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UNESCO and the Silk Road

The Great Silk Road is of outstanding cultural value to humanity. This accounts for the emphasis that UNESCO, a UN division handling educational, scientific and cultural matters, puts to the study as well as preservation of the great heritage passed on by the ancient nations.

In 1972 UNESCO adopted a Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. 146 countries support this international treaty aimed at involvement of the world community in the process of acknowledgement, protection and revival of unique values human civilization possesses. The Convention provides permanent juridical, administrative and financial base for international cooperation in this sphere. Its realization has given rise to a 'concept of the world heritage', which removes all political and geographic boundaries. International community, according to the adopted convention, should assist the countries to safeguard cultural and natural sites which are recognized as having world-wide significance. To select them, the List of the World Heritage was made. Today 721 sites from more than 100 countries have been inscribed in the List. At the same time, the sites that are under the threat of destruction, deformation or neglect have been listed as World Heritage in Danger. All the works regarding the protection and restoration of these sites are financed by the Fund of the World Heritage.

This extensive activity directly correlates with the development of cultural tourism. According to WTO evidence, tourism is the most profitable business activity in the world. After the World War II, tourism has been developing more dynamically than any other business activity. International experts believe that in the present century tourism will not merely retain but will also accelerate the rate of its development. Thus, in 1998 the revenue of tourism all over the world amounted $ 445 billion and number of tourists reached the figure of nearly 650 million people, whereas by the year of 2010 the specialists expect the number of foreign tourists to double. Accordingly, the profitability of both the tourist industry itself and the businesses connected with it will increase. Making continual high profits, this sphere can promote preservation of the World Heritage sites; however, it can equally create a threat of their degradation and vanishing.

The analysis carried out by the European Commission, showed that for 60 percent of tourists, culture is the prime interest in their travels. Thus it was natural that the 12th Session of the WTO General Assembly adopted the resolution on 'Preservation of the World Heritage for the new millennium". Today thousands of tourist routes are worked out and are being operated on all the continents. However, the most attractive and the longest route, the length of which is 12800 kilometers, is the Great Silk Road. Today tourists follow the paths trodden by expeditions of merchants, missioners, and geographers of the past. It is much due to the tourist itineraries arranged along the Great Silk Road that most of the mankind has got a straight access to the global heritage beyond the geographical domains.

In 1998 UNESCO declared the beginning of a ten-year project called 'Integral Study of the Great Silk Road - the Road of a Dialogue'. It provides for a wide and comprehensive study of history of civilizations, establishment of close cultural relations between the East and the West, improvement of interrelation between the numerous nations that populate Eurasian Continent. Revival of the Silk Road serves the purpose of recommencement of a thousand-year dialogue of civilizations.

In the course of the project realization numerous scientific conferences and workshops have been held, various films have been shot, many books, brochures and articles have been published, a number of archaeological and architectural monuments have been restored. Among the published works there can be named such widely available books as 'The Silk Road - common heritage, different peculiarities', 'Exploration by land', 'Exploration by sea', 'Cultures and Civilizations', 'Inventions and trade'.

International scientific expeditions along the Great Silk Road have undoubtedly become factual and informative basis for this activity.

First travel, in which members of 19 countries participated, took place in the summer of 1990 across the desert from Xian to Kashgar and then to China. It resulted in the international Urumchi workshop called 'Overland routes along the Silk Road and cultural exchange between the East and the West on the brink of the 20th century' and symposium in Dunhuang 'Dunhuang and the Great Silk Road'. This expedition gave rise to the exhibition 'Serindia, Buddha's Land. Ten centuries of art on the Great Silk Road' held in Paris from October 24, 1995 to February 19, 1996. There were also exhibited here the findings and operating materials of the expedition across the steppes of Central Asia (spring-summer of 1991). During this expedition the international team of experts and mass media representatives explored 5000 kilometers of the steppe expanses. The travel was concluded with two scientific seminars: the first called 'The significance of caravansarais and cities built along the ancient Silk Road' was held in Khiva (Uzbekistan), and the second called 'Relations between the cultures of settled and nomadic people along the main section of the Silk Road' took place in Almaty (Kazakhstan).

A deep resonance of the world's public followed the voyage from Venice, which is considered to be the 'gateway' from the West to the East, to Osaka at the end of 1990 and the beginning of 1991. Members of the expedition, scientists and journalists from 34 countries, covered the distance of twenty-seven thousand kilometers.

No less fruitful was the travel around Mongolia from July 10 to August 5, 1992. People of this country can be called a steppe nation, as majority of the country's population still lead the nomadic life. It is reflected in art, crafts, games, knowledge, passed on from generation to generation. One of the main achievements of this expedition was the establishment under the aegis of UNESCO of the International Institute for Study of Nomadic Civilizations in Ulan-Bator.

In many countries the interest in Buddhism is constantly going up. In September 1995, the expedition under the name of 'The Road of Buddhism' was organized to Nepal by the local National Commission of UNESCO and State Department of archaeology of this mountaneous country. The expedition embodied a rather imposing international team. Its members visited Lumbini and the Katmandu valleys, Buddhist community. At the end of the expedition they held two international seminars in Nepal.

