The London Magazine
Christopher Wilton-Steer on Photographing the Living History of the Silk Road
In 2019, travel photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer spent four months retracing the Silk Road, the historic trade route. Over a period of four months, he travelled 40,000 km overland by car, bus, train, ferry, horse and camel, traversing sixteen countries. He began his journey from London’s King’s Cross, where the show is staged (8th April 2021 until 16th June).
The exhibition, which is sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and presented in partnership with King’s Cross, comprises over 160 photographs. The Silk Road: A Living History takes the viewer on a journey from London to Beijing, encountering many of the people, places and cultures along the ancient trade route. The exhibition’s linear design creates a physical route for the viewer, offering them the chance to travel by proxy. With galleries closed due to the lockdown, this outdoor exhibition — which allows for social distancing — offers visitors cultural stimulation at a time when we have been starved of it. The London Magazine met Christopher on the eve of the show to find out more.
Why did you undertake this journey to discover the Silk Road?
This was a journey I had dreamed about from a young age. For me, it is the ultimate journey. One that has been travelled and written about for thousands of years. I told myself one day I’ll go. I realised I had been waiting for this ‘one day’ for some time. So, fearful the opportunity would escape me, I started planning it. I wanted to travel from one end of Eurasia to the other over land because I wanted to experience and document the transitions between cultures. When we fly somewhere we arrive at the destination and all aspects of life are different. By traveling over land, I hoped to understand more about the similarities between different cultures and learn more about what connects us.
The purpose of this journey, beyond sating my own personal curiosity, was to create an exhibition that allowed people to walk from one end of Eurasia to the other through photographs, exploring some of the wonders of the Silk Road (particularly the Islamic world), learning about its history and about some of the connections between different cultures that lie just beneath the surface.
Of the countries you visited, what were the highlights of your journey?
I had visited several of the countries on this journey before so when I arrived in Pakistan and Tajikistan, for example, I knew a little of what to expect. I love mountainous regions so it was such a pleasure to be back in the Pamirs of Tajikistan, and the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges of Pakistan. The epic scale of the mountains was a welcome reminder to me of our place in the world and the respect we should afford the natural world. Of the countries I visited for the first time, Iran and Kyrgyzstan, I enjoyed visiting them hugely. Iran for the food, the people, the mesmerizing Islamic art and architectural heritage. And Kyrgyzstan for the horse culture and the wide open expanses and mountain ranges that made it feel a land before time.
Alongside the other agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan Foundation — a charitable organisation — has been active in Central Asia for nearly 30 years, and for almost a century in India and Pakistan. Over this time, the AKDN has channeled significant investments into the economic, social and cultural development of Central and South Asia with the promotion of pluralism and women’s empowerment central to those efforts. So, the work we do in these regions is visible.
On the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border I visited Vanj cross-border bridge which is one of six bridges constructed by AKF to help improve connectivity between these two historically linked regions. Agreements between the respective governments allow traders to sell goods in specially designated markets on one or both sides of the bridges. Afghans can also cross these bridges to receive critical health care saving them a long and arduous journey through the mountains to the nearest Afghan hospital.
In western Kyrgyzstan, I met with a fruit and vegetable farmer called Karimkol. As part of its food security work, the AKF supports many farmers like Karimkol to expand their nurseries so that they can in-turn support other farmers in this remote and mountainous region.
In the Pamir mountains of Eastern Tajikistan, I attended the opening ceremony of a new tourism centre supported by AKF. As part of its economic inclusion efforts, AKF supports the sustainable development of tourism in the region for the benefit of local communities. The aim is to create job opportunities for local people and encourages the preservation of historical heritage, natural resources, and wildlife while supporting tourists to visit this remote and breathtakingly beautiful region.
And in the Himalayas in northern Pakistan, I visited and stayed at Khaplu Palace, a royal residence that was once the seat of Raja of Khaplu. It had long fallen into disrepair but in 2005 it was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. And in 2011 the palace re-opened as a museum and heritage hotel under the Serena Hotel Group in 2011. It’s a remarkable and very romantic place to stay. I hope to travel there with my wife one day.
Some of the photographs we have seen are the ceilings of Mosques. On your journey did you witness places on the trade route that were once very significant places that have been reclaimed by history?
The passage of time and the arc of history has of course taken its toll. Some cities that became rich due to the exchange of goods, people and ideas during the days of the Silk Road have lost their political significance but maintain an enormous cultural cache and allure. Isfahan is one such city. When the great Safavid ruler of Persia, Shah Abbas I, made Isfahan his capital and rebuilt it into one of the largest and most beautiful cities in the world in 1598, it would have been one of the most important cities in the world. Envoys from all the civilisations known to the Persians would have travelled to it to pay homage. That, of course, isn’t the case today. Tehran is the political capital.
Another city I visited, Ani in eastern Anatolia in Turkey which sat on one of the key crossroads of the Silk Road was known in the 10th century as the city of ‘the city of 1001 churches’. It attracted visitors from far and wide. However, it has lain in ruins for 700 years. The destruction caused by the Mongol invasion in 1236 and an earthquake in 1319 mean that only a few vestiges of that city remain today. What does remain tells a fascinating story about eastern Anatolia’s Christian past and the powerful Armenian kingdoms that once ruled this region.
