An Anthology of the Silk Road Through the Lens of Muslim Harji and Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival

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Editor’s note: In this third part of a special photo series, Muslim Harji of Montreal focuses on Uzbekistan, with some stunning photos of Islamic buildings in the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as the region’s markets and foods.

Following Harji’s photos, we have gone back to 2002, the year when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. dedicated its annual Folklife to the theme of the Silk Road. We have included a small collection of photos from the historic festival and prepared a brief thematic anthology from a special program book that was published for the festival (the book is now out of print). The Silk Road festival was opened in the presence of His Highness the Aga Khan, whose Trust for Culture provided crucial support for the Festival.

We remind our readers that this post on the Silk Road follows two earlier inspiring pieces by Muslim Harji specifically on the Ismailis of Badakhshan. If you missed the posts (or are new to this blog) we invite you to click on An Ismaili Wedding in the Pamirs Through My Lens by Muslim Harji and The Ismailis of Badakhshan Through My Lens by Muslim Harji.




Sprawling Tashkent is Central Asia’ss hub and the place where everything in Uzbekistan happens. It’s one part newly built national capital, thick with the institutions of power, and one part leafy Soviet city, and yet another part sleepy Uzbek town, where traditionally clad farmers cart their wares through a maze of mud-walled houses to the grinding crowds of the bazaar. Tashkent is a fascinating jumble of contradictions.

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Juma Mosque, Tashkent. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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The beautiful dome ceiling and skylight, Juma Mosque, Tashkent. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Nut and dry fruit vendor, Chorsu Baazar, Tashkent. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Fresh Produce vendors, Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



MHSilk Roads05_AlibabaKhiva’s name, redolent of slave caravans, barbaric cruelty, terrible desert journeys and steppes infested with wild tribesmen, struck fear into all but the boldest 19th-century hearts. Nowadays it is a friendly and welcoming Silk Road old town that’s very well set up for tourism. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Kutli Murad Inak Medressa (religious school) was built in the beginning of the 18th cent. It was one of the wealthiest schools in Khiva. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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The galleries with arcades, the round towers at the corners and the economical use of glazed tiles remember the traditions of architecture in Khorezm. It has a beautiful carved wooden door with floral and geometric ornaments. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



The Historic Centre of Bukhara situated on the Silk Roads, is more than two thousand years old. It is one of the best examples of well-preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia of the 10th to 17th centuries, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact. Bukhara was long an important economic and cultural center in Central Asia. The ancient Persian city served as a major center of Islamic culture for many centuries and became a major cultural center of the Caliphate in the 8th century. Thus, it earned the title Bukhoro-i-Sharif, or “Noble Bukhara” among Muslims (one of the seven holy cities of Islam). It is one of the few places in Central Asia where one can feel the heartbeat of ancient Central Asia.

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The historic city of Bukhara has been a hub for traders and travellers since its foundation over 2,000 years ago. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Char Minar is one of the most beautiful mosques in Bukhara. What makes it truly special is not the interior, but rather the four towers that form a square. Each of the towers has its own original design, and all are topped by stunning, harmonizing blue tiled domes. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

MHSilk Roads12_Bukhara_JewishThe interior of a 16th Century synagogue in Bukhara. Emigration to Israel and the west has reduced the size of the Jewish community in Bukhara to about 300 worshippers. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Nevin Harji with the Rabbi of Bukhara. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.



(His Highness the Aga Khan, 1992)

The ancient city of Samarkand seems to have been a crucible of cultures and religions for over two and a half millennia, and is one of the most important sites on the Silk Routes traversing Central Asia. Located in the Zerafshan River valley, in north-eastern Uzbekistan, the city enjoys the benefits of abundant natural resources and settlement in the region can be traced back to 1,500 BC.

