Camels crossing the Gobi Desert at Dunhuang, China (all photography courtesy Christopher Wilton-Steer & Aga Khan Development Network).
An open-air photography exhibition celebrating the Silk Road has opened in London this week.
‘The Silk Road: A Living History’ is hosted by the Aga Khan Foundation and documents the journey of photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer, who travelled the 40,000km route from London’s Kings Cross to Beijing over a four month period in 2019.
Using car, bus, train, ferry, horse and camel, Wilton-Steer crossed 16 countries in total, documenting the people, places and cultures that he came across on the ancient trading route.
A girl in traditional Tajik dress dances at the opening of a tourism centre in Bulunkul, Pamir mountains, Tajikstan.
The exhibition includes photography taken in Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India and China and aims to celebrate the diversity of cultural expressions found along the Silk Road. It reveals how historical practices and customs live on today and hopes to challenge perceptions of less well-known areas of the world.
Wilton-Steer said he hoped that at a time when we are unable to travel that “this exhibition will provide visitors with an escape… into other worlds far away.”
The Silk Road was an ancient network of trade routes developed in Roman times that connected areas as far apart as Europe in the West and China in the Far East, as well as South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. It was central to economic, cultural, political and religious interactions between the regions that it crossed, with goods, scientific knowledge and religious beliefs passing along the route. Unfortunately disease, most notably the plague, was also spread.
Horses grazing in Kyrgyzstan.
The road's name derives from the lucrative trade in silk from China that was carried out along the length of the route. In exchange, China was able to receive an expansive and diverse range of goods such as dates and saffron from Persia, frankincense and myrrh from Somalia, sandalwood from India and glass bottles from Egypt. It sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer-ware and porcelain. Merchants along the route were involved in ‘relay trade’ which meant goods changed hands many times before reaching their final destination.
By the eighteenth century, maritime trade had largely taken over from the caravans of the Silk Road, although today there are a number of projects under the ‘New Silk Road’ banner that aim to expand infrastructure in the areas of the historic routes; most notably perhaps is China’s Belt & Road initiative.
The Aga Khan Foundation was established in 1967 and works with marginalised communities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The foundation has been active in Central Asia for nearly 30 years and, along with sister agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, for almost a century in India and Pakistan.
Photographs taken by Wilton-Steer demonstrate some of the work undertaken by the foundation. One picture shows Karimkol, a fruit and vegetable farmer from the Jalal-abad region of Kyrgyzstan. AKF supports farmers like Karimkol to expand their nurseries so they can in-turn support other farmers in this remote and mountainous region.
Khaplu Palace, Pakistan.
The foundation also supports the preservation of historic buildings, such as the Khaplu Palace in northern Pakistan. It was built in the 1840s and was the finest example of a royal residence in the region. However, by the early 2000s it had fallen into ruin, with livestock living in some of the rooms. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration work and in 2005 the palace reopened as a museum and heritage hotel, creating dozens of hospitality jobs and opening the area to tourism. The restoration work won a UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award in 2013.
Wilton-Steer heads up communications at AKF and says his interest in the Silk Road developed when he was a child.
“Stories of desert cities, caravans of camel laden with goods and a trade route stretching across Eurasia sounded so alluring to me,” he said. “When we fly somewhere, we arrive at the destination and all aspects of life are different. By travelling over land, I hoped to understand more about the similarities between different cultures and learn more about what connects us.”
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the exhibition of more than 160 photographs will be presented outdoors around Granary Square, London, in partnership with King’s Cross. Depending on social distancing restrictions, the exhibition will be accompanied by a programme of talks and workshops at the Aga Khan Centre and an Aga Khan Foundation Silk Road Bazaar at nearby Canopy Market. The exhibition runs until June 16 - more information is available online.