Caravan routes of the past are in the focus of the archaeologists

“Build the steps to the future from the wonderful stones!” – The great artist Nikolai Roerich wrote long time ago while living in India. This pathos words express very accurately the essence of the phenomenon that we call the Great Silk Road. It has been 140 years since German geologist, geographer and traveller, President of Berlin Geographic Society Ferdinand von Richthofen introduced this popular term to the science. It was several decades after that before the scientists from different countries of the world started to show the interest in this phenomenon of antique world and the Middle Ages and started to study specific routes, which were used in the past for caravan trades.

Link of live human contacts laid across huge part of the planet on top of political barriers and state borders for many centuries. It was the state without clear legal status, nameless empire, the association without any statehood features. Hundreds of cities, big and small, thousands of settlements, road stations and bridges appeared and grew strongerunder the shade of this virtual but such strong union of such different nations and tribes speaking various languages.

Due to its geographic location, Turkmen land occupied important place in the system of caravan trade. The kingdoms have appeared and vanished, peaceful years of life have been replaced with wars when foreign caravans went around dangerous regions. It lasted until faster, safer and more advantageous for Europeans maritime routes to India and China appeared bypassing Central Asia back in XV century. However, the epoch of the Silk Road that lasted for more than 15 centuries left thousands of monuments along its route from Mediterranean to Far East. Many of them are located in Turkmenistan. It was the time when such cities like Merv, Kunyaurgench, Amul, Zemm (Kerki), Serakhs, Abiverd, Nisa and Dekhistanappeared and turned into real medieval agglomerations. The roads between these cities as well the ways to Bukhara, Balkh, Herat, Nishapur and other big city centres were probably the most well-worn and old however not the only one. Every route had parallel routes, numerous paths that led to other directions or shorter distances. Some of the routes were seasonal depending of the time of the year, as it was impossible to use it in winter when endless takyrs turned into the swamp after the rain, while in summer time, the road was closed as all water sources dried out.

It was last decades of the XX centuries when archaeological study of these routes and monuments related to them has started. As the result of numerous analysis of the Middle Age written sources and local studies, the archaeologists managed to identify the destination points of ancient maps with existing ruins with more or less accuracy. However, it must to be taken into account that the sources mention only the most important routes, the secondary roads were left behind the authors’ attention. This thought was voiced many years ago by Ashgabat archaeologist Alexander Marushenko, the discoverer on many monuments in Turkmenistan. He went hundreds kilometres across the desert and foothills along existing and dried riverbeds on his foot and by horse and later by vehicle searching for medieval caravan routes.

Priceless contribution to the study of ancient trade routes on the territory of our country were made by his contemporaries – academic of the Academy of Science of Turkmenistan and founder of South Turkmenistan Archaeological Complex Expedition Mikhail Masson as well as founder of Khorezm Archaeological and Historical Expedition, Academic Sergey Tolstov, their junior colleagues and students Kurban Adykov, Egen Atagariyev, Juma Durdiyev, Alexander Lyapin, Ovezgeldy Orazov, Victor Pilipko, Galina Pugachenkova, Terkesh Hojaniyazov and Hemra Yusupov. We could not have the today knowledge about the Silk Road in Turkmenistan without their field work in expeditions, without their monographies and scientific articles. Obviously, they didn’t have the opportunity to cover all existing parts of caravan routes in Karakums and to discover all the ruins. This is big scientific and its continuation is the an objective of current and future archaeological expeditions.

Today, the specialists of National Department for protection, study and restoration of historical and cultural monuments of Turkmenistan work with their colleagues, the UNESCO experts on the inclusion of the parts of the Silk Road on the territory of Turkmenistan to the World Heritage List under serial nomination. Several years ago, they developed single concept and general understanding of the strategy of activity of every country participant of serial nomination, which purpose is to prove its appropriateness as future part of the UNESCO World Heritage. First of all, they agreed on basic terms related to modern interpretation of the Silk Road, which helped to avoid misunderstandings and clearly understand what every definition means. There are three of them altogether namely the hub, the segments of route and the corridors. The hub is large city centre where several routes crossed. Ancient Merv is a perfect example to it.

Such cities as Merv played the great role in the State administration, production of goods and supplies as well as were the centres of the achievements of cultural mixes in the form of architecture, visual art and intangible values, which are social structure, beliefs and folklore.

The segment is a route between two hubs taking into account known topographic and cultural features of the part.

The segment does not reflect every route and specific path however, it outlines the main directions of caravans while the corridor describes in details the content of each segment. The corridor is an even buffer, in other words the area, which serves to the purpose of protection of valuable historical landscape along scientifically identified route. In other words, the buffer is an aggregation of all map’s points, which are located at the distance from the main route that does not exceed set parameter – the width of the buffer zone.

It was necessary to introduce the concept of the corridor in order to manage potential instability of specific routes and roads between the hubs and cover the monuments and protected landscapes along the segments. Therefore, the nomination includes the settlements, strongholds, caravansaries, bridges and sanctuaries located away for the main road but used to be important places for the merchants and travellers.

The scientists tested different sizes of the buffer zone in relation to famous monuments and came to the conclusion that the buffer with 30 km on both sides of the road, in other words 60 km wide corridor is the most efficient for covering of the majority of key facilities. This is so called corridor approach that was recognized as the most optimum by the participants of the meeting in Ashgabat. This is quite reliable tool for detection of the most important elements of general routes and for definition of its variety.

All this work became possible owing to use of advanced computer technologies allowing combining the knowledge of the area with aerospace footages. The advantage of digital mapping system over the maps in the books and wall maps is that it is easier to be zoomed depending on the requirements. It gives an opportunity to enlarge and study thoroughly each segment, literally every kilometre of road, to draw the borders of the buffer zones and to make the proposals on any deviation and alternative routes. For sure, this is many years of work and it is carried out simultaneously in all countries participating in the nomination.

Each type of the monuments along the Silk Route reflects local construction materials, architectural styles, adaptation to climate conditions, organization of living environment as well as different political, ideological systems and cultural traditions. All these factors are taken into account during the formulation of unique multi-purpose value of every corridor as this is about not only to include all known monuments to the nomination but also to select only those, which can be documented, protected, preserved and provided with safe and comfortable access.

Improvement of registration system of the monuments of entire Central Asian regions is among the priority objectives of this global project. Many national systems of the inventory of cultural heritage are very detailed however only few of them are digitized. Conversion of the documentation on each facility into digital format in all countries of the region, analysis of the existing database and introduction of standard form of national registers became useful platform for the inclusion of the Silk Road to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The world has changed significantly but old traditions of architecture were demanded in modern age of digital technologies. There are master, the constructors in Turkmenistan who restored many monuments of the past and planned adjoined territories what makes it easier for the tourists and pilgrims to access the places. The specifics of their further development lays in the reveal of tourism potential.

Restoring the Great Silk Road in modern conditions, Turkmenistan actively develops transport and logistic system, which is the foundation for the establishment of international political, economic and humanitarian dialog on the principles of good neighbourhood, mutual understanding and equal partnership.