Opinion | Shadows on the Silk Road

YANGON, Myanmar — The looming decline of the United States was revealed to me, five Novembers ago, at a truck stop in Uzbekistan. I was napping after a long day’s hike near the old trading city of Kokand when a brawl exploded. Drunks howled. Fists smacked flesh. Somewhere a window shattered. An anxious waitress poked her head into my curtained dining booth. She wanted to know if I had any sugar in my backpack for a homemade compress to stanch a client’s stab wound.

Amid the ruckus, I nearly missed the day’s big news. A Russian anchor was announcing it breathlessly from a television bolted to a wall: Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.

Looking back, it seems almost farcical to view that gloomy afternoon in Central Asia as a portent of America’s coming age of toxic polarization, mobocracy and global retreat. But the impression has been tough to shake. Maybe it’s because I have spent the entire Trump administration stepping over the rubble of another once dynamic but collapsed experiment in multilateralism: the Silk Road.

I am walking across the world. Since 2013, I have been retracing, on foot, the pathways of the first Homo sapiens who roamed out of Africa during the Stone Age. Often, I write about what I see, using the deep past as a guide to navigate current events.

Lately, it has been dizzying to inch along the Silk Road, a fabled 2,000-year-old trade nexus connecting the markets and minds of Asia, Europe and Africa through a complex web of commercial trails while the United States, under its most polarizing leader in generations, experiences extreme polarization over race and identity, the rise of white supremacist militias and an autocratic president assaulting the national institutions till his very last days in office.

Seen from afar, my home country isn’t just shrinking over my shoulder. It’s withdrawing into a fetal position.

I slogged over Central Asian steppes flooded by the wettest rainfalls in memory, for example, when Washington turned its back on the Paris Agreement on climate change. President Trump tweeted his tariff wars against China while I dodged homicidal traffic on the 2,500-year-old Grand Trunk Road in India — probably the oldest overland trade route still in bustling use.

For more than 6,000 miles, I have trailed the footsteps of polyglot merchants, Nestorian Christian monks, Buddhist pilgrims and Muslim Persian scholars who made the Silk Road a conduit of human innovation while a steel copy of the Great Wall of China rises on the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Trump!” a soldier crowed when I plodded, sun-chapped and stinking of campfire smoke, to the border of Kyrgyzstan. He gave me a wink and a thumbs up. Like most security personnel I have encountered on my walk, he admired a fellow blood-and-soil nationalist in the White House. The joke was on him, though. I got into Kyrgyzstan. The poor Kyrgyz, by contrast, were lumped into Mr. Trump’s “Muslim ban,” which severely restricted travel to the United States for several countries’ citizens.

The Silk Road entwined the appetites of the ancient Roman and Chinese empires more than 2,000 years ago. A 19th-century German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trading route after its most famous commodity. But far more than silk was involved. The Silk Road, which came to symbolize freewheeling cross-cultural exchange, spread ancient Greek art eastward into Buddhist Central Asia. Chinese paper — an invention crucial, like computers, for transmitting knowledge cheaply and quickly — traveled westward into medieval Arabia and Europe.

The teachings of Aristotle and the Indian mathematical concept of zero bumped along with dusty camel caravans. By A.D. 1,000, this rich civilizational bazaar turned the gatekeepers of the Silk Road, the Islamic city-states of Central Asia, into booming, multicultural hubs of learning.

“For centuries before the early modern era, the intellectual centers of excellence of the world, the Oxfords and Cambridges, the Harvards and Yales, were not located in Europe or the west, but in Baghdad and Balkh, Bukhara and Samarkand,” the British historian Peter Frankopan wrote in “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World.”

In the summer of 2016, my Kazakh walking partner fired blanks from a starting pistol to shoo away curious wolves at night as we crossed the Ustyurt Plateau, a sky-hammered desert shared by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. We were en route to one of the region’s pearls: the oasis of Khiva.

A sandstone confection of courtyards, minarets and mosques, Khiva is a triumph of Central Asian architecture. The high-ceilinged verandas of its palaces face north, catching the cooling desert winds of summer. Tiny living rooms kept residents warm in winter. Its urban design was a masterpiece of thermodynamics. Scholars labored at a royal academy between the 10th and 12th centuries, translating classical Greek texts to Arabic, adopting Chinese technological innovations, improving on Persian and Indian mathematics. It was a melting pot of globalized knowledge.

“A thousand years ago we had world-class astronomers, mathematicians and many other scientists here,” said Inessa Yuvakaeva, a cultural guide in the town’s walled old city. “We were more advanced than Europe.”

