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A rock-strewn landscape gives way to a river running through a dry mountain valley
© Jonny Duncan / Lonely Planet

Afghanistan is going through a tumultuous period in its history right now This beautiful land has been the centre of great culture and glorious cities like Herat, Balkh and the Greek city of Ai-Khanoum. Balkh was in fact called the “Mother of all Cities.” Given its geographical positioning, it has seen its share of conquerors from the West. From the Greek forces of Alexander, to the Arabs and the British Empire of the 19th century, Afghanistan has proved to be nearly impossible to permanently conquer, earning it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires”.

About 600km to the east of the city of Mazar-e Sharif is the Wakhan Corridor. This 350km-long narrow strip of land in the region of Badakhshan, sits at the convergence of three of the world’s major mountain ranges: the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs – known as the Pamir Knot. It also borders Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. This region is culturally and geographically distinct from rest of the country. It is a remote land of small scattered rural settlements. Untouched by tourism, this region is a land of breath-taking views and as close to nature as one can get.

Source : https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/corridor-power

The Wakhi people

For more than 2,500 years, the Wakhan Corridor has been the homeland of the Wakhi people, who belong to an ancient Iranian stock. While the majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslims, the Wakhi are Ismaili Shias whose head is Aga Khan known for the Aga Khan Foundation. Instead of mosques, they have Jamat Khanas (houses of prayer that also serve as community halls for conducting village business).

The Wakhis are also found in the Xinjiang province of China, southeast Tajikistan, and Pakistan where they predominate in northern Chitral, Ishkoman Valley and Gojal, Hunza. They speak the Wakhi language, which appears to be a distant dialect of Persian.

2.jpg
https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/wakhan-corridor-afghanistan-forgotten-corner CBS/MALGORZATA SKOWRONSKA

They are a friendly, nature-loving community and very fond of music; the RubabDadangQufuzDuf and Surnai are used to strike melodious tunes. They also play the game of Buzkashi, a sport in which horse-mounted players attempt to mount a goat carcass in a goal. This is a popular Central Asian game. Indian readers would remember seeing it in the popular Hindi movie of the 90’s, ‘Khuda Gawah’ where Amitabh Bacchhan and Sri Devi played this game !

Integral Part of the Silk Road

For hundreds of years, the Wakhan Corridor was an important route for merchants travelling along the Silk Road, the trade route that emerged in the 1st and 2nd Centuries BC linking China with the Mediterranean. Those merchants carried Chinese silk, Persian silver, Roman gold and Afghan lapis lazuli, mined in the Badakhshan region. Travellers and pilgrims also followed in the merchants’ footsteps.

The Pamir region was renowned for its rubies and lapis lazuli. The most famous mine, Kuh-i-Lal was the source of the 170-carat Black Prince’s Ruby now in the Imperial State Crown of Britain.

The gemstone at the front of the Imperial State Crown

The ancient royal Sumerian tombs of Ur, located near the Euphrates River in lower Iraq, contained more than 6000 beautifully executed lapis lazuli statuettes of birds, deer, and rodents as well as dishes, beads, and cylinder seals. These carved artifacts undoubtedly came from material mined in northern Afghanistan.

King Tutankhamun funeral mask
King Tutankhamun’s two coffins were made of wood and covered in gold and semiprecious stones, including the royal blue stone lapis lazuli, which you can clearly see here on the funeral mask.
ASSALVE/GETTY IMAGES

This is also the land through which Marco Polo passed in 1273 and before him, the Tang dynasty monk Xuanzang in the 7th century, who has described the Buddhist monasteries of this region. In the town of Ishkashim and Besh Gumbez, there are remains of a sixth-century caravanserai, an ancient motel for Silk Road travelers. It was a strategic valley to the Bactrian Greeks, who built a castle-fortress overlooking it over two thousand years ago. The Yamchun fortress, set in a virtually inaccessible rocky slope, protected by two river canyons, with 40 towers and a citadel. The fortress is locally known as the “Castle of the Fire Worshippers”, no doubt referring to a Zoroastrian temple.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/yamchun-fort

This is hardly surprising as Pre-Islamic Badakhshan was Zoroastrian, worshipping fire, the sun and spirits of ancestors and at the same time practicing a distinct Badakhshani version of Buddhism. The remains of 7th-8th century Buddhist man-made caves that could have also been a Zoroastrian site in the past are also found here.

Nazif Shahrani, in his book ‘The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and
War’ , maintains that until the collapse of Mughal Empire in India, Wakhan was one of the
main routes for traders and merchants between India, China and major cities like Bactria
and Bukhara in modern-day Afghanistan and Central Asia. It was only after the development of the sea routes in the 15th century that this route went into a decline.

More Recent Events

In the late 19th Century, the Wakhan Corridor played a key role in the so-called “Great Game” between Great Britain and Russia. The Wakhan’s current boundaries were formed in 1893 to create a buffer zone to prevent both parties’ territories from touching each other – in this case, the British Raj and the Tsarist Russian empire.

In recent times, China’s Belt and Road Initiative has potential to turn it into an important trade route once again. The tip of the Wakhan Corridor in the Little Pamirs will become a crossing point for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan marks the beginning. China’ presence in this region is part of its larger ambition to gain a foothold in this region as well as control over the regional economy and security through building military installations and funding infrastructure projects.

The people of Wakhan have mixed emotions about the road that Chinese are building here. They recognize the economic benefits and the access to more modern amenities yet fear that their unique Wakhi culture may get eroded. Time will tell what the future has in store for this region.

