EARLIER THIS WEEK the outstanding online news cooperative The Tuqay ran my story about the tomb of Imam Asim in Hotan. Hovering on the southern perimeter of the Taklamakan Desert, Hotan is perhaps most famous for its jade, something that has drawn Chinese traders for millennia. It’s also renowned as the first place outside China where silk was cultivated. According to the story, in around AD 50 a wily Chinese concubine who was married off to a Khotanese prince brought silk worm eggs out of China in her hair. Perhaps this was an act of industrial espionage, in reverse, the concubine exacting her revenge by ending China’s monopoly on silk production after she was banished to the conjugal relations on the periphery of the realm.
Modern Hotan is still known for its jade, and has a reputation for carpet making. I spent a bit of time at the jade market, a clamour of traders and shoppers on the banks of the Yurungkash river just on the edge of town. Apparently the river, which was long the source of jade, has been over exploited. Among the stalls and shops there was jade in all manner of forms – some looked like little more than tarted up river pebbles with a cheap gloss of varnish. There was nothing much that caught my eye, but I did buy some cheap costume jewellery – amethyst glass – from a weather beaten Uyghur woman with leathery palms.
The tomb of Imam Asim was far more interesting than the jade market, for mine. To get there we had to pass through the edges of town. So often it is in these little-visited corners that you get an insight into workaday life, into what makes a place tick. I remember dusty roads, corner shops, kids on bikes, irrigation canals, clusters of houses that didn’t quite constitute villages, kids swimming in the canals, stands of tall, shady poplars such a feature of the agricultural areas that ring the oasis cities of Xinjiang.
Hotan, for all of its current backwater status, played a pivotal role in various histories. This was a foothold in the region for Buddhism, which emerged out of India to the south. A Buddhist kingdom of Khotan was established here in around 200BC. It was conquered by Tibetans in the late 8th century, then the Karakhanids (or Karahanlı as they are known to the Turks), amongst whom moved Imam Asim. It was then that the Turkic languages came to replace pre-existing languages of the Taklamakan.
In 955, Karakhanid Sultan Satuq Bughra Khan was the first Turkic ruler to convert to Islam. Arabic sources say that ‘two hundred thousand tents of the Turks’ converted in 960. It’s my understanding that prior to this the Muslim presence in Central Asia was entirely Persian (indeed, a strong Persian imprint remains in Tajikistan, obviously, but also the notable cities of Uzbekistan, including Samarkand and Bukhara). Whatever the case, it would seem that Turkic groups didn’t convert on mass, but the process of Islamicisation took place over centuries. By the time Marco Polo passed through Hotan in the second half of the 13th century, all the population was Muslim; he noted that they “lived by trade and industry” and were “not at all warlike”.
The Karakhanids had become the dominant Turkic dynasty in the region following the decline of the Uyghur khaganate, which was established further east in Mongolia (in around 744) and after which the Uyghurs of the modern era are named. But the Karakhanids are significant because they mark the first instance of the westward movement of Turkic peoples under the banner of Islam that resulted in the Turkification of much of Central Asia but also saw the eventual arrival of the Turks in Europe.
Phew! That’s a lot of dynasties and eras… Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, but if your interest is piqued and want more explanation (in prose a lot more appealing than this post!!) Valerie Hansen’s Silk Road: a new history is an engaging read.