Postcards: Honolulu, Hawaii
The Medina mosque, built in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohammed, is considered to be the first educational institution of the Muslim world. During this era, mosques served as the primary environments for learning. However, as societies evolved, learning circles expanded to include royal settings, as well as informal gatherings in market places. By the Abbasid period (750 – 13th century), religious education assumed a certain significance. It was not uncommon for some educators to specialize in the teachings of the Qur’an, theology, and law, while the emphasis for others was on history, the Arabic language, and literature.
Learning circles and study groups gradually increased in number, serving as the foundation of what were to become “madrasas”, or colleges, intended for adults who had completed their primary education in mosques or private schools. During the 10th century, madrasas emerged as independent institutions, distinct from mosques, which helped to create a new type of educational system. As a result, these madrasas became centers for religious and secular learning, as well as places where officials were educated according to Muslim orthodoxy. Documentary evidence and architectural remnants trace the origin of these madrasas to Khurasan and Transoxania in the 10th century, as well as in the region now known as northern Iran.
Educational stratification was the direct result of the emergence of these madrasas. They provided higher religious and secular education, while elementary education was provided by the “maktabs”. It was during this era that the term “madrasa-mosque”, prevalent in the Middle Ages, was pervasive, thus reinforcing mosques’ positioning as important social, educational, and cultural centers along the Silk Roads. In addition, madrasas containing libraries appeared in Bukhara, Khwarazm, Merv, Ghazna, and Nishapur between the 10th and 12thcenturies. There was a tendency to build architectural ensembles that often included a mosque, a madrasa, a mausoleum, and public “garmabs” (baths), at major urban sites.
Despite the 13th-century Mongol invasion, which severely destabilized learning, thereby disrupting the continuity of culture and creativity, madrasas continued to be the highest form of educational institution, spreading throughout the eastern Caliphate in the 15th century and 16thcenturies. After the successful introduction of monetary reform under the Mongols, economic life soon revived throughout modern-day Iran and Transoxania. Moreover, madrasas were also established on the Indian subcontinent as early as the thirteenth century. An example is the madrasa at Gwalior, whose architectural structure resembles that of some Buddhist “viharas” (monasteries). During this period of cultural renaissance, madrasas underwent significant changes, with preference given to its organizational role as a promoter of scientific and literary thought.
Although subject to periods of growth and decline, madrasas flourished and were considered universal centers of education and intercultural exchange amongst diverse populations. They provided a range of curricula including theology, science, history, and philosophy, as well as language, literature, philology, music, and the teaching of “adab”, or polite culture. Leading scholars recognized that the secular sciences would ensure the dynamic development of society. These teachings would later be challenged in medieval times, subjected to strict Islamic theological traditions. However, during this period, madrasas in Samarkand and Herat were highly-esteemed cultural centers for science, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. An example is Samarkand’s renowned 15th century Ulugh Beg madrasa in the Registan square for scholars such as Ghiyath al-Din Jamshid and Qadizada Rumi. Furthermore, madrasas were established for the specialization of medicine in Herat. Madrasas such as these were not only centers for education and culture, but they also housed the poor, especially “mustahiqqs” (students), who received room and board during their studies, eventually sharing their knowledge and expertise with future generations. Over time, madrasas that first appeared along the Silk Roads in Bagdad continued to flourish, spreading throughout the current eastern Chinese regions and beyond.