References:

https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210701-a-new-road-to-an-inaccessible-land

https://www.responsibletravel.com/holidays/afghanistan/travel-guide/the-wakhan-corridor

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wakhi_people

https://travelthehimalayas.com/kiki/2018/7/28/the-wakhi-people

https://tribune.com.pk/story/452803/walking-with-the-wakhi

https://hindukushtrails.com/tribes-wakhi.php

https://www.remotelands.com/travelogues/faces-of-the-wakhan-valley/

https://www.nationalgeographic.org/article/silk-road-threads-through-history/

http://newasiaforum.ris.org.in/sites/default/files/The%20Wakhan%20Corridor_%20A%20Bridge%20for%20Regional%20Cooperation%20-%20Asia%20News.pdf

https://www.andyisaacson.net/articles/2015/4/29/new-york-times-pamir-mountains-the-crossroads-of-history

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geology/lapis-lazuli.htm

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If you want to know, what is a caravanserai and what was it used for, read on..

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting the East and the West. As early as 500 BC, the Persian Royal Road connected the city of Susa to Smyrna (modern Izmir in Turkey). The road network developed eventually to create complex trade routes covering large land masses.

When merchants, traders or anyone else who had a reason to travel covered large distances, they needed safe resting places for the night. In response to increasing traffic on the Silk Road, caravanserais or inns were built along Silk Road where travellers could recover from the day’s journey. The caravanserais would also keep the travellers safe from bandits or harsh weather conditions. These caravanserais belong to different era – some were built as early as 3rd century BC (remains of one in Palmyra, Syria were found) and some as recently as the 19th century.

Caravanserai : Origin of the Word

As per Wikipedia, Caravanserai is the Persian compound word variant combining kārvān “Caravan” with sarāy “palace”, “building with enclosed courts”. Here, “caravan” means a group of traders, pilgrims or other travellers, engaged in long-distance travel. Caravanserais were called by different names in different regions. In Turkey, they are called Khan from Middle Persian (xan, “house”). The Arabian term Funduq was used in Morocco and North Africa or Fonda in Spanish (fundquq is the origin of the term Fonda). Another Arabic term that was used in Egypt for such buildings is Wikala which roughly means “agency”.

Caravanserais were cultural melting pots

The caravanserais often resembled forts due to their protective high walls and secure gates. The ground floor had sections for storing goods and resting place for animals. There were unfurnished rooms for residents. Some of them had a prayer room and a bathhouse. Many caravanserais had markets for the traders where they could start selling their goods.

Many prominent cities in the Medieval era were fairly cosmopolitan and had diverse communities living together. The caravanserais must have become centers of cultural exchange where people from the East and the West met briefly and exchanged ideas , stories and discussed about different religions and philosophies. It was also an opportunity to taste cuisine of a different land and observe their etiquette.

10 Interesting Caravanserais

Sultan Han in Aksaray Turkey

Sultan Han Garden
File:Sultanhani - Portal außen 2 Muquarnas.jpg
Credits :Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This structure was built in 1229, during the reign of the Seljuk Sultan Kayqubad I (1220-1237), on the route connecting Konya to Aksaray and continuing into Persia. After it was partially destroyed by a fire, it was restored and extended in 1278. It is one of the largest and most well preserved caravanserai.

Khan Tuman, Damascus Syria

Sir Keppel Archibald Cameron Creswell (photographer) (1879-1974)

Khan Tuman is a village in Aleppo, North Syria. The caravanserai is by the name of the village. It was a large caravanserai built in the 12th century. It was built on the route to Mecca and Medina so that pilgrims could perform the annual Hajj. The route passed through Damascus onto what is now Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Given that this region was in the war zone for some time, it is difficult to say how much of it still remains.

Kurkcu Han, Istanbul, Turkey

File:Kurkcu han DSCF1362.jpg
Kürkçü Han‎ courtyard : Robert Prazeres

This caravanserai was founded by Mahmud Pasha, the grand vizier of Mehmet II. It was completed in 1467. From the time that it was built, it developed into a sprawling commercial complex which was the hub of international trade with shops, warehouses and lodgings for foreign merchant.

Multani Caravanserai, Baku, Azerbaijan

multani caravansarie
Photo credit : https://citytoursbaku.com/caravanserais/

This 14th century caravanserai was named after Multan which is a city in Pakistan. It housed the merchants who came from India. The building is in a square shape with lots of balconies around the courtyard. This caravanserai is currently being restored.

Rabati Malik, Uzbekistan

Rabati Malik caravanserai in Malik, in the Navoiy province (Shutterstock)
Photo credit : https://www.wanderlust.co.uk/content/top-things-to-do-in-uzbekistan/

This caravanserai was built by the Karakhanid rule Shams-al-Mulk Nasr who ruled Samarkand from 1068 to 1080. It connected Samarkand to Bukhara. The caravanserai has a very unique architectural style. Unfortunately, an earthquake damaged large parts of it in 1968. It is still very much on the travel map of Uzbekistan.

Wikala of Sultan Qaytbay, Cairo, Egypt

File:Wikala Qaytbay at bab al-nasr gate.jpg
Photo Credit : Robert Prazeres

This is an urban caravanserai built in Cairo in 1481 by Sultan al-Ashraf Abu al-Nasr Qaitbay. Its location placed it near the main entrance of the city. The Sultan was known as a great patron of architecture and had build many monuments and buildings.

Tash Rabat in Kyrgyzstan

By WikiTofu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27795731

Located amongst the high mountain of Tien- Shan at an altitude of 3000 metres, this caravanserai is pretty unique for its remote location. Travellers could progress from hereon to Kashgar and shores of Lake Issyk Kul or Ferghana Valley. It must have been a source of immense relief for travellers passing through this difficult route. The architecture of the caravanserai is unique and various accounts say that it could have been a religious site initially.

Sa’d al-Saltaneh in Qazvin near Tehran Iran

Sa'd al-Saltaneh Caravanserai -
Photo Credit : https://iranwatching.com/en/place/582

Qazvin was a prominent centre of trade on the Silk Road and was once a capital of Iran during the Safavid era. This caravanserai was built in the 19th century by ruler of Qajar dynasty Naseredin Shah. Until the First World War, it was an important trading centre. It is the largest urban indoor caravanserai with about 400 rooms and shops.

