in a meditative posture, upon a peacock. You will also understand more about the meaning and significance of the iconography of the Buddha.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.


How do we construct by hand the beautiful, varied patterns that adorn all Islamic art? What is the significance of these designs in relation to the spiritual tradition of Islam? Join us for a practical introduction to drawing geometric designs.

In partnership with The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts.