Universiteit Leiden

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Leiden University Centre for the Study of Islam and Society

Islam in Central Asia: Shrines along the Silk Road

This programme examines cultural space, national identity and the politics of tangible and intangible heritage in Islamic Central Asia.

Central Asia is a region with fluid borders stretching into present-day Afghanistan, Russia, China, Mongolia, Iran and the Caucasus; a premodern highway of global interaction and today increasingly important as a centre stage of geopolitical interests. One of the central topics of research in this programme will be the following:

Forging histories: cultural space, national identity and the politics of tangible and intangible heritage in Islamic Central Asia

Some of the most controversial examples of modern treatment of cultural space can be found along the routes we call today the “Silk Road”. A western metaphor, coined in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, the Silk Road captures the allure of the East in a cultural palimpsest of great empires and their artistic achievements across overland and maritime routes from China to the Eastern Mediterranean.

At the heart of the Silk Road is Central Asia – but what exactly is Central Asia? Political and cultural boundaries have been frequently reconfigured. The search for national identities and the process of shaping new nations today heavily leans on a selective use of the past: historical figures acquire new roles as national heroes and are monopolised by certain groups, in the attempt to evoke national pride based on strong leadership.

In this context, cultural (tangible and intangible) heritage and material culture are increasingly being utilized as a tactic of authoritarian legitimation in predominantly Muslim societies. Along with this phenomenon, a reckless commercialization of the historical past can be witnessed. This program proposes to investigate the different aspects of the usage of Islamic heritage in Central Asia, in relation to identity formation and geopolitics in past and present.

Gur-i Amir Mausoleum, Samarkand | photo by Elena Paskaleva
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