Tell us about your experience being in Turkmenistan and your experience being in the city of Ashgabat.
Bordering Iran to the west and Uzbekistan to the east, Turkmenistan is one of the least visited countries in the world. Obtaining a visa is a notoriously lengthy and unpredictable process to so I felt very fortunate to get one in advance of my Silk Road journey. After crossing the border from Iran and meeting my government appointed guide, I stayed in the city of Mary, known in ancient times as Merv before heading to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s otherworldly capital. It is certainly one of the most surreal places I have visited.
As we drove into the city, I was first struck by how bright and clean it was. Almost every building is clad in white marble. The city is blinding in the sunlight. The roads are pristine and the gardens manicured. Vast statues, futuristic monuments, and enormous fountains adorn the city but there is barely a soul there to see them. Guards stand silently to attention but there is almost no one there to protect the monuments from.
Outside the huge government ministry buildings, not even a smoker is in sight. I looked for a trace of life on the balconies of the gleaming monolithic apartment buildings — drying laundry or a plant — but found none. When I visited the National Museum for a tour, I was the only visitor.
It’s a truly strange place which needs to be seen to be believed.
I read that your experience visiting Kyrgyzstan was one of the few places you felt genuine wilderness. Can you elaborate on your feelings with this stop along the route?
As I mentioned previously, I hadn’t visited Kyrgyzstan before so I had this idea in my head about what it would be like and, of course, it was nothing like that. I was struck by the vastness of the landscapes. The Pamirs mountains of neighboring Tajikistan are much sharper, dryer and higher. In Kyrgyzstan the ranges are much gentler and the valleys much wider. Many people still live a semi-nomadic life there, meaning they live in yurts and move with the seasons. Their impact on the environment is negligible and ephemeral. So in rural areas you see a lot less of the human developments that blights many landscapes around the world. In places, thousands of horses, sheep, cows, yak and camel dot the landscape herded by men on horses. It spoke to me of a time when humans lived in greater harmony with the natural world. This, and the sense of quiet and isolation, had a spiritual quality for me.
You also visited the Ancient city of Persepolis which was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire in (550-330 BC). Although there are just ruins left today, what kind of histories and stories can we tell from them?
I think the thing that stood out to me the most was despite them being the most powerful empire in the ancient world, they had this very pluralistic outlook and showed tolerance of different religions. When Cyrus the Great took the throne he famously said that he would ‘respect the traditions, customs and religions of the nations of my empire and never let any of my governors and subordinates look down on or insult them. I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any one of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign.’
What are you most looking forward to in your upcoming outdoor exhibition in London? What do you hope that visitors take away from it all?
I’m excited to see it all come together. The germ of this thought — to travel the Silk Road — came to me when I was a boy and it has been growing ever since. To see it all come together is tremendously exciting. I hope that at a time when we haven’t been able to travel or even leave our homes that this outdoor exhibition will provide a taste of that travel experience and encourage people to visit and learn more about some of the people, places and cultures along the Silk Road when we can actually travel again. I also hope that the exhibition transmits the sense of curiosity, awe and wonder I felt on my journey and that visitors feel sense of connection between different cultures that lie just beneath the surface. I would like for the exhibition to both celebrate differences and highlight the beliefs and values that we have in common.
Christopher Wilton-Steer, b.1983, is a travel photographer based in London. His professional and personal work take him to remote locations across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Through his photography, he is interested in exploring less well documented and often misunderstood parts of the world in an effort to help demystify them and build bridges of interest and understanding between different cultures. Ultimately, he wishes for his photographs to encourage others to take the road less travelled and explore, experience and encounter new places, people and cultures.
His work has been featured in magazines and newspapers around the world including National Geographic, The Guardian, CNN, Financial Times, and Der Spiegel amongst others. He had his first exhibition at the Institut Française in Antananarivo, Madagascar, in November 2016. Wilton-Steer’s second exhibition — The Artisans of al-Darb al-Ahmar: Life and Work in Historic Cairo — was shown at the London’s Royal Geographical Society in April 2018. The same exhibition was shown at Philanthropy House in Brussels between January and April 2019 and will tour Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver in 2021. Wilton-Steer has served as Head of Communications at Aga Khan Foundation (UK) since 2013, prior to roles at Random House China and Brandhouse in the UK.
About the Aga Khan Foundation
The Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) seeks to improve the quality of life, promote pluralism, and enhance self-reliance in poor and marginalised communities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. AKF strives to enhance agriculture and food security, promote early childhood development and access to quality education, improve health and nutrition, advance economic inclusion, and strengthen civil society.
Working in partnership with communities, governments and others, for over 50 years, AKF’s long-term, community-based approach has addressed and benefited people of all faiths and backgrounds, especially women and girls, using an approach that is locally rooted but globally informed. Active in 20 countries, AKF is a member of the Aga Khan Development Network, one of the world’s leading international development organisations.
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