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Central Asia’s Catechism of Cliché: From the Great Game to Silk Road

Troops of the Russian Empire take the ‘Silk Road’ city of Samarkand in 1868 as part of the ‘Great Game.’ The ideas of both the ‘Great Game’ and ‘Silk Road’ as they are generally understood today are inaccurate, Alexander Morrison argues. (Painting by Nikolai Karazin, public domain)

When people ponder the history of Central Asia, they tend to have two ideas in mind – that the region has long been the subject of great power rivalry, known since the 19th century as the ‘Great Game,’ and that prior to that, for over 2,000 years, the region was at the heart of a major trade route connecting China and Europe, known as the ‘Silk Road.’
 
Both of these ideas, as they are generally understood today, are inaccurate. They have become clichés that are sometimes used in absurd ways. In early 2017, for example, the ‘Mega Silk Way,’ the largest shopping mall in Central Asia, opened its doors across the road from my university in Astana. The mall is a jumble of chain restaurants and designer boutiques; it also features tropical fish tanks and a dolphinarium, creating an incongruous ‘oceanic’ theme in a place located over a thousand miles north of where the ‘Silk Road’ supposedly ran. In short, what was once a historical concept has become a ubiquitous brand.
 

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Central Asia’s Catechism of Cliché: From the Great Game to Silk Road

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