The Islamic Golden Age of science and art that predated the Italian Renaissance by 400 years was illuminated by Turkic and Persian thinkers from the eastern rim of the Abbasid Caliphate, in what is today Central Asia, western China and parts of Iran.

Ms. Yuvakaeva ticked off some homegrown Einsteins. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, a ninth-century genius who helped formulate the precepts of algebra, has lent his name to the word “algorithm.” A century later, the brilliant polymathic Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni wrote more than 140 manuscripts on everything from pharmaceuticals to the anthropology of India. (A typical al-Biruni title: “The Exhaustive Treatise on Shadows.”)

Probably the most celebrated Silk Road sage of all was Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina, revered in the West as Avicenna, who in the 11th century compiled an encyclopedia of healing that was still in use by European doctors as late as the 18th century. Avicenna’s “Canon of Medicine” accurately diagnosed diabetes by tasting sweetness in urine. Its pharmacopoeia cataloged more than 800 remedies. A millennium ago, Avicenna advocated quarantines to control epidemics. What would he make, I wondered, of the willed ignorance of today’s anti-maskers in the United States?

Pacing off continents is an exercise in humility. You inhabit the limit of your daily strides. To the next tree shade. To the next horizon. In return, the walk confers a kind of equanimity. Call it the long view. The Silk Road soon enough becomes every road. And just as some nations sink into their dreams along your way, others blink awake.

Take Uzbekistan. A crossroads of the old Silk Road, the landlocked ex-Soviet republic recently baby-stepped from police state to modest reform. Ruled a thousand years ago by Iranian and Turkic kingdoms, the region traded lucratively with China, Persia and India, enriching cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. More than six decades of Communism under the Soviet Union forced the settlement of nomads, suppressed religion and steamrollered the old feudal hierarchies. By the late 1990s, a fundamentalist backlash led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan erupted and was ruthlessly suppressed.

When I walked through the country, billboards exhorted citizens to “Be vigilant!” These Orwellian notices ostensibly targeted Muslim militancy. But in practice, they stoked suspicion of any “other,” including my Uzbek walking partners, two pack donkeys and me. A paranoid fear of outsiders gripped the muddy hamlets along the Amu Darya, the river Alexander the Great called the Oxus. Peeking from behind lace curtains, cellphones clamped to ears, local farmers constantly reported us to the police. Uzbek security forces detained us for questioning 34 times.

“Do me a favor,” said a secret policeman in a desert outpost called Jaslyk, where the regime maintained a notorious political prison. “Leave town now. There are five or six security agencies here. We all spy on each other. You’re making extra work.”

Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan’s dictator, died while I was traversing the insular country in September 2016. (“Your destiny is my destiny,” Mr. Karimov liked to tell his people. “Your happiness is my happiness.”) Life for Uzbeks has improved a bit since. The gulag has closed. The economy is liberalizing.

Once pandemic restrictions ease, tourists wanting to visit the homeland of Silk Road philosophers like al-Biruni will no longer need to carry — as I once did — 11 pages of security permits simply to sleep outside an officially sanctioned hotel.

Back in the United States, the country seems to have U-turned into mustier Uzbek terrain. The government has erected its own fearmongering ads: Immigration and Customs Enforcement billboards in Pennsylvania featured mug shots of undocumented migrants charged with crimes. Federal agents interrogated American citizens for speaking Spanish in Montana. And a departing president with his own huge personality cult reportedly suggested shooting migrants in the legs at the Rio Grande. Mr. Trump’s mainstreaming of racism, xenophobia and science denialism doesn’t look very temporary. More than 74 million American voters endorsed it. And some even answered his call for insurrection.

The Silk Road made our world. Ten centuries ago, incredibly diverse societies spanning a hemisphere extended an open hand — true enough, one holding the coin of commerce — and not a closed fist. Humanity’s capacity for curiosity grew. So, for a while, did intellectual achievement and open-mindedness. But by the 1600s, it had faded.

The historian S. Frederick Starr carefully parses the Silk Road’s decline in his book “Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age From the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.” He blames Mongol invasions, shriveling patronage by wealthy sultans, rising European maritime competition and even climate change as factors of collapse. But he emphasizes a phenomenon that seems scraped from today’s social media: extreme polarization.

Weakened by dynastic struggles, the powerful Abbasid Caliphate that ruled Central Asia from Baghdad began to unravel under the strain of religious rivalries between Sunni and Shia Muslim sects, Mr. Starr writes. A purifying, literalist Islamic movement called Ash’arism emerged in reaction against the rationalism of the Muslim Golden Age and its “outside elements” of thought.

