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The Silk Route Between Past and Present. A Paradigm Beyond Space and Time. On the threshold of the third millennium, in an atmosphere of anachronisms and contradictions, dominated and conditioned by scientific and technological discoveries, new ideas seem to take flight whilst regional barriers and territorial boundaries are collapsing to give way to a new form of comprehensiveness. Sharing ideas and intellectual stimuli, amalgamating cultural elements circulating along its intertwining branches, the Silk Route has more than once given life to new scientific forms, cultural and intellectual systems and, amongst these, artistic shapes and religious syncretism. The “Silk Route”, which, with its articulated network of twisting routes and sub-routes, even now well represents the challenging paradigm of a new age yet standing at its threshold.
A paradigm beyond time and space. The following paper aims at focusing on the Silk Route’s Religious-Cultural dimension in the middle-inner Asia of the 13th-15th Centuries, when, whatever may have happened regarding local realms and rulers, it played the role of junction and meeting point of different worlds and their civilisations. Even now we are confronted with a political trend that is at once and the same time a cultural current; emanating from the past, it is re-linking Europe and Asia and, re-uniting territories with their individual and traditional cultural forms, is shaping a renewed kaleidoscopic framework. We are confronted with new forces deeply rooted in the past, which, emanating from the far eastern fringes of Asia, by the second decade of the 21st century have reached the far western fringes of Europe, dynamics that are not only ‘economics’ and ‘scientific technologies’ but also thought, religion, and other intellectual values. These forces are heir of past times, nevertheless they endure in the present and are the active lively projection of a future time…though still largely to be understood and matured. A vision of life and universe where speculative and religious values coexist with astounding technological and scientific discoveries in a global dimension without space and time.
At the verge of this millennium, the Information and Communication Revolution has given life with its advanced technologies to a new space conditioned and dominated by no-distances. And this space with its always-evolving scientific discoveries today involves the society in its entirety (what is commonly named as “global space” actually symbolised by the Silk Route), endeavours to amalgamate it creating new links between civil and political society and positioning them in a new military dimension. New forms and structures that are rapidly evolving in search of some balance between technological development and preservation of ancient traditions, which might make possible social and economic justice, yet an utopia more than a reality. However, both (social and economic justice) form the ideological basis of order and stability, anxiously pursued by the young generation in search of an economic and speculative order where stability, security (hard and soft security) and religious structures should in their turn become the platform of new political-institutional structures.
Be that as it may, this is not a new phenomenon. Technological advancements are astoundingly new, but not the process and its aims. We are confronted with a phenomenon that has already occurred in more than one historic phase. Epochal phases. That is the human search for economic and social justice, and their framing into new conceptual schemes. And within this ratio, it would be unrealistic to ignore an additional key-factor. It would be unrealistic to deny that Religion has always been a major player. It has been at the basis of more than one revolution, it has represented the culturalpolitical response to foreign challenges, it has legitimised military action, it has given life to new spaces and political systems, it has filled with its pathos cultural and political voids. It has given to Mankind and Universe a new centrality, creating a new space within which Man and Mankind, History and Philosophy, Cosmos and Universe with their laws meet and merge in new systems and structural orders. The World and its Destiny, core of lively debates, conditioned by the eternal dialectic between economics and society, between society and religion, between science and technology on the one hand, and religion on the other, between formal ratio and ideologies or myths, which underline with their voice the eternal antithesis between cultures and civilisations.
At the verge of the third millennium, the intellectual world is facing a new historiographical debate, into which the Religious Factor has also entered. Knowledge and the vision of the world and its new order/disorder are translated into a new philosophy of culture and history, of society and religion. Rationality, historicity of scientific knowledge, nature and experience, nature and human ‘ratio’, science and ethics, science and its language, science and its new aims and objectives are amongst some of the major themes of this debate. But not only this: which aims, which objectives? And within which new order that might ensure security and stability, social and economic justice? Thence, revolution and power are coming to the fore with another factor: Force and its use…a stage that, however, does not disregard dialogue and tolerance, or, as recently stated by Francesco Bergoglio, more than tolerance, “reciprocal respect”. These are only ‘some’ amongst the main issues discussed and heard of also in the traditional culture of ordinary people.
Undoubtedly, the end of the Cold War and the well-known “global village” dealt with by Samuel Huntington, the global village with its technological revolutions, have induced to re-think our own speculative parameters, traditional paradigms and models of society and power, mankind and statehood. And once again we have been confronted with elements that might bring to new forms of sharp opposition and a global disorder. However, beyond and behind the Huntingtonian cliché of the “clash of civilizations”, a new cultural current seems to take flight spurring from the roots of a traditional past, which however has not yet disappeared. The Silk Route stems out emanating from the far-eastern lands of Asia as the conceptual image, the paradigm of a conceivable new order. By merging the material, scientific-technological and economic dimension of life with a new cultural (or neo-cultural) vocation it seeks (and seems to be able) to give life to a new social body and new systemic-structural answers, a comprehensive order capable of tackling the challenges opened by the collapse of the traditional cultural parameters and the dramatic backdrop of a mere clash of civilisations.