“….In legend and in reality Samarkand is a source of inspiration to those who love good buildings and great cities. Your city has given to all the world the remarkable legacy of the Timurid expansion. The two generations of inspired building by Timur and his grandson, Ulugh Beg, have shown us how determined patronage and the skills of different schools and practice can be brought together to create great architecture. One amongst many of the rewards for us today of these buildings is their use of colour — a use not confined to the grand structures alone but seen also in the tombs of humble warriors. Samarkand also carries with it a lasting role as the source from which East and West alike drew objects and ideas of quality. We stand again at a new threshold when this same role can again be taken by your city…..” — His Highness the Aga Khan, speaking at the Aga Khan Awards Ceremony held in Samarkand in 1992

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The Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum, Persian for “Tomb of the King” is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture in Central Asia. Built in 1404,  this architectural complex with its azure dome contains the tombs of Tamerlane, his sons Shah Rukh and Miran Shah and grandsons Ulugh Beg and Muhammad Sultan. Also honoured with a place in the tomb is Timur’s teacher Sayyid Baraka. The earliest part of the complex was built at the end of the 14th century by the orders of Muhammad Sultan. Now only the foundations of the madrasah and khanaka, the entrance portal and a part of one of four minarets remains. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Majestic Samarkhand. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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“The Registan”, above was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand of the Timurid dynasty. The name Registan means “sandy place” or “desert” in Persian.” Framed by three madrasahs (Islamic schools) of distinctive Islamic architecture, the Registan was a public square, where people gathered to hear royal proclamations, heralded by blasts on enormous copper pipes called dzharchis and a place of public executions. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

The Registan was the venue for the 5th cycle of the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture held on September 19, 1992. Speaking at the ceremony, the 49th Ismaili Imam referring to an Arabic inscription in one of the arches, said:

“….We would do well on our journey to remember one of the phrases inscribed in Arabic high in the arch of the Sher Dar to the left. To one side of the line it is written: ‘The architect has built the arch of this portal with such perfection that the entire heavens gnaws its fingers in astonishment, thinking it sees the rising of some new moon.’

“May the light of the heavens and the earth always illuminate Samarkand and guide the people entrusted with this unique city”



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The Uzbek lamb kebab known as Shashlik is a must for every special occasion and gathering of family and friends. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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These lamb chops, like Shahhlik, are cooked on a long and narrow grill called a mangal. Skewers are placed right across the rim of the mangal, so there is no grill grate. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Uzbek naan breads are usually round with a flattened central area surrounded by a soft rim of crust Just before the bread is to be baked, the dough is shaped into flattened rounds or ovals, pressed out and flattened (with a bread stamp or with wet fingertips) and then placed on a cushion and slapped onto the hot inner walls of the oven (Tandoor). Because the breads are flat, they cook through quickly, resulting in a crisp, dense bottom crust with a more tender top surface. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Naan vendor, Samarkand. Photo: Muslim Harji. Copyright.

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Plov (Pilaf), the national dish of Uzbekistan. No trip to Uzbekistan is complete without digging into Uzbeki Plov. Photo: Muslim Harji.

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Muslim and Nevin enjoying a beautiful summer day with a friend from Moscow , waiting for the Plov to arrive.



(Compiled from the website of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, with additional material and photos from UNESCO and AKDN)



An aerial view of the National Mall in Washington, D.C., showing the Lincoln Memorial at the bottom, the Washington Monument at center, and the U.S. Capitol at the top. The 2002 Silk Road Festival was set over 20 acres on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. Photo: Mate Johnny Bivera, US Navy Photograph.

In the shade of a canvas replica of Samarkand’s Registan Square constructed on the great green patch between the US Capitol and the Washington Monument, His Highness the Aga Khan joined former Secretary of State Colin Powell and distinguished government leaders, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy as well as renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, to light a lamp symbolically inaugurating the Smithsonian Folklife Festival produced in collaboration with the Silk Road Project, Inc. The Festival, produced by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, was for the first time in its 36 year history dedicated to a single theme: “The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust.”

Set over 20 acres on the National Mall, the Festival featured some 350 traditional artists – musicians, dancers, craftsmen, storytellers, artists, cooks, and more – from 20 countries illustrating connections between the cultures of Asia, Europe, and America based upon historical trade routes. It emphasized the development of many living traditions – from silk textiles to tea drinking, from stringed instruments to paper making, from noodle traditions to blue and white “chinaware.” Over a thousand people of good will from around the globe joined with a million visitors to produce the experience.

