The trail we hiked in the Tien Shan Mountains of Uzbekistan suddenly cliffed out against a roaring river. That's when the archaeologists Farhad Maksudov and Michael Frachetti did what any self-respecting scientist would do in the same position: stripped down to their skivvies and forded the river, hoisting their high-tech equipment over their shoulders.
In summer 2018, I traveled to Uzbekistan to document the work of the Archaeology of the Qarakhanids (ARQ) Project, an international team of archaeologists dedicated to discovering evidence of a "missing" empire, the Qarakhanids, who ruled the Silk Road from 900-1100 A.D. That's how Maksudov, Frachetti and I ended up hiking in our underwear up a remote mountain valley on Uzbekistan's border with Tajikistan.
We were searching for the abandoned Qarakhanid fortress of Myk, whose location was mentioned in an Arabic text from 900. Sites like Myk are rare because the Qarakhanids were all but wiped from the historical record when Ghenghis Khan conquered the Silk Road, in 1200 A.D. The Qarakhanids were among those societies laid to waste by the Mongols. In their place, descendants of Ghenghis Khan's rebuilt Silk Road cities like Samarkand and Bukhara with the blue-tiled structures that are now recognized as UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites.
The Qarakhanid Empire is key to understanding not just the medieval history of the Silk Road, but the culture of that region as it exists today. The Qarakhanids brought the Islamic faith out of the Arab world and into Central Asia; they repelled the Christian invaders during the First Crusade; and they imported some of the world's finest craftspeople to develop trade centers for silk, pottery, and steel products. Yet, for all their contributions, the Qarakhanids are all but forgotten.
Maksudov and Frachetti led me on a 300-mile journey along the modern-day Silk Road searching for evidence of the Qarakhanid Empire. The trip took us from Bukhara to Samarkand, and from the fortress of Myk to the great fortress of Aksiket in the Ferghana Valley. Along the way, we went to archaeological dig sites, visited what few Qarakhanid temples are still standing, and met craftspeople – silk spinners, potters and blacksmiths – practicing the same trades as during the Medieval era. And we spent time with semi-nomadic people who grazed their livestock on the grounds of buried Qarakhanid townsites. I learned that once you learn the signs, the remains of the "missing" Qarakhanid Empire are hidden in plain sight.
This project was funded in part by
the National Geographic Society.