image © Sergey Dzyuba
sources provided upon request
The expansive Kushan territories (1st – 4th centuries AD), encompassed a vast range of artistic cultures, unified under one administration. These cultures can be divided into four broad regions: 1. Bactria, 2. Mathura (India), 3. Arachosia and Nagarahara, and 4. Ancient Gandhara. Both Arachosia and Nagarahara, as well as Ancient Gandhara, are situated in areas which are now known asmodern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Despite regional variations, artistic production reflected the legacy of a common cultural heritage of the Silk Roads. Gandhara served as a major crossroads from which Kushan art was disseminated to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Indian towns such as Mathura, Devnamori, and Amaravati. In addition, excavations in Begram, Pushkalavati, Taxila, Mathura, and Surkh Kotal revealed that some Gandhara art displays elements that are characteristic of the Hellenistic period. Due to external influences, Kushan art was constantly evolving. It absorbed earlier Graeco-Bactrian traditions, and was also receptive to Western trends through international trade and commerce. However, it always retained its individuality, reflecting the sociocultural aspirations of its people, as well as the importance of local craftsmanship. Artistic Kushan jewelry design reflects a variety of styles, techniques, and materials. While the Taxila collection is predominately Graeco-Roman in character, Gandhara jewelry generally reflects a range of classical Iranian, Sarmatian, and Indian savoir-faire typical of Gandhara art. It also displays a mastery of goldsmith techniques borrowed from Western Asia. Gems, precious and semi-precious stones, shell, bone, ivory, glass objects, and beads were all used in jewelry design. Examples include necklaces, bracelets, anklets, hairpins, and finger rings, sometimes with encrusted gems and impressions. Decorative items such as brooches, turban pins, and miniature gold figures of Cupid, Psyche, animals, birds, and flowers can be found in the Taxila collection. Moreover, elaborate ornamentation was a reflection of elevated social status. Bodhisattvas, nobility, and deities are always depicted wearing jewelry. Conversely, those of lower social status wore replicas, or none at all. Kushan art, artifacts, jewelry, and craftsmanship are a direct reflection of those who were living within its expansive territories. Economic prosperity and peace remained the basis for the popularity and development of this art along the Silk Roads. These objects are visible remnants of the global, transnational fluidity of culturally embedded concepts that are passed down through generations. They also reveal the subtle intricacies of pluralistic identities, intercultural dialogue, and communicative exchange amongst diverse populations.
image © Ashwin. Sources provided upon request
Oscar Lawalata Culture, the Indonesian Batik Foundation (YBI), and Rumah Pesona Kain jointly curated the exhibition entitled, “Batik for the World”, at the UNESCO HQ in Paris from 6-12 June 2018. A collection of 100 batik cloths were transported from various parts of Indonesia and exhibited on-site. Through colorful displays and discussions, the weeklong event offered a platform that increased awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of Indonesian batik on the local and international levels. Thus, its history, embedded cultural values, craftsmanship, and development along the maritime Silk Roads were highlighted. In addition, visitors could partake in informal workshops, where they were able to witness the batik-making process involving “malam” (hot, liquid wax), “canting” (copper wax pen with a bamboo handle), “wajan” (liquid wax receptacle), and other tools used by skilled artisans who help to promote its safeguarding. Moreover, the exhibition showcased batik textile creations by contemporary designers Oscar Lawalata, Edward Hutabarat and Denny Wirawan during a fashion show that celebrated the diversity of Indonesian regions, batik processing methods, natural coloring, embroidery, and fabrics.
Indonesian batik was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2009, and has been internationally recognized as an historical fabric of human civilization. It is thought to be over 1000 years old, with historical evidence pointing to its use in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Although the actual origins of batik are unknown, it is believed to have been transported to Asia by way of the Indian subcontinent. “Batik” is derived from an Indonesian-malay word, which is now often used as a generic term referring to the process of dyeing fabric. The process is traditionally performed on cotton and silk using a resist technique. This includes covering areas of cloth with a dye-resistant substance in order to prevent color absorption. Those areas not covered are able to absorb deep hues. Thus, the fabric is both durable and fade-resistant. Other batik methods also exist, such as the splash method, the screen printing process, and the hand-painting methods.