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His Highness the Aga Khan speaking at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. “A search for new forces of stability,” was how the 49th Ismaili Imam, who is directly descended from Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s), described one of the pressing needs in Central Asia. One such force “that seems particularly essential,” he said, “is the validation and vigorous promotion of human and cultural pluralism ….For the new countries of Central Asia, the inherent pluralism of their societies can be an asset rather than a liability. In a wider sense, it can be a means for enlarging the frontiers of global pluralism… This is a goal, with which we can all associate and should all associate.” Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji

The inspirational idea and genuine engagement of Yo-Yo Ma, a musical artist of Chinese parentage who grew up in Paris and studied at Harvard provided the vision. The lead funding and creative partner as well as crucial support for the Silk Roads Festival came from the 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, through his Aga Khan Trust for Culture, one of the agencies comprising the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) which supports educational, health, architectural, and development programs in places ranging from Central Asia to Mali to MIT.

The 2002 Folklife Festival, like every other, celebrated humanity and breathed a spirit of human engagement. People from many different societies were brought together face to face with the hope that those chance, transient encounters may affect the way they think about the world.



UNESCO Silk Road Map 2

At its height, the Silk Road route extended westward from China and Japan, traversing the oasis cities of Central Asia, to Persia, Turkey, Greece and Italy. Not only goods such as teas, spices, gunpowder and silks were transported between East Asia and the Mediterranean, however, but cultures and traditions mingled and evolved as well. Map Credit: UNESCO.

Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbours, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes across both land and sea, along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world.

“Silk Road’ is in fact a relatively recent term, and for the majority of their long history, these ancient roads had no particular name. In the mid-nineteenth century, the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road), and the term, also used in the plural, continues to stir imaginations with its evocative mystery.

The Silk Road brought wondrous things — silks, porcelain, horses — to appreciative people. Music, song, instruments, and styles moved along the transcontinental byway, and our musical heritage is the better for it. Ideas about the heavens and cosmos, mathematics, physics, and the elements were carried with its caravans. Religions developed, spread, and thrived along the Silk Road, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in conflict. The Silk Road did not always bring good. War, disease, and banditry moved along its networks. Those traversing it endured a variety of travails. Differences of values, languages, and interests sometimes closed the roads, cut off the exchanges, and destroyed communities. Yet by and large, the Silk Road proved beneficial to humanity; precisely because it brought diverse people into contact, it stimulated the development of foods, medicines, philosophies, religions, and the arts. Not only goods such as teas, spices, gunpowder and silks were transported between East Asia and the Mediterranean, however, but cultures and traditions mingled and evolved as well.

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Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, His Highness the Aga Khan and the late Senator Edward Kennedy at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Senator Edward Kennedy, in his remarks, expressed deep appreciation of the role being played by His Highness the Aga Khan  in the process of education and cultural understanding. “Now more than ever,” said Sen. Kennedy, “his is a voice that needs to heard and understood.” Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji

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Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble performing at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival with the former US Secretary of State Colin Powell and His Highness the Aga Khan looking on. Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji



Silk was the most highly visible product to come to Rome during the first large-scale Silk Road exchange around the beginning of the Common Era. In fact it was more than a symbol for luxury exchange; it was an obsession of the Roman elite and caused a serious drain of gold and silver to the East.

Given the Silk Road’s symbolic meaning of sharing and exchange, it is somewhat paradoxical that the desire to control its namesake commodity, silk, was so strong. The ancient Chinese guarded the secret of silk production for centuries. The Ottoman Turks and the Persians fought a war over it. The English and French competed to restrict its markets. But despite such attempts, silk moved across the planet with remarkable ease and was a vehicle of cultural creativity wherever it went.


