Uzbekistan O‘zbekiston

Khiva Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Khiva Xiva

Located along a key axis of the Silk Road, Khiva became hugely prosperous from the trade that flowed through it, especially of people. It was once one of the largest slave markets of Central Asia. Craftmanship is still very much alive in Khiva and has an important role to play in the preservation of the old city.

Khiva Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Khiva Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Ayten Tiryaki, master calligrapher and illuminator of Istanbul

Ayten Tiryaki, in her shop and workshop on the Asian side of the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Old men playing cards, young girls feeding the gulls, fishermen awaiting a catch, a carpenter working a lathe, women some covered some not walking arm in arm, dogs and cats wandering the streets with independent lives of their own. There is so much life to Istanbul, so much to drink in. It’s a clean city but only just. It’s wonderfully lived in and rough around the edges. The signs of modernity are plentiful but you can still hear and smell and feel and touch the city of the past.

Through the artist Dr. Veeda Ahmed – a former student at The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts – I had been put in touch with a calligraphy and illumination Hodja (master) living on the Asian side of the Bosporus. I was interested to learn more about these art forms so rooted in Turkish history and culture which have survived and continued to thrive for centuries.

Ayten Tiryaki’s workshop and shop – where her family produces paper, and where she teaches and works – is made up of five or so neatly arranged rooms. I expected the visit to last 45 minutes at the most. Three hours later we were still chatting.

Ayten, a petite but steely lady, is the first women since Ottoman times to hold an Ijazah (a licence or permission to transmit knowledge) in both calligraphy and illumination.

To achieve this status, your commitment must be absolute. Some calligraphers are known to spend two years practising one sentence alone. It’s serious business. As Ayten tells me: “it is not just art but a means to give people a message about Islam.”

As a student she recalls visiting the Topcapi Palace’s precious collections: “it took my breath away”. The art reached its zenith during the 16th century and has only experienced minor modifications since from a handful of its greatest proponents.

Ayten is a teacher now, a master with around 80 apprentices. Ijazah status can only be bestowed on an apprentice by their master. This title, however, is not permanent. If standards drop, you can be stripped of it. There is near constant appraisal process. “Of course some of my students are frustrated that I haven’t given them the Ijazah yet,” she tells me, “but it is my reputation too. I represent my masters and they represent theirs so it is a big responsibility.”

As well as tutoring her apprentices and managing the business, Ayten is currently illuminating an original Qur’an that will go on display in Istanbul’s giant new Yeni Çamlica Camîi mosque once complete.

You can learn more about Ayten and her work on her workshop’s website and on her Instagram.

Ayten talking to her son Musa
Ayten Tiryaki talking about one of her calligraphy and illumination pieces
A detail of one of Ayten’s creations.
Some of Ayten’s calligraphy materials. She puts silk in her ink pots to keep the ink fresh.
Ayten adds silk to her ink pots to keep them from drying
Ayten at work
A calligraphy teaching sheet. Each Arabic letter has a idealised propotion shown here by how many dots make up their length and height.
Ayten at work
Ayten’s shop and workshop sells a unique collection of paper. Nowhere else in the world can this many types be found in the same place.
Hand made paper sold at Ayten’s workshop and shop
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
One of Ayten’s family members preparing paper for calligraphy and illumiation. He is covering the paper with a thin layer of egg white.
Ayten with two of her students. In total she has 80 students. She has graduated 27 students meaning they have ‘ijazahs’. “Of course some students are frustrated that I haven’t given them the ijazah yet but it is my reputation too. I represent my masters and they represent theirs so it is a big responsibility,” she says.
Ayten with two of her students
Ayten showing some details to her students
Ayten showing some details to her students
Ayten uses some rabbit fur to rest her hand on as she writes
Ayten uses some rabbit fur to rest her hand on as she writes
Ayten Tiryaki, master calligrapher and illuminator.

Bukhara Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Samarkand Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Samarkand Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Samarkand Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Samarkand Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Fergana Valley Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Fergana Valley Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

Fergana Valley Xiva

One of the ceilings of Khiva’s Tash Hauli Palace which brings together Islamic geometric designs decorative floral patterns, and colours typical of Central Asia. The historic centre of Khiva is well preserved and is very much the Silk Road desert city of the imagination.

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