Zein-o-din Caravanserai, Yazd province, Central Iran

The Zein-o-din Caravanserai in Iran's Yazd
Photo Credit : https://www.tasnimnews.com/en/news/2018/08/28/1812270/the-zein-o-din-caravanserai-in-iran-s-yazd

This caravanserai is dated to the 16th century and is situated on the ancient Silk Road. It was built during the reign of Shah Abbas I. The caravanserai has two circular towers. The interiors have been refurbished and now operates as an inn.

Azimganj Serai, Delhi, India

Photo Credit : https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/this-mughal-serai-will-lead-to-citys-longest-eco-heritage-trail/articleshow/68446376.cms

This caravanserai was built in 16th century in Mughal Delhi around the same time as the Humayun Tomb. It was in a bad condition for many years till the Aga Khan Trust for Culture took over its renovation and is now part of a heritage trail.

There are numerous caravanserais standing even today as reminders of the past and I think one would need to write a book to cover them all. This was my attempt to provide readers with a glimpse of some of them.

References:

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Courtyard of Mustansiriya Medical College
By Taisir Mahdi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=62564761

By the 8th century, the Islamic empire covered an area larger than the Roman empire at its height. Unrest had been brewing up amongst the non-Arab population for some time now as they felt discriminated. It was also felt that the Umayyad Caliphate had increasingly become materialistic and had lost their way from the true path of Islam which is based on modesty and simplicity. Eventually, this discontent snowballed into a full rebellion in 750 AD and led to the formation of the Abassid Caliphate. In 762 AD, Baghdad was established as the capital of the Abassid Caliphate in modern day Iraq. The period from 8th century to 13th century is known as the Golden Age of Islam. Baghdad played a pivotal role in this Golden Age and became a great centre of learning and innovation.

Baghdad’s location between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers provided it ample water and could sustain a large population. In pre-Abassid era also, Baghdad was already an established centre of trade on the overland route and goods like ivory, soap, honey and diamonds were traded there. It was also an important manufacturing centre for silk. glass, tiles and paper.

Baghdad attracted many people primarily scholars who made it their home due to state patronage and the enabling environment. The writings of Arab historian and biographer, Yakut al-Hamawi, describe Baghdad in the tenth century:

“The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. The numerous suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas, and beautiful promenades, and plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, and finely built mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river. In the days of its prosperity the population of Baghdad and its suburbs amounted to over two [million]! The palace of the Caliph stood in the midst of a vast park several hours in circumference, which beside a menagerie and aviary comprised an enclosure for wild animals reserved for the chase. The palace grounds were laid out with gardens and adorned with exquisite taste with plants, flowers, and trees, reservoirs and fountains, surrounded by sculpted figures. On this side of the river stood the palaces of the great nobles. Immense streets, none less than forty cubits wide, traversed the city from one end to the other, dividing it into blocks or quarters, each under the control of an overseer or supervisor, who looked after the cleanliness, sanitation and the comfort of the inhabitants.”

Tenth-century historian Yakut al-Hamawi, from Lost History 60-61
The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls
The plan for the round city included four straight roads that ran from the city’s center to the four gates in the outer walls.
 (GifTagger / Public Domain )

Abbasid Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma’mun, who followed him, established a House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) in Baghdad which was a dedicated space for scholarship. Ma’mun was not the only Caliph who was a patron of learning but he stood out as he himself was a highly learned scholar of Islam, Philosophy and Theology. The early Muslim theologians eventually trained in the art of dialectic debate and argument, of which Ma’mun was an expert too. He recruited famous scholars to come to the House of Wisdom who came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. He pursued learning with a messianic zeal and collected texts from all over the world in the House of Wisdom.

Eventually, strong state patronage and bringing together of the world’s finest minds under one roof led to many discoveries and inventions. A special emphasis was laid on translating Greek texts and texts from other regions, as well as contributing new insights in the different fields like philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and many other disciplines. It was during this era in the 11th and 12th century that the Madrasas as institutions of learning started taking shape. While primarily law was taught here, the subjects like theology, history and mathematics were taught as well.

By the middle of the ninth century, Baghdad had become the centre of the civilised world, attracting the very best of Arab and Persian philosophers and scientists for several centuries to come. The House of Wisdom grew rapidly with Greek, Persian and Indian texts and their Arabic translations. This process was aided by the mass manufacturing of paper. In Baghdad, particular neighbourhoods were allocated to paper manufacturing and in Bazaar paper merchants and sellers owned distinct sectors being called Paper Market or Suq al-Warraqin. There is a theory that Chinese prisoners captured during the Battle of Talas introduced paper making to Samarkand and from there to the rest of the Islamic world. According to Jonathan Bloom – a scholar of Islamic and Asian Art with a focus on paper and printing claims that there is archeological evidence that paper was already known and used in Samarkand decades before 751 AD.

The most prolific translator of Baghdad was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, who was a Nestorian Christian and mastered four languages – Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian. Hunayn ibn Ishaq became arguably the chief translator of the era, and laid the foundations of Islamic Medicine. In his lifetime, ibn Ishaq translated 116 works, including Plato’s Timaeus, Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and the Old Testament, into Syriac and Arabic. Ibn Ishaq also produced 36 of his own books, 21 of which covered the field of medicine. It is the medical work of the physician Galen that is his most important legacy, for not only did it open up the Islamic world to this great treasure, in many cases it is only via these Arabic translations that much of Galen’s work reaches us today.

The eye according to Hunain ibn Ishaq. From a manuscript dated circa 1200.

Another famous personality was mathematician Muhammad ibn Mūsa al-Khwārizmi. His name suggests that he was originally from a province of Uzbekistan. He worked in the House of Wisdom as a mathematician, geographer and astronomer. Together with Kindi, who was another great mathematician and Philosopher, he was instrumental in introducing the Arabs to the Hindu decimal numerals that we use today. But his greatest legacy is his extraordinary book on algebra Kitab al-Jebr (The Book of Completion) in which he lays out for the first time the rules and steps of solving algebraic equations. The word algebra is derived from the title of his book. In addition to his work in mathematics, Al-Khwarizmi made important contributions to astronomy, also largely based on methods from India, and he developed the first quadrant (an instrument used to determine time by observations of the Sun or stars), the second most widely used astronomical instrument during the Middle Ages after the astrolabe.

A page from al-Khwārizmī’s 

Algebra

Two other great scholars of this era are Ibn Sīna (980-1037) and Ibn Rushd (1126-98), both of whom are more familiar in the west by their Latinised names: Avicenna and Averroës. The former is best known as a physician and is by far the most famous scholar in Islam. His Canon of Medicine was required reading in Renaissance Europe right up to the 17th century. Meanwhile Ibn Rushd, who was born in Cordobá, is thought of as the last of the great Muslim philosophers.

There were many notable scholars who may have not lived in Baghdad but were prominent scholars of the Islamic Golden Age. There was the Iraqi genius Ibn al-Haytham, the greatest physicist. He was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflects from an object and then passes to one’s eyes. He was also the first to demonstrate that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes. There was Ibn Khaldūn, the acknowledged father of social science and economic theory. Who can forget Al-Biruni who was an Iranian Scholar and Polymath.  A gifted linguist, he was conversant in Khwarezmian, Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. In 1017 he travelled to the Indian subcontinent and wrote a treatise on Indian culture entitled Tārīkh al-Hind (History of India), after exploring Hinduism as practiced in India. His writings known to be written with impartial objectivity won him the title al-Ustadh (“The Master”).

It is impossible to cover all the accomplishments and the notable personalities of this era in one article. The siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols led by Hulagu Khan destroyed the city and most of its population died at their hands. Thus, came the end of this glorious era.

References:

  1. theguardian.com/books/2010/sep/26/baghdad-centre-of-scientific-world
  2. https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-bayt-al-hikmah/article17103267.ece1
  3. https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/round-city-baghdad-0011898

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Buddha Carving, Taxila
A Buddha carving in Taxila
(source: https://www.zameen.com/blog/exploring-taxila-history-archaeological-value-tourism.html)

Imagine the academic repute of the city where Panini, the great Indian Sanskrit Grammarian and Chanakya, the Prime Minister of the founder of the Maurya Empire were said to have taught ! Taxila lies 30 km North West of Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It was one of the most prominent cities on the Silk Road which connected China to the Western world and flourished between 1st-5th Century AD.

The city was initially discovered by Alexander Cunningham. The excavation was then undertaken by John Marshall, who was the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India at the time. He was also the person who discovered the ancient city of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh. Under his command, the excavations took about twenty years, from 1913 to 1934. In 1980, Taxila was declared as UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city has found mention in many a text indicating its importance and fame – In Sanskrit, the city was called Takshaçila; in Pâli it was known as Takkasilâ; the Greeks knew the town as Taxila; the Chinese called it Chu-ch’a-shi-lo. Buddhist literature, especially the Jatakas, mentions it as the capital of the kingdom of Gandhara and as a great centre of learning. Gandhara is also mentioned as a province, in the inscriptions of the Achaemenian (Persian) king Darius I in the 5th century BC. Taxila, as the capital of Gandhara, was evidently under Achaemenian rule for more than a century. 

The Gandhara Region was an ancient kingdom which found mention in the Rigveda, Atharvaveda and many Vedic scriptures. They are recorded in the Avestan language of Zoroastrianism under the name Vaēkərəta. If you are familiar with the epic Mahabharata, you would remember that Shakuni was Gandharnaresh or King of Gandhara. While the geographical boundaries of the Gandhara Region may have shifted during the course of history, Taxila remained a prominent city which is over 3000 years old.

Rulers of Taxila

Due to its geographic location which was very strategic, it has changed hands many times. Its fate was determined by the invading rulers and armies from the West.

Alexander the Great invaded India in 326 BCE and Ambhi (Omphis), the ruler of Taxila, surrendered the city and placed his resources at Alexander’s disposal. After Alexander’s death, Taxila was absorbed into the Mauryan empire founded by Chandragupta, under whom it became a provincial capital. After three generations of Mauryan rule, the city was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria. It remained under the Indo-Greeks until the early 1st century BC. They were followed by the Shakas, or Scythians, from Central Asia, and by the Parthians, whose rule lasted until the latter half of the 1st century AD.

Taxila was taken from the Parthians by the Kushans under Kujula Kadphises. The great Kushan ruler Kanishka founded Sirsukh, the third city on the site. (The second, Sirkap, dates from the Indo-Greek period.) In the 4th century AD, the Sassanian king Shapur II (309–379) seems to have conquered Taxila, as evidenced by the numerous Sassanian copper coins found there. There is little information about the Sassanian occupation. Eventually, it was sacked by Huns and never recovered from this blow.

File:Dharmarajika stupa,Taxila.jpg
The Dharmarajika Stupa
Sasha Isachenko, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Corinthian columns – a quintessential Grecian style of architecture – stand tall at the stupa.
Corinthian columns at Sirkap, a typical Grecian style of Architecture
Photo Credit : https://www.dawn.com/news/1246805
File:Taxila single dye coin.jpg
Taxile single dye coin with Goddess Lakshmi and arched-hill symbol (185-160 BC), most probably minted by Demetrius I after his invasion of Gandhara
Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Famous Visitors

The Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian visited the city at about the beginning of the 5th century AD and he found a flourishing centre of Buddhist sanctuaries and monasteries. He has said ‘Seven days journey from this to the east brought the travellers to the kingdom of Taxila, which means ‘the severed head ‘ in the language of China. Here, when Buddha was a Bodhisattva, he gave away his head to a man [a reference to a jataka tale], and from this circumstance the kingdom got its name.’ Another Chinese monk Xuanzang who can be credited with spreading Buddhism to China and the eastern world, visited the site in the 7th century AD and found the city ruined and desolate (after the sacking by Huns).

