Silk Road Odysseys

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an exploration of Central Eurasian history through travel literature

A public, adult education course offered by the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
23 April – 28 May 2016

Michael J. Bechtel, Instructor

Description: This course is designed to introduce the student to the complex and fascinating history of Central Eurasia through a rich body of travel literature written about the so-called Silk Roads. The six week course will be structured thematically, approaching the history of Central Eurasia by way of the most important issues and problems in the field. Weekly readings will be texts ranging from the earliest, incredulous records of distant, strange lands; through rich medieval travelogues that gave lustre and mystery to the idea of the Silk Roads; to the modern travel writers searching for a lyrical past by submerging themselves in the contemporary realities of modern Central Eurasia.

Design: Each week, students in this course will choose what interests them from a set of readings and be prepared to discuss those readings at the next class meeting. Some of our class periods will include short presentations with accompanying visual and media, but will consist primarily of discussion about the reading and the themes around which they have been selected. I have chosen a variety of texts for this course not only for their content, but also with some consideration for their availability and appeal to non-specialist readers. The six weekly units have been arranged around unifying themes, but these units will also progress more or less chronologically, helping to build an historical narrative from early written sources to the present. I will provide all readings (generally selections from longer works) through this webpage, printed in class or lend you the books. I will also tailor the reading selections and the entire course, if necessary, to meet the interests of the students in the course as we progress.

Objectives: Upon completion of this course, the student will:

  1. have a general grasp of the historical narrative of Central Eurasia from approximately 500BCE to the 20th century.
  2. have acquired the knowledge to continue exploring the travel literature of Central Eurasia and the information to know what sources to consult.
  3. be prepared with the geographic, cultural and environmental background to make the most of travel to Central Eurasia or its surrounding regions.
  4. be able to confidently continue formal study of Central Eurasian history with further coursework in more specialized topics.

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The Explorers of Central Eurasia

a collection of information and resources about the authors of our readings

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Week 1: Disorientation

23 April 2016: the mysterious west, frozen deserts, flaming mountains, a wall to keep in the civilized

We’ll begin our exploration of Central Eurasia with basics: locations, climates, languages, cultures and peoples. In an attempt to understand the perceptions of the authors we will get to know, we begin by looking at the region in several different ways for new perspectives on Central Eurasia.

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Week 2: The Farmer and the Cowman

30 April 2016: savage nomads and civilized agriculturalists, a dual dependency

This week, we look into the pervasive issue of pastoralism vs./and/or agriculture which has long been on the minds of scholars, travelers and residents of Central Eurasia. As we learned last week, modes of subsistence evolved in response to land and climate. Most peoples in Central Eurasia identify as either pastoral nomads or settled agriculturalists. Cultural differences and resource demands also correspond to this divide. We’ll discuss the many types of pastoralism, the varied agriculture and the dependency between the societies associated with each.

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Week 3: A Smorgasbord of Beliefs

7 May 2016: collisions at religious crossroads, long walks, found in translation

Encountering some of the best and most fascinating journeys ever recorded, we’ll read about decades-long searches for sacred texts, misinformed missionary efforts, never-before-encountered religious customs and attempts to retrace legendary adventures. This week’s reading should be some of our most memorable.

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Week 4: Hordes of Mounted Archers and Pyramids of Skulls

14 May 2016: myth of barbarian cavalry vs. civilized army, government from saddle and throne

So often historical narrative is presented through the lens of conflict that it’s easy to forget it is only one of the many ways to approach an understanding of the past. This week, we will not only talk about important empire projects and wars, but also discuss how Central Eurasian conflicts have shaped our understanding of the region’s history. Additionally, we’ll talk about how Central Eurasian conflicts differ from what we know of those elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, we’ll discuss how war and trade are closely related in preparation for next week’s discussion. Finally, we’ll examine some of the most egregious myths about the most well-known Central Eurasian conquerors, one or two of whom you might have heard.

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Week 5: This Road is not Made of Silk

21 May 2016: agonies of travel, cloth made from the hair of leaves, the amazing adventures of rhubarb

The themes for this class are trade and travel. Continuing some of the discussion from last week, we’ll see how empires and conflict relate in surprising ways to the movement of people, goods and ideas across the many Silk Roads. From the comfort of our upholstered chairs, we’ll read about spine-jarring travel on horse, camel, train and car–all in pursuit of riches of one sort or another. As one of your classmates said, “It was never Route 66!”

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Week 6: Plunder and Pillage

28 May 2016: saving Chinese history from the Chinese, liars in the desert, the tale of a dog named Dash

Our exploration of Central Eurasian history ends with accounts primarily from the 20th century. The colonial age and The Great Game produced passionate, educated and capable pirates from the West who carried away literally tons of textual, archaeological and architectural relics. Reading their own accounts, we’ll discover how these determined and larger-than-life characters made their marks on Central Eurasia.

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