In Search of a Better World

In Search of a Better World
Soul Searcher

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Once Upon a Time, Seven Centuries Ago

My history teacher used to tell fascinating tales of the Chinese travelers to India from the court of the Great Kublai Khan and his ilk. I grew up in an era where journeys were well planned with tickets bought well in advance, accommodation booked and the internet scanned for places to see and safety tips for international travelers. The idea of intrepid explorers travelling the silk route in search of new lands, people, trade and cultures never ceased to fascinate me.

During my assignment in Kazakhstan, I was thrilled to see the ruins of Saraishyk which is situated about 50 kms from Atyrau. This was one of the towns which flourished in a time when the Silk Route was still a busy route and had not yet been upstaged by the sea route as the preferred mode of travel. This town lies on the dotted line going towards the North alongside the Caspian Sea in the map below.

As I fly to and from Atyrau, I see the vast expanse of desert and one of the most hostile environments on our planet. There is very little vegetation, and almost no rainfall. I cannot imagine how the explorers of ancient times actually travelled this route for trade. The fact that they did and that the route remained the communication between the countries along the route is a tribute to the triumph of the human spirit and endurance. The route as such is comprised of many sub routes.

The Silk Route stretched for thousands kilometers leading caravans across scorching deserts, picturesque oases, and mountain passes. Empires, Civilizations and cities came up, prospered and decayed over time but the Silk Route continued. Cities along the route witnessed devastating wars, destructions, fires, famine and death. The Route also carried merchants who for centuries carried to Europe precious silks and stones, spices and dyes, gold and silver, exotic birds and animals. With the change and passing of empires, religions, the Crusades and world political orders, the route and the peoples living along it adapted and survived from being Buddhists in Central Asia, to converting to Islam after the fall of the Mongols and the Huns. Today the countries along the Central Asian Part of the route are primarily Islamic but years under communist Russia where religion was not encouraged by the State have made these states vastly different from their Arab counterparts in their religious outlook.

Saraishyk, alongside other cities, was founded in in about 1250 during the first decades of the life of the empire of the Zhoshi Ulus, which later was referred to as the Golden Horde, in order to control the huge territory from the Irtysh River to the Danube. Saraishyk is a town which survived longer than most primarily because it was not on the main Silk Route route but on one of the off-shoots which though not directly on the route was close enough to reap the benefits of trade. There is a small museum of the site which also has a reconstruction of the city as it would have looked.

The local also tell stories of how Timur Lang used to visit and was bribed not to loot the site.(Timur died in Otrar in Kazakhstan was buried in Samarqand, and his mausoleum, the Gur-e Amir, is one of Samarqand's great architectural monuments. Tamerlane built many spectacular palaces and mosques, the most celebrated of which are in Samarqand. Although he was notorious for his cruelty in war and for the many atrocities committed by his armies, Tamerlane was also a lover of scholarship and the arts. One of his descendants, Babur, founded the Mughal Empire in India in 1526)

Our guide told us that trade here was rich and varied. “Necklaces from glass, cornelian and crystal beads, and mountings from turquoise for rings were made in Saraishyk or brought from Iran and Central Asia. Magic "kauri" bowls were brought from India; ( kauri is a traditional wood associated with New Zealand’s North Island but it surprisingly is traced from India here) amphorae brought from the faraway Black Sea trade city of Trapesund were used for transportation of wine and oil. Magnificent enameled dishes and vases made by local masters decorated the homes of other cities of the Golden Horde.” Painting and the arts also flourished here and a sample is below:

Also found here are the tombs of the seven Khans who are founding influence and epitomize the nomadic and warlike Kazakh tradition.

I am told that the town was finally washed away by a change of course in the river Zhaiyk. The ruins still have some of the skeletons of the ancient inhabitants which are surprisingly well preserved.

Poetry and philosophy also flourished here in the halcyon days I am told and I am sobered by the thought that people from my country used to trade here and travelled here using branches of the Silk Route seven centuries ago. (And I used to think that I was brave to have ventured here on an IT assignment in the 21st Century!)

One of the poems engraved on the earthen pottery unearthed here is translated as below:

"The beauty of a person is the face. The beauty of the face are the eyes. The beauty of the mouth is the tongue. And the beauty of the tongue is the word".

How true! What finally remains is the word. The explorers and traders like Marco Polo, Fahien and Hieun Tsang, carry back their impressions of peoples and cultures and these become part of the folklore and stories when they reach home. These impressions find their way into scrolls parchments and finally books which is how History remembers you, your people and your civilization.

Photographs Courtesy-Rajneesh Thamke


  1. very informative piece..congraats buddy..and thanks 4 your continous encouragement..

  2. Very interesting and nice post, with great pictures.

  3. very interesting,great to be here on your blog:)

  4. thanks 4 passing by buddy..take care..

  5. Very interesting trip you have made, I am glad to have read of some of it.

  6. We have heard and read so many things about the States and European countries. Not Kazakhstan or the nearby places. Very interesting.

    The photographs are beautiful and the lines "The beauty of a person is the face. The beauty of the face are the eyes. The beauty of the mouth is the tongue. And the beauty of the tongue is the word" are great, indeed. Thanks for writing about this place.

  7. Very nice post. Seems you are exploring ....loved your descriptions. Brushed up my history too.
    The photographs too are amazing.