Middle-Inner Asia of the 13th -15th Centuries: the Silk Route and its Reflection on Painting and Architectonic Forms. As just pointed out, nothing is new in the course of History. Professor Axel Berkowsky has authoritatively lingered on the Silk Route – or better “the New Silk Route” – with specific regard on practical aspects of these last decades. In the following text, I wish to linger on a past historic period, particularly fertile when confronted with the collapse of traditional values and the challenges posed by new fearful forces and their dynamics: the Mongols with their hordes (ulus) and, some later, Tamerlane with his terrible Army. Sons of the steppe and its culture, these people suddenly appeared on the stage, raced it from Mesopotamia to the north-eastern corner of Asia with their hordes and their allied tribal groups, shattered previous civilisations and imposed a new dominion, a new political-military order and new models of life. But, with their Military superiority, they also brought the codes and the ancient traditional knowledge of the nomadic world. It is misleading to watch to this epochal phase only as a phase of devastation and horrors. With their codes, Mongols and Timurids brought with them the Chinese algebraic, mathematical and scientific knowledge, and fused it with Mesopotamian mathematical and medical sciences reaching peaks of astronomical, arithmetical, numerical, geometric, algebraic theoretical and practical knowledge. They also brought with them from vital centres of religious scholarship and life a large number of theologians, pirs, traditionists and legal religious scholars with their individual religious features and systems. Shamanism, Buddhism, Muslim forms, Nestorianism and other cults vigorously practised in the mobile world of the steppe gave life to an important phase of religious culture and multifarious practices largely imbued with mystic feelings and traditional emotional states.
Then, and once again, within the global space created by the military conquests of the new-comers, the Silk Route – or more precisely, the Silk and its Routes – reorganised and revitalised trades and business, gave life to close diplomatic connections and matrimonial allegiances reinforced by a vigorous traditional chancery and official correspondence, that tightly linked Asia with Europe. Within this new global order, the Silk and its routes played the crucial role, shaped new political, institutional, scientific and intellectual formulae, gave life to new conceptual forms that – at their core – had Man and Mankind as centre of the entire Universe. We are confronted with a cultural development begun at a time when the sons of the steppe were taking over lands of the classical Arabic civilisation (like Syria, Iraq and al-Jazīra), at a time when the Iranian world was still centre of intellectual life and its social norms were still spreading over large spaces of Inner Asian territories. Visual Arts wonderfully mirror this phenomenon.
We witness a process that renovated itself ‘from within’ in the course of three centuries and did not stop even when the arrival of the European Powers on the Asian markets seemed to sign, with the decay and end of the traditional market economy, also the closing of the cultural interactions created by the Silk Routes of the time. Once again, Visual Arts wonderfully mirror this phenomenon: a dramatic transitional, fluid period, marked by a distinctive timeless reality, which had no longer territories well delimited by frontiers to conquer or defend.
Herewith I have dealt, as an example, with the reflection of the new conceptions of Life and Universe on visual Fine Arts in the 13th-15th centuries, specifically painting and architectonic forms. Ideological values that aimed to forge new relationships among different peoples and their individual human values, religious thinking, moral codes…and economic, scientific, technological achievements.
‘Fine Arts’. Visual fine arts, in my case painting and architecture, are the mirror of feelings shared by the Lords of the time, registered by painters and architects in plastic forms, the signal of these stances to an often confused Humanity. Here, I linger on two pictorial themes: Nature and Landscape on the one hand, and Religion with its very images on the other. With regard to architectonic forms, these reflect the same conceptual paradigm shaped through technical features. By those ages, Nature and Landscape were perceived by contemporary painters and architects with formal, stylistic and technical characteristics which strongly reflected the impact with a world which lived its life in close, intimate contact with nature, a world and a culture which observed Nature and the Cosmos, and perceived them in every detail over the slow rhythmical march of days and nights, of seasons and the lunar cycles. These artistic features depict a precise image, that of a world which lives its life often at odds with nature for its very survival, a world which conditions nature or is conditioned in its turn. At that time, it was a world and a cosmic order which were often perceived by the artist in their tension with uncertainty and the blind recklessness of modern-contemporary times. However, to a closer analysis, these same artistic forms shape a celestial order which was at one and the same time a culture and a religion.
In the vast borderless space of the Euro-Asiatic steppes, cut by great rivers, broken by steep rocky mountainous chains and inhospitable desert fig.aux, the Silk succeeded in building and organising its own network of twisting routes and sub-routes, along which transited (albeit, yet still transit) caravans with their goods…but also cultural elements and their conceptual-philosophical forms. Of these latter and their syncretic imageries and dreams, the fine arts have left evocative pictures and architectonic images, which depicted a world that is the projection of a precise social and political reality and its underlying factors, such as the restlessness of a nomadic pattern of life and the culture of the Town and its urban life. Little is changed today despite the collapse of the Soviet empire and its order. Features and forms change, but in both cases they announce a different world with its order built on a robust syncretism, which is at the same time science, knowledge, harmony and religion (divine or human, or both). A world that is the projection of a precise political, social and economic reality. A reality that, at one and the same time, is the silent voice of a humanity often disregarded by contemporary writers, an ‘underground world’ that echoes traditional forms and their dynamics, and a no less authoritative de facto power that politically, economically and militarily conditions and dominates its times. A reality that finds an authoritative voice through the Silk Route.