Batik is considered to have reached the height of its artistic expression in Java during the 19th century. Recognizable motifs, patterns, and colors often designated family, social status, and geographic origin. Traditional colors for Central Javanese batik were made from natural ingredients, and consisted primarily of blue, brown, beige, and black. Some designs include Kawung, or intersecting circles, Ceplok, geometric designs, Parang, or “knife pattern”, and Prada cloth, a batik decorated with gold leaf or gold dust. These prints were inspired by Japanese, Indian, Chinese, and Dutch influence, which resulted in the richness of the color and motifs. The art of batik later spread to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago, and then to the Malay Peninsula. Due to its popularity, more production centers were subsequently created. Although most batik fabric is now decorated and tailored by machine, there is still a desire for traditional textiles that are of the highest quality and hand-made. Today, skilled artisans, educational programs like those initiated in 2005 by the Batik Museum in Pekalongan City, Indonesia, as well as similar exhibitions, continue to transmit batik cultural heritage, which helps preserve its maritime Silk Roads legacy.
image © Evans Winanda Wirg
sources provided upon request
Postcards: Paris, France
Regional differences, socio-economic and political factors, cultural variations, and climate all had a direct effect on clothing choices for those who lived throughout the expansive Silk Roads areas. Scholars, aristocrats, government officials, craftsmen, and farmers adopted a manner of dress appropriate for their immediate environment in medieval Central Asia. Although sparse, historical information regarding dress in the Eastern Islamic lands was usually provided by writers, geographers, and travelers. Differences in the style, finish, and quantity of materials were apparent in clothing of the rich and poor. During this time, Khurasan was a renowned center for silk, wool, and cotton textiles, while Nishapur was noted for its cotton cloth, scarves, and turbans that were often exported to Iraq and Egypt. In some societies, felt was used to make cloaks, saddlecloths, and rain hats. Moreover, the fur of sables, grey squirrels, ermines, and other animals were essential materials for garments, for the Mongols, the Turks of the steppes, as well as dignitaries in Persia. Similar to present day, Mongols in the 13th century wore a soft material belt wrapped tightly around the waist. This served as an unstiffened corset, helping to maintain posture while horse riding during long journeys.
The oldest piece of silk from this region originated in the Samanid period, and was woven for a ruler in Khurasan. The transnational fluidity of ideas, concepts, and savoir-faire is evident with the presentation of articles from Khurasan to the Harun al-Rashid (786-809) court in Bagdad. These tribute items included silk clothing, white robes, and head coverings, amongst others. Individuals belonging to a higher social class often wore clothing made of silk, wool, and expensive furs, while those of the lower classes would possibly use heavy outer coats made from dog or goatskins, lined with linen or cotton. Mongol women wore long trousers under their sack-like garments, and tall, basket-like hats covered with a piece of cloth. Married women wore a type of kaftan (“nemreg”) that was wide and slit in front down to the ground. During the ninth century, wealthy merchants often wore the “taylasan” (a head-shawl whose end did not fall below the chin). However, the lower classes did not wear this garment. Cooks wore garments resembling boiler suits, traders and artisans wore loose-fitting garments, and farmers wore thick cotton dresses with colorful turbans. “Muhtasibs” (municipal inspectors) monitored the state and cleanliness of dress. Most towns had their textile specialties, such as “mulham”, the half-silk cloth of Merv. Bukhara, with its famed weaving factories, produced various kinds of silk cloth, known as “Bukhari”. This fabric was heavy, strong, and often bought in large quantities by international communities.
Cloth-making required specific skills, such as the ability to process the hides, manufacture thread, and a knowledge of stitching techniques. Products obtained from livestock remained the primary raw material of the craft industries. Sheep’s wool was used to manufacture felt, while belts, harnesses, headgear, clothing, and footwear were made from the skins of domesticated livestock. In nomadic societies, herders generally only made items that met immediate requirements related to climate, lifestyle, and transience, such as “bogtogs”, or headdresses. Although successors of Genghis Khan wore gold-woven robes, sometimes embellished with precious jewels, pearls, and gold, previous dress had consisted mainly of animal skins. Sack-like garments that were loose on the left side, and tied at the shoulder on the right side, were common. The “deli”, a robe with seamless shoulders, is an example. Although the concept remains the same, “delis”, as well as many other garments from the Silk Roads that date from the 10th to 13th centuries, have continued to evolve and gain complexity, while maintaining their unique characteristics.