UNESCO's project called 'Integral Study of the Great Silk Road, the Road of Dialogue' was so effective and stirred so much of society's interest that it was decided to carry on the project. It was initiated by the International Consultative Commission of the Great Silk Road and many states including independent republics of Central Asia. The programme was prolonged within the framework of a new project of UNESCO 'East-Western Intercultural Relations in Central Asia', which was adopted at the 29th session of UNESCO General Conference in the autumn of 1997. Its realization comprised different activities. The lines of investigation included the study of the manuscripts and languages of the Silk Road nations, study and preservation of caravansarais and postal traffic of the past, collection and study of petroglyphs of Central Asia and many other activities.

With the purpose of in-depth study of interrelation of cultures and civilizations there was set up a network of scientific institutions: the Center for Study of Marine Silk Road (Fu Choy, China), Scientific and Information Center of the Silk Road Study (Nara, Japan), International Institute of Central Asian Researches (Samarkand, Uzbekistan).

The data collected during realization of UNESCO new project enabled the stakeholders to hold in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) in June of 1998 an International Colloquium called 'Samanid Contribution to the Heritage of Central Asia', as well as to publish basic proceedings - 'Atlases of religious monuments and applied arts of Central Asia'.

'Central Asia' is a rather relative notion. Many scientists define its boundaries in different ways. However, this region was the center of ancient civilizations, whose history dates back to long before 1500 BC. Great trade towns such as Kashgar, Kokand, Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Kunya-Urgench, Merv and Nishapur sprang up at the crossroads of the Silk Road routes. Linking Turkey, Caucasus, Western China, Iran, Afghanistan and India, caravan paths consolidated them into one huge cultural and economic area. The opportunities for people as well as for ideas to freely travel around this vast territory promoted the development of science and arts. There appeared a number of prominent encyclopaedists, scientists, poets and philosophers, such as Ibn Sina, Beruni, al-Farghoni, al-Khorezmi, Rudaki, Navoi. Majestic medieval mausoleums, mosques and madrassahs of Central Asia evidence the exquisite mastership of craftsmen. Fascinating Bukhara, Ichan-Kala - the urban centre of Khiva, Timurid's architectural masterpieces of Samarkand and Shakhrisabz have preserved their charm up to the present day.

Taking into consideration the fact that preservation of this heritage on the national level frequently appears to be insufficient in light of the magnitude of the task which entails considerable expenses, and shortage of local economic, scientific and technical resources, UNESCO included a number of unique Central Asian monuments, including Khiva complex of Ichan-Kala, historic centers of Bukhara, Samarkand and Shakhrisabz in the World Heritage List. Now they are under protection of the international community which assists Uzbekistan in restoration and preservation of these monuments for coming generations.

In 1995 UNESCO carried out a technical research within the framework of the UN sponsored project on complex conservation and development of the four tourist centres of the Silk Road: Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand. With UNESCO assistance there were organized the centers of crafts' development in historic sites of these cities. Similar structures have been created in Tashkent too.

Bukhara has always been famous for the art of carpet weaving. In western countries any carpet from Central Asia is still called a 'Bucharan carpet'. Under the aegis of UNESCO in the old mosque of Eshoni Pir in Bukhara there was opened a carpet weaving workshop, where ancient methods and practices of making dyestuffs and yarn are applied. Besides, from the neighbouring villages there were collected and restored old looms for weaving. The same activity has been started in Khiva, the city which is well-known for its carpets, perhaps no less than for its historical monuments of architecture. Today the unique ornaments of these carpets are reconstituted from old photos and on the basis of people's recollections.

Ten-year project aimed at accumulation and study of materials concerning history of culture belonging to the nations who lived in the regions along the Great Silk Road has been successfully completed. Now UNESCO realizes a number of specific projects, the purpose of which is to revive and support particular cultural issues of the region. One of them, which started in 2002, is the project of revival of traditional ceramics workshops.

It is planned to establish the International Association of Ceramists in the near future in order to coordinate this large-scale work on the revival of unique schools in the framework of the project.

The fact that such celebrations as the 2000th anniversary of Tashkent, 2700th anniversary of Shakhrisabz, as well as some other memorable dates of Central Asian ancient cities, have been included into the UNESCO Jubilee List testifies the special concern of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization in preservation and propagation of historical heritage of Central Asia. The International Community celebrated jubilees of great ancestors of Central Asian nations who contributed to the development of the world civilization. Among them we can name Beruni, Ibn Sina, Abdulkholik Gijduvoni.

UNESCO also takes care of preservation of unique 'intangible' monuments. Thus, under the aegis of UNESCO there were held celebrations of the 1000th anniversary of Turkic national epos 'Alpomish', 2700th anniversary of Zoroastrian sacred book 'Avesta'. The collection of manuscripts from Institute of Oriental Studies named after Beruni of the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan, and Koran of Osman kept safe by the Uzbekistan Muslim Religious Board are inscribed on the UNESCO 'World Memory' List.

International musical festival 'Sharq Taronalari' that has been held in Samarkand since 1997 is also under the auspices of UNESCO. The festival has become a powerful tool of popularization of the regional nations' cultural diversity.

Cultural area of Boysun (Uzbekistan) is also designated as one of the masterpieces of folklore and intangible heritage of the mankind. Under UNESCO's patronage there have already been arranged folklore festivals in Boysun. In July 2003 this site was visited by the first scientific expedition, thus initiating the realization of long-term project named 'Preservation of cultural area of Boysun'.

UNESCO seeks to carry out integrated multi-purpose study of the heritage of ancient civilizations whose prosperity in many respects was directly connected with the development of contacts on the Great Silk Road. This noble activity is being carried out both for the sake of our contemporaries and for posterity, as its aim is to pass on to present and coming generations the treasures of the ancient culture in their unique beauty.