King Asoka was Viceroy here in the 3rd Century BC. Alexander garrisoned the city with Macedonians. Arrian, Strabo and Plutarch wrote of its beauty and its wealth. It is said that St Thomas turned up to preach the gospel here as well during the reign of Gondhophares I around 43-44 AD.

The many cities of Taxila and the Gandhara School of Art

Taxila was uniquely placed where the East and West co-existed and eventually gave birth to a new style of art. Experts have pointed out that the sculptures excavated here are quite unique with Hellenistic themes combined with Eastern motifs. This style is referred to as the Gandhara School of Art.

Ruins at Taxila clearly indicate that it participated in the formation of Harappan civilization (3100- 2500 BC). Most of the Buddhist stupas and monasteries date from the 1st to 5th century AD although the Dharmarajika Stupa was founded by Asoka in the 3rd century BC.

The ruins of Taxila consist of many different parts of the city buildings and Buddhist stupas
which are located in a large area. The main ruins of Taxila are divided into three major cities, each
belonging to a distinct time period. The oldest of these is Bhir Mound, which dates from the sixth
century BC. The second city of Taxila is located at Sirkap and was built by Greco-Bactrian kings in
the second century BC. The many private houses, stupas, and temples were laid out on the Hellenistic grid system and show the strong Western classical influence on local architecture. The third and last city of Taxila is at Sirsukh and relates to the Kushan kings.

The city is famous for its ruins and remnants of the Buddhist era, however, Jain and Hindu temples and relics have also been found here. Even a Zoroastrian Fire temple has been found near Taxila.

University of Taxila

Taxila was not a ‘University’ in the modern sense as teachers did not have membership of an institution. However, teachers taught students in smaller groups, something like a ‘gurukul’ and each of these being an institution by themselves. Taxila had privileged alumni and it attracted students and teachers from across Asia. The heir-apparent of kingdoms were usually educated along with monks at Taxila, as mentioned in the Jatakas.

The students here were taught the Vedas and the 18 shilpas or arts, which included skills such as archery and hunting. In addition, there were also law school, medical school and a school of military science.

To conclude, I would like to share a small piece of information. Mortime Wheeler was appointed as an external consultant to Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1944, to evaluate deficiencies in the working of ASI. He set up a field training school at Taxila to train junior archaeologists. Taxila was chosen keeping in mind the richness of the ruins. It seems that even centuries later, Taxila and learning went hand in hand.

References

1. https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/texts/faxian.html

2. http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20141010-following-the-silk-road-to-the-end-of-china

3. https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/cover-story/taxila/

4. https://theprint.in/pageturner/excerpt/the-class-of-taxila-how-mortimer-wheeler-mn-deshpande-set-up-first-archaeology-school/536896/

5. Charles Allen, Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor, Hachette UK, 2012

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According to Ibn Arabshah, Ibn Khaldun, the illustrious scholar and Timur, the founder of the Timurid empire met in 1401 AD at Damascus. There are different versions of this meeting but that they met has been established as a fact through different historical accounts. The most reliable account of this meeting is from Ibn Khaldun himself. When they met, Ibn Khaldun explained some of the theories of his book Muqaddimah. There is an anecdote which says that Timur enquired from Ibn Khaldun about the fate of political dynasties. Khaldun’s opinion was that the glory of a political dynasty usually started fading from the fourth generation, unless diligent efforts were made by those concerned to prevent it. It definitely proved correct in the case of Mongols.

Who was Ibn Khaldun? We know a lot about him from his autobiography. In fact, Ibn Khaldun’s description of his own life is one of the most detailed in Medieval Muslim literature. He was born on May 27, 1332 in Tunis and died in 1406. His ancestors belonged to an ancient Arab tribe and migrated to Spain in the early decades of the 8th century. There are some accounts that doubt his Arab lineage and claim that it was to ‘get ahead’ in society. By the time of Ibn Khaldun, the days of Arab predominance in Spain and North Africa were long over and hence, this account can be viewed with scepticism as there was no influence to be gained through claims of an Arab ancestry. Ibn Khaldun belonged to an upper class, aristocratic family who had significant political and intellectual influence in Seville. He had the benefit of having access to the finest education from an early age. Unfortunately, at the age of 17, he lost both his parents to the Black Death, an epidemic that hit Tunis in 1348-49.

He strived for a political career which required aligning and re-aligning with regimes of that time. Since this was a time of political upheaval and regimes were short-lived, he had to do this quite often. His career took him from the chancellery of the Tunisian ruler Ibn Tafrakin to Fez, where over a period of time, he got a ministerial position. He also spent some time in Granada but realised that the environment was not ideal for him and the ruler adopted a cold attitude towards him.

Ibn Khaldun found himself in a a time of confused and short lived dynasties. What made him different from his contemporaries was that even though he was part of this mayhem, he was able to observe all this as a social scientist and thus was able to write a book like the Muqaddimah. He lived in the Western Algerian town of Qalat ibn Salama for a period of three years, where devoid of any public duties, he worked on his book. In 1378, he returned to Tunis to complete his book as he lacked some texts in Qalat ibn Salama. During the later part of his life, he had tired of politics and of continuously shifting loyalties.

In 1382, he travelled to the port of Alexandria and later moved to Cairo. He never returned to Tunis. Under the Mamluks, Egypt was enjoying a period of stability and prosperity. He must have hoped to live in peace at Cairo. He was invited to Al Azhar for a lecture on Maliki jurisprudence and the Muqaddimah. He was an eloquent speaker and prominent scholars of Egypt were in attendance. He was introduced to the Mamluk Sultan al Sahib Burquq. He enjoyed the Sultan’s patronage and after two years in 1384, was appointed the Chief justice of the Maliki school, one of the highest posts in the state. He suffered personal tragedy when a ship carrying his wife and children sunk off the coast of Alexandria. After this , he wished to renounce public life and resigned in 1384. He performed Hajj in 1387. After this, he spent his time in academic pursuits till his death.

His contribution in other fields like Sociology, Philosophy and Economics are also noteworthy. The concept of Asabiyya or social bonding is his thought. Some of his original thoughts on the economy were, the importance of consumption in keeping the economy alive, labour theory of value and that prices depended on supply and demand. The Laffer Curve of taxation named after the economist, Arthur Laffer was inspired by Ibn Khaldun’s work who had said “At the beginning of a dynasty, taxation yields a large revenue from small assessments. At the end of the dynasty, taxation yields a small revenue from large assessments.” In addition to this, he was a master of the religious sciences, jurisprudence and theology.

He was one of the finest scholars of his time. It is heartening to note that there is increased recognition for him in recent years. Fun Fact : In 2011, Ibn Khaldun’s birthday was recognised by a Google Doodle.

References:

  1. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/philosophy/ibn-khaldun-the-man-who-invented-modern-history
  2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/06/01/trump-is-giving-arthur-laffer-presidential-medal-freedom-economists-arent-laughing/
  3. https://fee.org/articles/the-laffer-curve-was-discovered-by-medieval-islamic-philosopher/
  4. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ibn-Khaldun/The-Muqaddimah-Ibn-Khalduns-philosophy-of-history
  5. The Muqaddimah by Ibn Khaldun , Translated from the Arabic by Franz Rosenthal (Princeton Classics)
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By Unknown author – Scanned from “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas : Chinese art from the Silk Route” (London: British Museum Press, 1990) page 160 plate 132., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11252136

The kingdom of Khotan which had its origins in the 3rd and 2nd century BC existed in the region which is today in Western China. Khotan was on the Southern Silk Route but it was not just a city of passage as it had its own economy based on silk, paper and Jade. It was a centre for Buddhist learning and art as well as a strong political centre.

It is said that the population of Khotan was an amalgamation of three sources- Nomadic Saka horsemen, Indian and Chinese immigrants and traders. Such a diverse population gave birth to many innovations. In the fifth century, the Indian Gupta script called Late Brahmi script was used to write the Middle Iranian language of the Saka. There were bilingual Sino-Kharoshthi bronze and copper coins whose weights also matched those of the Kushan coins.

The Indian and Chinese origins of Khotan are also reflected in the Tibetan Annals of Li Yu which was composed in the mid eighth century. According to a legend, Vaishravana, the Buddhist guardian of the deity of the North impregnated the wife of Emperor Ashoka. Ashoka abandoned the child and Vaishravana took him to China and had him adopted as Emperor’s son. After some years, the prince quarrelled with the sons of the Chinese emperor and set off west with a small army. At the same time, a disgruntled minister left Ashoka’s India for a new homeland. When the two met, war threatened but Vaishravana was able to establish peace between them and the two communities founded Khotan. Hence, Vaishravana is honoured as the patron of the city. According to this legend, the date of foundation of Khotan would be around 134 BC.

There are many artworks and monastery ruins excavated in the region. One of the most impressive is the monastery stupa of Rawak. Karadong has Hinayana period wall paintings in the two storey temple featuring only standing and seated Buddhas. The faces at Karadong are distinctively Indian/Central Asian, dated to the first half of the Fourth Century. Dandan Oilak was a city of temples and monasteries and was a part of the Khotan empire. One of the paintings (which you can see at the top of the blog) talks about the legend of how Sericulture came to Khotan. The Chinese kept the art of Sericulture guarded. When a Chinese princess was getting married to a Khotan prince, he wrote to her that she would need to wear coarse clothes in Khotan as there was no silk available. The Princess smuggled Silkmoth eggs and Mulberry leaves out of China in her headdress. Thus, Khotan learned the secret art of making Silk.

The paintings excavated at Dandan Oilak are similar in style to the ones at Panjikent (ancient town of Sogdiana). There is a painting of a three headed figure who at the first look represents the Hindu God Shiva but in context of Khotan could be Maheshvara (tutelary deity under Tantric Vajrayana Buddhism) or the Sogdian God Weshparkar. Either of these is possible as there was a sizeable Sogdian community in Khotan. The Sogdian Zoroastrians merged the visual representation of their deities with Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism- cultures with whom they were in close contact through trade.

Panel discovered by Sir Aurel Stein in December 1900 from Dandan Oilak

Khotan faced pressure from the Tibetans who conquered it around 798 AD. In 851 Khotan regained its independence and in 920 allied itself by marriage with the Chinese ruling family of Dunhuang. Khotan finally fell to Yusuf Kadr Khan in 1006.

References:

  1. The History of Central Asia – The Age of the Silk Roads, Christoph Baumer
  2. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2018/travel-atlases-maps-l18401/lot.196.html
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Khotan
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The birth of a new religion, Islam, in the 7th century paved the way for a transitional period in the mid-eighth century for South-West Central Asia. It began with the conquest of Transoxiana by Umayyad general Qutaiba ibn Muslim (705-15). There were many factors which led to the conquest of this region. After the death of Khunuk Vardan Khudah, ruler of Bukhara in 709 and death or murder of other key leaders of this region, there was no strong ruler who could challenge the Arabs. As mentioned earlier, the Sogdian cities were never united politically to put up resistance against the Arabs. The Arabs were, on the other hand, united now through religion. The actual suzerain of Sogdians, the Chinese empire under the Tang dynasty, could not support them as they were embroiled in a costly war with Tibet. The victory of Arab forces led by Ziyad bin Salih in the battle of Talas in July 751 further weakened the Chinese.

The Umayyad rulers did not have an easy time in this region. The non-Arab local muslims felt discriminated and this led to several uprisings against them. The Umayyads ran the Caliphate as a business enterprise, more concerned for profits than equal rights. Hence, they were deemed as excessively materialistic and operating against the basic tenets of Islam which was based on simplicity and modesty.

