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Afghanistan افغانستان

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Wakhan Corridor واخان دهلېز

The Wakhan Corridor in the north east of Afghanistan is one of the most remote places on earth, yet it has played a unique geopolitical role. For hundreds of years it served as an important conduit for merchants and travellers along the Silk Road – Marco Polo passed through it on his way to China in the 13th century. In the 19th century, the Wakhan became a buffer between the Russian and British Empires. Thanks to Andrew Quilty for use of this photograph.

Wakhan Corridor واخان دهلېز

Today, there is talk of a new road connecting Kashgar in China with Islamabad in Pakistan as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The 350km-long corridor is home to around 15,000 people. Thanks to Andrew Quilty for use of these photographs.

Wakhan Corridor واخان دهلېز

Access to basic services is extremely limited. Alongside local communities, the Aga Khan Foundation works to improve agricultural productivity, increase access to healthcare and education and help mitigate the impact of climate change which disproportionately affects this fragile region. Thanks to Andrew Quilty for use of this photograph.

Bamiyan بامیان

For two decades, the Aga Khan Foundation has been working alongside local communities to remove the barriers that prevent girls from accessing an education. With funding from the UK and Canada, the Foundation and its partners have helped hundreds of thousands of girls to get to school and stay in school longer by championing a locally rooted but globally informed approach to education. Thanks to Kapila Productions for use of this photograph.

Girls’ Education in Afghanistan

There are a number of contributing factors implicated in the poor state of girls’ education and gender inequality in Afghanistan. According to the UNDP’s human development report (2017), Afghanistan ranked 168 out of 189 countries on the gender equality index, with only 11.4% of the female population over 25 with some secondary education.

In 2003, AKF began implementing a range of interventions aimed at strengthening the capacity of the Afghan Government to deliver quality education, and at supporting and promoting educational access and quality learning opportunities for all children, particularly girls.

To date, these activities have reached more than 200,000 pupils (42 percent of them girls) and 6,000 teachers and educators. This represents 56 percent of the total school-age population in the Foundation’s programme areas. It works in 28 districts in the remote provinces of Badakhshan, Bamyan, Baghlan and Parwan.

Herat هرات

The Citadel of Herat, in north-western Afghanistan, dates back to 330 BCE. Today’s structure stands on the foundations of a fort originally built by Alexander the Great. In 2005 the Afghan government engaged the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to restore this magnificent building; one of 145 monuments restored by the Trust for Culture in Afghanistan alone. Thanks to Simon Norfolk for use of this photograph.

Kabul کابل

Locals enjoy a stroll through Babur’s Gardens in central Kabul. In 2002, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began the rehabilitation of this walled garden containing the tomb of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire. These works saw the restoration of the Queen’s Palace, the re-laying of water channels and the replanting of trees favoured by the Mughals. Thanks to Simon Norfolk for the use of this photograph.

Kabul کابل

The restoration work in Babur’s Gardens provided an opportunity to train a new generation of artisans in conservation techniques creating economic benefits for hundreds of people. Vocational training programmes including tailoring, embroidery and carpet-weaving were also undertaken to provide livelihood opportunities, especially for women. Thanks to Simon Norfolk for the use of these photographs.

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.


I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer