Sunday, May 31, 2009

Destroy the city to save the city

Abakh Hoja Tomb, 17th century

A graveyard next to the Abakh Hoja Tomb
A street in Kashgar

Idkah Mosque

Blacksmith, Kashgar, China
Blacksmith, Kashgar

These are photos of Kashgar, an ancient city about to be destroyed by the Chinese authorities, supposedly to protect it from earthquakes.

For 2000 years, the city of Kashgar was inhabited by Buddhists, Manicheans, Nestorian Christians, Zoroastrians, and Muslims. In the second century AD, it was the headquarters of a Hinayana sect of Buddhism, with a huge community of monks and hundreds of temples. From the fourth to eighth centuries, it was part of the Manichean Soghdian kingdom of neighboring Transoxiana (present-day Uzbekistan). Among the precious goods traded in Kashgar were silver, gold, wine, pepper, camphor, and musk. After the great battle of Talas in 751, arguably the most important single battle in the history of the world, Muslim Uygurs began to migrate to the Kashgar region. They ruled as the Qarakhanid dynasty from the tenth to twelve centuries. The tomb of the compiler of the first Turkic dictionary, Mahmud Kashgari, remains a popular pilgrimage destination to this day. After Genghis Khan overran Kashgar in the early thirteenth century, the Mongols adopted a policy of religious tolerance, as Marco Polo attested when he passed through the city at the end of the century. The people of Kashgar, wrote Polo:

subsist by commerce and manufacture, particularly works of cotton. They have handsome gardens, orchards, and vineyards. Abundance of cotton is produced there as well as flax and hemp... Besides the Mahometans there are amongst the inhabitants several Nestorian Christians, who are permitted to live under their own laws and to have their churches.

In 1759, after three years of fighting, Kashgar was conquered by the Manchu-Chinese army of the Qianlong emperor.

Now, the Chinese government has decided to protect this ancient city by razing it to the ground. The New York Times reports:

A thousand years ago, the northern and southern branches of the Silk Road converged at this oasis town near the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert. Traders from Delhi and Samarkand, wearied by frigid treks through the world’s most daunting mountain ranges, unloaded their pack horses here and sold saffron and lutes along the city’s cramped streets. Chinese traders, their camels laden with silk and porcelain, did the same.

The traders are now joined by tourists exploring the donkey-cart alleys and mud-and-straw buildings once window-shopped, then sacked, by Tamerlane and Genghis Khan.

Now, Kashgar is about to be sacked again.

Nine hundred families already have been moved from Kashgar’s Old City, “the best-preserved example of a traditional Islamic city to be found anywhere in central Asia,” as the architect and historian George Michell wrote in the 2008 book “Kashgar: Oasis City on China’s Old Silk Road.”

Over the next few years, city officials say, they will demolish at least 85 percent of this warren of picturesque, if run-down homes and shops. Many of its 13,000 families, Muslims from a Turkic ethnic group called the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), will be moved.

In its place will rise a new Old City, a mix of midrise apartments, plazas, alleys widened into avenues and reproductions of ancient Islamic architecture “to preserve the Uighur culture,” Kashgar’s vice mayor, Xu Jianrong, said in a phone interview.
What will remain of old Kashgar is unclear.
No archaeologists monitor the razings, he said, because the government already knows everything about old Kashgar.

The rest of this New York Times article can be read here.


Trudy Ring et al., International Dictionary of Historic Places: Asia and Oceania, Taylor & Francis, 1996

George Michell et al., Kashgar: Oasis City on China's Old Silk Road , frances lincoln ltd, 2008