Abu Muslim Khorasani emerged as an influential voice in the anti-Umayyad propaganda. He gathered forces and drove the Umayyad governor Nasr ibn Sayyar out of Central Asia between 747 to 748. The first Caliph of the Abassid dynasty was Abu’l Abbas al-Safah, a great-great-grandson of Muhammad’s uncle al-Abbas. This dynasty ruled till 1258 till it was crushed by the Mongols.

The Shias who had supported Abu Muslim in the hope that a descendent of Ali (fourth Caliph of Islam and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad) would come to power were disappointed. Readers who are familiar with history of Islam would know that the main cause of rift between Sunnis and Shias was the position of the Caliph. Shias felt that the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad was Ali since the Prophet did not have any sons. Therefore, this conflict continued to represent a source of socio-political unrest in this region.

The first Caliph soon felt threatened by Abu Muslim’s influence. His successor Sunni al-Mansur had him murdered in 755. With his death, there arose several uprisings against the Abassid regime. One of the adversaries was Hashim ibn Hakim known as al-Muqanna, ‘the veiled one’. He claimed to be a prophet and the Mahdi of Islamic eschatology, the Messiah. Although he met with some success, he eventually committed suicide in 783.

The Barmakids (730-803) and Tahirids (821-73) owned allegiance to the Abassid regime but were almost independent dynasties. While the rulers, by and large, remained loyal to Caliphs, a love-hate relationship existed between these dynasties and the Caliphate. When the Caliph felt that the ruler was becoming too powerful, he had him removed or executed. At times, these rulers became influential enough to replace Caliphs. The Barmakids were popular as fair and just governors and were immensely wealthy. They were also patrons of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy. They perhaps had inter cultural communication in their blood, coming from the family of high priests of the famous Buddhist temple of Balkh, the ‘naubahar’. They were Buddhists who converted to Islam. According to Korean pilgrim monk Huichao, by the end of 720s most residents of Balkh were Buddhists despite the Arab occupation.

The Saffarid dynasty ruled for only 39 years from 861-900. When the Samanids ruled over Samarkand in the 9th and 10th centuries, it was a period of prosperity for the residents. They made Samarkand their capital in 819. Under them, large scale construction happened around the Afrasiab. City walls were built and a new citadel containing a palace for the Samanid ruler was built. During this period, the city spread beyond the Afrasiab which was used then primarily for administrative purposes. The housing and commercial centre moved to the area closer to today’s Samarkand. Samarkand became very famous for its ceramics between 8th and 12th century.

With the rise of two turkic dynasties, Karakhanids and Ghaznavids, who had recently converted to Islam, the Samanid empire suffered defeat. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030) conquered the whole of Khorasan. The Samanid empire was split- the North went to Karakhanids, south to the Ghaznavids and in the South West, the Ghaznavids and Seljuks struggled for power.

The Mongols united under Genghis Khan were emerging as a major force. After conquering Bukhara in 1220, it was the turn of Samarkand. The forces at Samarkand were no match for the battle hardened Mongols. The destruction was so extreme that no building from the pre- Mongol era was left standing. It was only by the end of the 13th century that a new city was built.

After the death of Genghis Khan, the area came under his son, Chagatai Khan who was unable to prevent revolts against the Mongols in the second half of the 14th century. After his death in 1363, a local tribal leader Timur-e-lang was able to take control of Transoxiana and founded the Timurid empire. He was born in the village of Kesh, 80 km south of Samarkand.

Timur-e-lang was able to conquer a large area from the edge of China across the steppes of Southern Russia. He conquered lands from Afghanistan to India, sacking Delhi and massacring its residents in 1398. As Delhi is home for me, I recall the popular saying that the city was destroyed and re-built seven times. One of them must have been at the hands of Timur-e-Lang. While he is respected in Central Asia, he is vilified in the countries where he committed atrocities. He was on his way to conquer China but died of an illness in the city of Otrar.

Timur-e-Lang’s architectural legacy is still visible in Samarkand. He build mausoleums for his family and many madrasas and mosques prominent among them is the Bibi-Khanym mosque. Within a century of his death, his dynasty came to an end. One of his descendants, Babur (1483-1530) was the last independent Timurid prince who was eventually driven out of Central Asia in the early 16th century by the Shai-banids (an Uzbek confederacy) who moved the capital to Bukhara. Babur established the Mughal empire in India in 1526.

In the turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries, Samarkand lost its former significance. In 1868, the city came under the official rule of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia.

References:

  1. Samarkand-The history and legacy of one of Asia’s oldest cities- Charles River Editors
  2. The history of Central Asia-The age of Islam and the Mongols- Christoph Baumer
  3. A History of the Arab Peoples- Albert Hourani

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The Ambassador’s Painting, found in the hall of the ruin of an aristocratic house in Afrasiab
By anonymous – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21437830By

The city of Samarkand (in present day Uzbekistan) needs no introduction. The ancients called the area that is today Uzbekistan as Transoxiana i.e. Central Asia north of the river Oxus, the once great river known as Amu Darya. Samarkand is one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in Central Asia and possibly the world as well. There are many versions of what is the meaning of ‘Samarkand’. The name could be in Sogdian where Samar means ‘Rock, Stone’ and Kand means ‘Fort or Town’. The historians and linguists point out that “Samarkand” originates from Turkish “Simiz kent”, that means “Rich settlement”. The medieval Chinese sources explain it as ‘Rich city’. Samarkand could also have originated from Hebrew “Meru-kand” (Holy city).

Map of Transoxiana
https://depts.washington.edu/silkroad/maps/cities/transox_khurasan.html

There have been traces of human existence in Samarkand since the Palaeolithic era, however, the city of Samarkand was probably founded between 8th and 7th century BC. There is no direct evidence of this but it is a reasonable estimate. Due to its prominent location between China and Mediterranean, the city prospered from trade along the Silk route.

In the 5th century BC, Samarkand was part of the Achaemenid empire under Darius I. The Greeks called the area Sogdiana and united it with Bactria. Alexander conquered Samarkand in 329 BC. He reportedly said, “Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful; than I could have imagined.” Soon afterwards he declared himself a God. Alexander’s conquest played an important role in strengthening the East-West trade routes on the Silk Road and dissemination of Greek culture into Asia. The Hellenistic influences continued for long after Alexander’s death.

The nomadic Turkic tribes that live in Central Asia today say that Alexander had two rams horns on the sides of his head and that is why he wore his hair long. Coins minted after his death show Alexander with horns. These “horns of Ammon” symbolize Alexander’s claim that he was the son of the Egyptian god Ammon.

After Alexander’s death, Samarkand passed into the Seleucid empire and then the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. The Kushans played an instrumental role in developing a sophisticated irrigation system and thereby uplifting the social and economic status of the region. Unification of the agricultural land under one stable empire played a big role in this. There was a strengthening of trade relations with India, China and other Eastern countries. The crops produced during this region were very diversified-Millet, Barlet and Wheat; Apricots, Peaches, Plum, Grapes, melons; Poppy seeds; Lucerne and Sesame.

From the 1st to 3rd Century AD, handicraft production increased substantially such as ceramics, metal-working, iron-forging, weaving, jewellery-making, etc. Pottery was especially well developed at this time. The thin-sided goblets, bowls, cups and other types of ceramic products from the sites of Afrasiab are notable for their high quality. Craftsmen produced metalware and jewellery for women (bronze vessels, candlesticks, mirrors, bracelets, earrings, rings, etc.).

Weapons were also produced in large numbers- swords, daggers, spears, battle-axes, slings and bows-and-arrows. One weapon extensively used at this time was a special type of composite bow, pentagonal in shape, the parts fastened together with strips of bone or horn.

Samarkand was conquered by the Sassanians in 260 AD. In a previous blog, I have talked about the role of Sogdians in the Silk Trade (https://silkroadanecdotes.com/2018/12/09/sogdians-the-master-traders/). The 7th and 8th century conquest of Transoxiana by Arabs started a new chapter in the history of Samarkand.

References:

  1. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/sites/silkroad/files/knowledge-bank-article/vol_II%20silk%20road_economy%20and%20social%20system%20in%20central%20asia%20in%20the%20kushan%20age.pdf -ECONOMY AND SOCIAL SYSTEM IN CENTRAL ASIA IN THE KUSHAN AGE*A. R. Mukhamedjanov
  2. https://archive.asia.si.edu/explore/babur-gardens/memoir-03.php
  3. https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/content/samarkand
  4. The History of Central Asia-The Age of the Silk Roads, Volume Two, Christoph Baumer, I.B Tauris, 2014

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Book illustration by Léon Benett published in 1878 showing Ibn Baṭṭūṭah (right) in Egypt

Ibn Battuta needs no introduction amongst the world of medieval travellers. He was born in Tangier, Morocco in 1306, in a family of Qazis (Islamic Judge). His curious nature and love for travel took him to many countries. He started his journey to the holy city of Mecca for Hajj. He visited many lands in Africa , before turning east and travelling to Persia, Iraq, Central Asia, India, Maldives and China. From China, he journeyed back to his homeland Morocco and narrated his travels to a writer named Ibn Juzayy. The book known as ‘Rihla’ (or “Travels”) is a fantastic account of 14th Century Islamic World. During the journey, he learnt Persian without which thriving in the Islamic world could have been difficult.

In Delhi, he enjoyed the patronage of the King Muhammad Tughlaq for many years and also became immensely wealthy. The king was known to be a despotic ruler and he once fell from grace and barely survived execution. Enroute his journey to China, he was looted by bandits and more misfortune followed when his ship sunk at the port of Calicut. Since he felt disgraced and did not want to return to Delhi, he travelled to Maldives. He served as an Islamic judge there, took several wives and restored some of his former glory.

From Maldives, he went to Sri Lanka and reached the port city of Quanzhou (China) in 1345. He was impressed with Mongol China in terms of safety of travellers and its natural beauty. He found the customs very unfamiliar and having travelled through the Islamic world, naturally could not relate to them. Though historians debate this fact, he claimed to have travelled till Beijing. From China, he travelled back to Tangier in 1349. When he reached home, his parents had died. He spent his last days in Morocco.

Ibn Battuta also travelled to the Golden Horde of the Southern Volga region ruled by Muhammad Uzbek Khan. He also claimed to have travelled to Bulghar, the capital of medieval Bulgaria. This would probably be the northern most that he travelled. He also spend time in Anatolia and Constantinople.

His cultural anecdotes are the most interesting to read. In Maldives, he found it shocking that women roam around naked from the waist upwards and so he writes ‘It is thus that they walk abroad in the bazars and elsewhere.’ This is one practice that he tried to change, in line with the Islamic practice of dressing but met with little success. He constantly praised them for their cleanliness, their natural charm and loved savouring the local food. His account talks about the local Flora and Fauna in great detail. He also talks about the practice of ‘Sati’ in India. He claims that cannibalism was practiced in some parts of Africa and also encountered female nudity there which he found disturbing.

He found favour with local rulers and influential people. His profession as a Qadi greatly helped him especially in cultures where Islam was relatively new and the local people needed help in interpretation or to dispense justice in line with Shariat. While he enjoyed the luxuries bestowed on him, there were times when he found himself in grave danger. He had one such experience in Delhi but luckily he survived.

While reading accounts of travellers, it is important to take cognisance of the fact that they have made observations through their own frame of reference which is greatly influenced by their religious or racial identity and may often not be fully objective. The second factor is the socio-political environment which is prevalent when the account was written.

References:

  1. Ibn Battuta- L.P. Harvey, Oxford University Press
  2. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveller of the Fourteenth Century- Ross E. Dunn, University of California Press

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