The Silk Grove at the Festival. Photo: Arlene Reiniger/Smithsonian Institution

Many insects from all over the world — and spiders as well — produce silk. One of the native Chinese varieties of silkworm with the scientific name Bombyx mori is uniquely suited to the production of superbly high-quality silk. This silkworm, which is actually a caterpillar, takes adult form as a blind, flightless moth that immediately mates, lays about 400 eggs in a four- to six-day period, and then abruptly dies. The eggs must be kept at a warm temperature for them to hatch as silkworms or caterpillars. When they do hatch, they are stacked in layers of trays and given chopped up leaves of the white mulberry to eat. They eat throughout the day for four or five weeks, growing to about 10,000 times their original weight. When large enough, a worm produces a liquid gel through its glands that dries into a threadlike filament, wrapping around the worm and forming a cocoon in the course of three or four days. The amazing feature of the Bombyx mori is that its filament, generally in the range of 300­1,000 yards — and sometimes a mile — long, is very strong and can be unwrapped. To do this, the cocoon is first boiled. This kills the pupae inside and dissolves the gum resin or seracin that holds the cocoon together. Cocoons may then be soaked in warm water and unwound or be dried for storage, sale, and shipment. Several filaments are combined to form a silk thread and wound onto a reel. One ounce of eggs produces worms that require a ton of leaves to eat, and results in about 12 pounds of raw silk. The silk threads may be spun together, often with other yarn, dyed, and woven on looms to make all sorts of products. It takes about 2,000­3,000 cocoons to make a pound of silk needed for a dress; about 150 cocoons are needed for a necktie. The Chinese traditionally incubated the eggs during the spring, timing their hatching as the mulberry trees come to leaf. Sericulture in China traditionally involved taboos and rituals designed for the health and abundance of the silkworms. Typically, silk production was women’s work. Currently, some 10 million Chinese are involved in making raw silk, producing an estimated 60,000 tons annually — about half of the world’s output. Silk is still relatively rare, and therefore expensive; consider that silk constitutes only 0.2 percent of the world’s textile fabric.

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Colourfully painted buses are a feature of the Pakistani portion of the Silk Road. Here, a famous bus painter from Karachi applies the finishing touches on a new work prepared specially for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji

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The movement of religious traditions around the world has arguably been one of the most important forces throughout world history. The history of the Silk Road under Muslim influence reveals a diverse religious landscape, among different faiths and also within the Muslim community. Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslim groups interacted and flourished together. Charismatic Sufi leaders such as Ahmad Yasawi (d. 1166) and Bahauddin Naqshband (1318-89) built communities that nurtured vernacular tradition and languages. The full diversity of Muslim law, theology, culture, arts, and architecture spread across the Silk Road. This multidimensional world of Islam contributed to a broadly based society, bound by common ethical and cultural assumptions but differentiated in its practices and local traditions, that stretched from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia, China, and the Philippines. Some of the greatest scholars of Muslim science and technology lived in the region.

nasir-khusraw-worksSome of the works of Nasir Khusraw now available in English.

The Ismaili Muslims who founded Cairo in the 10th century also spread along the Silk Road and with many other Muslims brought a tradition of philosophical inquiry and scientific knowledge across the Mediterranean to Iran and the Karakoram and the Pamirs (Daftary: 1990). The great Ismaili poet and philosopher, Nasir Khusraw (1004-88), traveled along the Silk Road on a seven-year journey from Balkh across the Middle East, North Africa, and on to his pilgrimage destination, Mecca. His Safarnamah (travelogue) describes in vivid detail his meetings with famous scholars and visits to the region’s religious communities and sites.


Chinese craftsmen first discovered the secret of making paper when they washed rags and left them out to dry on a screen. This new, flexible material could be used to wrap things, and indeed the first use of paper, in the 2nd century B.C.E., was as a packaging material for medicine. Within a century, paper had begun to displace bamboo strips as China’s main writing material, and by the 3rd and 4th centuries C.E. the Chinese used paper for all their writing.

Chinese paper moved along the Silk Road into Central Asia before the technology of paper-making did. Archaeologists have found paper with Chinese writing on it as far afield as the Caucasus mountains (at the site of Moshchevaya Balka) on an alternate route to Constantinople. Similar paper was in use in the years before 712 at a small fortress on Mount Mugh outside Samarkand. There a local ruler imported Chinese paper that had already been used on one side — so that he could write on the blank reverse when the occasion arose.

Legend has it that the secret of papermaking entered the Islamic world with the 751 battle of Talas (in modern Kyrgyzstan) when Islamic armies captured several Chinese craftsmen, who taught their captors how to make paper.

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His Highness the Aga Khan meeting musicians from the Kyrgyz Republic. The troupe was brought to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. – Photo: AKDN/Zahur Ramji


Today, culinary food historians agree that pasta probably originated in Iran. The first pasta dish is recorded in a 10th-century Arab cookery book, Kitab al-Tabikh wa-islah al-Aghdiyah al-Ma’kulat, which calls it by the Persian word lakhshah, meaning to slide, presumably because of the slipperiness of noodles. The same book also mentions that the dish was invented by the Sasanian Persian King Khosrow I (531-79 C.E.).

