Afghanistan

Tajikistan border area

Vanj cross-border bridge between Afghanistan, left of the river, and Tajikistan, right of the river. This is one of six bridges constructed by the Aga Khan Foundation and partners to help improve connectivity and economic opportunities between these historically linked regions. While the British and Russian empires that separated these regions have faded into history, their legacy endures.

Tajikistan border area

Thanks to investment during the Soviet period, Tajiks enjoy far greater access to education, healthcare and economic opportunities compared to their Afghan neighbours. Today, agreements between the Tajik and Afghan governments allow for more cooperation than has been possible for over a century.

Tajikistan border area

Traders are able to sell goods in specially designated markets near these bridges opening new economic opportunities. Supported by Aga Khan Health Services, Afghans can cross the bridges to gain access to critical healthcare saving them a two-day journey on hazardous mountain roads to the nearest Afghan hospital.

Wakhan Corridor

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

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 this photograph.

Wakhan Corridor

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 these photographs.

Bamiyan

A girls’ class in session at a government school in Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. 15 years ago, most girls in Afghanistan were forbidden to enrol in school – now, they make up 39% of learners. For almost two decades, the Aga Khan Foundation has been working alongside the Afghan government and local communities to remove the barriers that prevent girls from accessing an education, whether they be safety concerns, a lack of woman teachers, poor quality schools or cultural opposition. With funding from the UK and Canadian governments, 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.

Herat

The Citadel of Herat, in north-western Afghanistan, dates back to 330 BCE. Destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the citadel has been the seat of many empires. Today’s structure stands on the foundations of a fort originally built by Alexander the Great. More recently it was a prison but in 2005 the Afghan government engaged the Aga Khan Trust for Culture to restore the structure. With German and US government funding, architects, conservationists and hundreds of craftsmen worked for over four years to restore this magnificent building. The citadel is now open to the public to explore and enjoy. It is one of over 145 monuments restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Afghanistan alone.

Thanks to Simon Norfolk for use of this photograph.

Kabul

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

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.

Thanks to Simon Norfolk for the use of this photograph.

Kabul

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 this photograph.

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.

Acknowledgements

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