“By the late 11th century a full-blown cultural war was underway,” writes Mr. Starr. It was Muslim against Muslim, with “Sunni watchdogs of the faith making sure that no thinker strayed beyond the strict bounds of tradition, and Shiite watchdogs of the faith responding in kind. Free inquiry was caught in the crossfire.”

The end was cruel. When colonial Europeans re-encountered a slumbering Central Asia in the 19th century, the storied khanates of the Silk Road had devolved into a curiosity cabinet of backwaters. Local despots had sealed off their people from the outside world. Imperial Russia and Britain easily subjugated the last walled cities. The moldering libraries of the Islamic enlightenment were hauled off to St. Petersburg and London.

Walking through Afghanistan in 2017, I saw how little the outside world’s disdain for Central Asia has changed since then. I scaled 16,000-foot snowfields in the Wakhan Corridor, a Silk Road shortcut through the Hindu Kush. Stonewalled villages hung like wasps’ nests from cliffs. Ismaili mountaineers piled wild rams’ horns atop the graves of their dead, as they probably had for thousands of years. The only visible evidence of America’s catatonic, $2 trillion war in Afghanistan was the exhausted face in my pocket shaving mirror. (I covered the fall of the Taliban and its aftermath in the winter of 2001-02.)

The Pentagon dropped its “mother of all bombs,” a 20,000-pound explosive, on the Islamic State that summer. This recalled a 120-year-old passage from Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” describing a colonial warship shelling the coast of Western Africa:

“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding.”

Comparing the suicide of Silk Road khanates with suicidal American politics is a flawed exercise. To start with, antique Central Asians didn’t vote. Nor have the residents of Washington, D.C., faced the apocalyptic scene that greeted the inhabitants of the world’s most sophisticated civilization on the morning of Feb. 10, 1258: Mongol invaders breached the walls of Baghdad, massacred its civilian population and dumped the wisdom gathered across centuries — thousands of priceless manuscripts looted from 36 city libraries — into the Tigris.

This historic act of vandalism was said to stain the river currents black with ink. There is some consolation in this bleak story. History never walks the same paths twice.

“America is back, ready to lead the world, and not retreat from it,” President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced after his November victory, promising a global reset after years of ebbing U.S. power that predates Mr. Trump’s isolationism.

Whether that happens is questionable. The Americans who swarmed into the Capitol behind Confederate battle flags, hoping to overturn a democratic election, inhabit an information reality, fed by tribal media, that is as hermetic as a sect. Chasms in perception doom consensus. A poll conducted over the summer revealed that almost a third of the American electorate would accept “a strong incumbent leader who does not have to bother with Congress and elections.”

Meanwhile, the world walks on. And the ground slopes east toward an Asian century. Across Central Asia I rambled landscapes transformed by brand-new highways, railroads, pipelines and communications grids. Much of this construction is linked to China’s 21st-century version of the Silk Road, the multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, described by many as the most ambitious infrastructure project on the planet today.

In Kazakhstan, Chinese workers dressed in spotless coveralls came out to gape as I led my cargo horse through their colossal oil field. I must have seemed a raggedy apparition from the distant past, some mirage conjured by the wild steppe. I felt like one. They fed me ice cream.

I skidded down the Karakoram mountain range into Pakistan. The most memorable archaeological ruins from the Silk Road’s glory years rot atop a hill about 60 miles southeast of Islamabad. No monuments or signs mark the Nandana Fort. Few people go there. But it was where, in the early 11th century, the Central Asian scholar al-Biruni became the first person to measure, with astonishing precision, the size of Earth. His calculations, based on brilliant trigonometry, landed within 200 miles of the 24,902-mile circumference of our shared planet.

I climbed a broken fort wall and peered east. Ahead unspooled 17 months of hiking across India, yet another democracy cartwheeling into an abyss of right-wing populism. Riding a wave of Hindu nationalism, one Indian state all but criminalized marriages between Hindu and Muslim citizens.

In the blue distance beyond sprawled China. Its economic output in 2019, according to one report, hit 67 percent of the United States’ gross domestic product. The gap between China and the United States is shrinking as China is the only major economy expected to report economic growth for 2020 despite the pandemic. And brawling with itself at some crossroad truck stop far over the horizon lay my lost homeland.

I asked villagers who’d spent their entire lives under the crumbling ramparts of Nandana if they had ever heard of al-Biruni. They hadn’t. None could even give the ruins a name.

Paul Salopek (@PaulSalopek), a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a writer for National Geographic and is at work on a book about his foot journey around the world.

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