….It is a curious fact that the noodles that reached culinary heights in China and Japan, not to mention Italy, occupy only a humble place in the cookery of their Iranian home. Rice, on the other hand, is the same story in reverse. The grain, cultivated in China and India for at least 5,000 years, seems to have reached Iran only in the 4th century B.C.E. It did not begin to play an important part in Iranian cookery, however, until the 8th century. Since then, rice has become something special in. It is not the anchor of a meal as it is in China, but the basis of festive and elaborate dishes called polows (parboiled and steamed rice).

A polow may be cooked with a golden crust; it may be flavored with tart cherries, quinces, pomegranates, barberries, or candied bitter orange peel; it may include pistachios, almonds, walnuts, or rose petals. Like other good dishes, polow has spread far beyond its Persian source. Under such related names as pilau, pilavi, pilaf, paella, and pullao, and with such additions as chickpeas and raisins or onions and carrots, it graces celebrations from Afghanistan to Albania, and from India to Spain.

Today, Italian and Chinese cooking together with Indian, Persian, Uzbek, and Turkish cuisine represent the tasty, inexpensive, down-to-earth, and cheerful food that is a lasting influence of the ancient Silk Road.


Nomads and settled peoples have long existed in a complementary relationship, and in the history of trans-Eurasian trade and cultural exchange, nomads have been like blood vessels that circulated the oxygen of ideas and distributed new technologies and products along the Silk Road. In particular, nomads provided temporary accommodation and security, stabling and fodder for the animals of merchants and blacksmiths for making horseshoes, kept vitally important wells, established markets for the exchange of goods — that is, everything without which international trade along such a huge road would not have survived long.

Nomad civilization has its own laws governing the organization of time and space, and nomads follow very sensitively the cycles of nature. For them, everything that is alive is in movement, and everything that moves is alive: the sun and moon, water and wind, birds, and animals.

What remains constant for the nomad is the sensation of a natural rhythm of movement, stable forms of social organization, and abiding relationships among people. Success in nomadic life depends on mastery of a vast body of collective knowledge amassed over centuries. This knowledge, passed on from father to son and mother to daughter, embraces an entire complex of tradecraft, domestic know-how, and moral norms.

A nomad’s memory preserves thousands of sounds, colors, and smells: the smell of smoke rising from the hearth of a yurt and flatbread frying in fat; of felt and fluffy hides warming from body heat in the cold night; of steppe grasses and flowers in the spring, especially wild tulips and irises; of the bitter dust of fall and the fresh snow of winter. Those smells bring back memories of places where the senses received their first lessons in the never-ending variety of life.


Nomads invented the harness and fashioned clothing for riding, made felt (of wool) for warmth and decoration, devised bowed stringed instruments, and created innovative forms of portable housing (the yurt or ger). Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

For nomads, the yurt is not just a place of residence, but a home full of life — a place of daily work and rest, of festivities and holidays, of socializing and taking meals. The nomadic diet is high in protein and consists mostly of meat and milk products. Such food provides the energy people need to engage in hard physical labor and symbolizes not only physical, but also spiritual survival. The daily meal, with its symphony of tastes, customs, and rituals played and replayed in the life of every nomad since childhood, serves as a cornerstone of self-identity, and the shared meal is in its turn at the very epicenter of traditional nomadic culture.

Nomadic hospitality rituals are strongly regulated; they provide an opportunity to exchange news and for guests — at the behest of their host — to talk about themselves, their travels, and events in the place where they live. Genealogical ties between hosts and guests are thoroughly discussed, and elders recount historical legends and stories. Among the means of communication particular to life on the steppe is a unique form of transmitting information known as the “long ear”: whatever is discussed around the dastarqan (tablecloth) can already be known the next day for hundreds of miles around. How, and by what means? Who knows!

Date posted: July 19, 2015.


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IMPORTANT NOTE: The text and captions for the post were compiled and prepared from the following key sources that we recommend you visit for in-depth perspectives:

1. – a special Smithsonian institution website dedicated to the Silk Road Folklife Festival.

2. For extended and complete reading on the anthology published in the Folklife Festival section of the post, please see the  following articles:

3. For an excellent interactive map of the Silk Road, please visit UNESCO’s website

4. For full speeches of His Highness the Aga Khan, please visit