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From the Silk Trade Route to the World Trade Center

From the Silk Trade Route to the World Trade Center

4 Mins
November 1, 2001

Two millennia before the World Trade Center soared over the New York skyline, another creation of commerce served the same purpose of peace and prosperity and faced the same threats from thugs.

The Silk Road, an ancient highway recently celebrated in Yo-Yo Ma's music and recreated on the Mall in Washington, D.C. by the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in the summer of 2002, started as a series of trade links in the sixth century B.C., stretching all the way from Babylon (near Baghdad in present-day Iraq) to Xian (in central China).

By the first century B.C., the Silk Road was the longest network of land trade routes in the ancient world, connecting cities in over a dozen countries: Samarkand in Uzbekistan, Kabul and Kandahar in Afghanistan, ancient Taxila on the Indian subcontinent, Baghdad, Alexandria, and Rome. Its 8,000 miles were traveled by merchants, scholars, pilgrims, and adventurers who braved the hazards of rugged mountain passes and burning deserts and created prosperous market-towns along the way. East met West in the bazaars of Samarkand and Taxila as travelers stopped to exchange their silks, spices, religions, and technologies.

Even as we celebrate the creators, we cannot afford to forget the destroyers.

Long before the World Trade Center and multicultural Manhattan, the Silk Road helped create the first global economy and first multicultural society. By the third century B.C., the Gandhara region, encompassing parts of the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan, including Taxila and Kabul, had become a crossroads of Asia. After 184 B.C., when a descendant of Alexander's army named Demetrius established rule over the area, it became a vigorous Indo-Persian-Greek society with a distinctive art and architecture. The Chinese emperor Mingdi, who reigned in the first century A.D., sent missions to the region and welcomed Indian priests and scholars to his kingdom. However, the region was subject to two invasions by nomadic tribes that inflicted heavy damage on Taxila. Rebuilt after the invasion by the Central Asian Sacae in 110 B.C., Taxila went into decline after the Hun invasion in the fifth century A.D. Nevertheless, trade along the Silk Road continued to thrive for many centuries. Unfortunately, if unsurprisingly, the lucrative trade also brought predators. Consequently, when new and safer sea routes were developed, trade along the Silk Road declined, and by the end of the fourteenth century the caravans had died.

With the 1994 Samarkand Declaration, sixteen countries along the old route revived the Silk Road for tourism. Now it is cars that traverse this ancient road instead of camels, and luxury hotels like Lanzhou Legend and Holiday Inn that house the travelers instead of inns. The travelers are mostly tourists, and the commodity they seek in exchange for their money is not silk or technology but the sights and sounds of the Silk Road itself.

As on the ancient Silk Road, those who ply it now include those who carry religious teachings and those who seek to prey on others. However, unlike their ancient counterparts, who came bearing the Buddha's words of peace, many of the "holy men" today double as predators, bearing weapons and the war cry of jihad against infidels. And unlike their ancient counterparts, these predators are no longer content with anything as innocent as robbing the wealth of the travelers. Rather, they seek to destroy wealth and the very source of wealth: the freedom and peace to discover and invent, the mutual trust to cooperate and trade, and the rule of law that makes all this possible. Their greatest victory to date was September 11.

On September 11, their brother jihadis used the intellectual and technological achievements of the "Satanic West" to destroy a striking symbol of these achievements. Minoru Yamasaki built the World Trade Center as "a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace," for world trade, he said simply, "means world peace." He hoped the World Trade Center would "become a representation of man's belief in humanity...and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness." With 70,000 people from forty countries working in the twin towers, the World Trade Center was the twentieth century counterpart of the international bazaars of Samarkand and Taxila. Architecturally, the World Trade Center was the twentieth-century counterpart of the cross-cultural architecture of the Gandhara region, an original fusion of elements from diverse architectural traditions: European, Japanese, Modernist—and Islamic. In creating "the pure geometry of the towers, swathed in a shimmering skin," according to architect Laurie Kerr, "Yamasaki was following the Islamic tradition of wrapping a powerful geometric form in a dense filigree, as in the inlaid marble pattern work of the Taj Mahal or the ornate carvings of the courtyard and domes of the Alhambra. ….. [In Islamic tradition,] the shimmering filigree is the mark of the holy" (slate.msn.com).

To Yamasaki, this intercultural mingling of the sacred and the profane signified both our common humanity and the sacredness of the earthly. To its destroyers, it insulted "the one true creed" and besmirched the sacred. In a double irony, the first homicide pilot, Mohammed Atta, and the terror master, Osama bin Laden, were themselves engineers and builders. Neither built anything anyone knows; both helped destroy something the whole world knew.

The World Trade Center survived the first attack, in 1993, but not the second. So too prosperous, tolerant, life-giving Taxila, too-trusting and defenseless, survived the first invasion by nomadic tribes, but not the second. Both were destroyed by those who created nothing anyone knows.

Those who create the riches of this world out of love for life on earth may never fully understand the hatred of those who would scorch this earth and annihilate the creators. But all we need to understand is that they exist and that they prey on our trust. Hence, even as we celebrate the creators, we cannot afford to forget the destroyers.

Professor Neera K. Badhwar teaches philosophy at the University of Oklahoma.

Neera K. Badhwar
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Neera K. Badhwar
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