Image © Omani girl, Katiekk. Sources provided upon request.
Although intercultural exchanges involving tea developed between European ports, such as those in Portugal, and the Far East from 16th century onwards, tea-drinking is believed to have it origins rooted in southern Asia, dating to the Han period. It was first used as a medicinal elixir concocted from untreated green leaves. However, by the T’ang period, tea was enjoyed as a refreshing beverage, prepared from leaves that had been moistened and formed into a dense mold. Anecdotes dating to the 8th century reveal how the city of Chang-an had a flourishing number of tea shops, and many touted the health benefits of tea rather than wine.
These intercultural exchanges were the direct result of the expansive network of maritime and land routes that explorers, missionaries, physicians actively travelled across. By embarking on such journeys, they were also able to transmit elements of Western culture to the Far East, which were later transformed and reconceptualized by those regions, according to their specific aesthetic preferences. As a result of this transnational fluidity between diverse regions and populations along the Silk Roads, significant sociocultural imprints and innovative developments related to tea consumption eventually appeared in the West. Such activity permitted the free flow of ideas, goods, and concepts – the effects of which are still experienced internationally throughout contemporary society.
Dynamic exchanges and sociocultural developments concerning tea were often closely associated with everyday life, daily rituals, spirituality, and community. In some cases, consuming tea was even associated with the Taoist notions involving extraordinary psychic-spiritual and physical effects. Therefore, tea soon made an entrance into creative spheres, including poetry and literature. As a result, its popularity quickly rose throughout the Far East, with poets and artists writing about the pleasures of tea, tea customs, and traditions.
Thus, an aesthetic culture developed around tea-drinking, and achieved a considerable amount of notoriety, especially in medieval Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Artists such as Murata Shuko, Takeno Joo, and Sen Rikyu developed a particular approach that was characterized by the term “wabi”, or frugality. The art of the “wabi” tea ceremony, or “chado” (“the way of tea”), was borne out of a synthesis of various Japanese aesthetic and religious traditions. Over time, it continued to exert its influence on intercultural dialogue and exchanges. The art of tea was not only passed down through generations, but it was diffused to the West and across various continents. The powerful sociocultural elements embedded in tea were due to its ability to develop and solidify community bonds.
Tea was first exported from Macau through Malacca. It then passed from Manila to the Indian sub-continent before reaching the West. Cultures and regions around the world have continued to adapt the ubiquitous product according to their own societal norms. Similar to that of the Chinese culture, tea is often associated with pre-engagement rituals between a future bride and groom. The British and Dutch also incorporated the beverage into their lifestyles, where it developed connotations linked to hospitality, mutual understanding, local tradition, and community. Bento de Gois, Italian missionary, Sabatino de Ursis, and Italian cartographer, Matteo Ricci are examples of individuals during the 16th and 17th centuries who actively explored unknown regions in the Far East in order to gather knowledge, understanding, and appreciation. Their experiences abroad were later transmitted and incorporated into elements of western society and traditions.
Moreover, in the Portuguese language, “cha” is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the word, while “tha” and “tea” are derivatives of the Fukinese dialect. The transcendent power of tea as a beverage and renowned universal concept, is visibly translated in old teas salons on Rua Nova de El-Rei (also known as Avenida do Cinco de Outubro), as well as houses typical to Macau. These tea salons referenced Mediterranean urban structures, built around squares and cobblestoned streets, and were reminiscent of European cities. Thus, the transmission of tea to other regions of the world was possible due to the cultural significance it carried, both as a product and a concept. Positive connotations associated with tea and its benefits still exist in contemporary society, due to the active exchange of ideas, concepts, and goods along the Silk Roads, and beyond.
Image © Rain of Joy. Sources provided upon request.