The very term “Silk Road” is rather magical, evoking images of camel caravans, oases, saffron-clad missionary monks. Silk is the strongest of natural fibers; maybe that’s why China has labeled one of its missiles, exported to Iran among other countries, the Silkworm missile. The fabled road (actually a web of routes), by which silk traveled the ancient world, produced strong ties between cultures. In the second century BCE, Han China began trading with the kingdom of Bactria (Afghanistan). Eventually roads linked Xian, in China, all the way to Antioch on the Mediterranean coast. One might say the Silk Road in a broader sense extended to Nara, Japan in the east, and to Rome in the west.
The ancient Roman aristocracy was enthralled by Chinese silks, and other commodities from the East as well, notably pepper and cinnamon. This ensured that Rome ran a substantial trade deficit with Asian countries as Roman silver flowed to the latter. Huge caches of Roman coins have been found all over India. Along with commodities, ideas flowed via the Silk Road. Buddhism spread into Central Asia and China from India, and into Afghanistan and Iran by the first few centuries of the Common Era. Christianity traveled the road (and maritime routes) to India and beyond, disseminated by missionaries and merchants. The two faiths may well have crossed paths in Syria; non-Biblical features of Catholicism, such as a celibate clergy, monks and nuns, clerical vestments, rosaries, worship of saints, reverence for relics, and use of incense in masses, were all to be found in Buddhism before Christianity existed.
St. Clement of Alexandria (Egypt) was aware of Buddha as an historical figure; he mentioned him in a homily delivered about the year 200. In 393 St. Jerome, in Bethlehem, wrote in a work defending the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth that Buddha, according to the Indians, had also been born of a virgin (from her right side). He treated it as a plausible story. When you study the Silk Road, you become aware of very interesting links between peoples, ideas, mythologies.
Now, along this Silk Road there was a town called Bam, in what is today Kerman province in the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was a flourishing marketplace by the third century if not earlier; at some point, a great fort (the Arg-e-Bam or Citadel of Bam), the largest adobe building in the world, surrounded by moats, high walls and circular guard towers, was constructed here. In its long history, Bam must have been the scene of Zoroastrian rites, Buddhist missions, Nestorian Christians’ proselytizing activity, and Manichean preaching, before the arrival of Islam. Alexander the Great’s troops conquered the region, maybe before the town was established. But because Bam has been continuously inhabited for at least 2,200 years, it is an historical treasure, for Iran and the world. Maybe 100,000 tourists, Iranian and foreign, visited Bam last year.
This Bam, you may know, was recently flattened by an earthquake, 6.6 on the Richter scale. Buildings of sunbaked bricks and straw crumbled; the walled metropolis collapsed. About 30,000 (out of 182,000 townspeople) died. International aid has poured in, including assistance from the United States, which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the revolution in 1979. Washington even agreed to lift sanctions on Iran for a 90-day period. This happens just at the time that U.S.-Iranian relations are somewhat improving, and the neocons hell-bent on regime change in Tehran are suffering setbacks in intra-administration debate. Just as Richard Perle and David Frum publish a new “manual for victory” against Iran and other evils, Colin Powell praises Tehran for signing a special protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). His deputy Richard Armitage told Congress in October that the U.S. does not, in fact, plan to affect regime change in Iran. On the other hand, President Bush has demanded that, as a condition for better relations, Iran turn over al-Qaeda members apprehended in Iran to the U.S. He fails to note that Iran has its own quarrels with al-Qaeda, and its own right to deal with any members fleeing Afghanistan, according to its own laws. (Perhaps one should recall here that after the Iranian Revolution, the U.S. refused to turn over the Shah, who had fled to the U.S., to the new Iranian regime headed by Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, despite the fact that the Shah had committed crimes against the Iranian people comparable to those committed against the Iraqis by Saddam Hussein. Outrage at such refusal prompted the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, the “hostage crisis,” and the enduring climate of enmity.)
An early report suggested that Sen. Elizabeth Dole, former Red Cross head, might visit Bam as part of a U.S. delegation to explore ways to help. The Iranians politely declined, apparently, but they have gratefully accepted U.S. medical personnel, such as the 60 sent from Boston-area hospitals.
There could be some ping-pong diplomacy in the works. But such diplomacy will be complicated by the fact that both the U.S. and Iranian power structures are divided. Religious fundamentalists hold great influence in both, and seeing the world in simplistic, Good vs. Evil, Manichean terms (did I mention Manicheanism started in Iran, then spread along the Silk Road in all directions?) they are inclined to march towards Armageddon, confident that God is on their side. “Realists” (or “internationalists” as some call them, although I think it a misuse of the noble term), on the other hand seek the resolution of bilateral problems, and normalization of relations, through negotiated compromise.
The U.S. is an advanced imperialist country; Iran is a middling capitalist country dependent for its development on international capital. Relations as “normal” (as “normal” can be under the current international system) are surely possible. The mullahs call the U.S. “the Great Satan,” partly because they are revolted by American culture, but mostly because they remember the vicious rule of the U.S.-backed Shah. But many thousands of Iranians in their forties and fifties studied in the U.S. (in 1980 Iranians were the largest foreign college student contingent in the country); they probably have good feelings for the American people, if bad feelings for the U.S. government. If the U.S. can have normal relations with Saudi Arabia, whose clerics (and perhaps the majority of whose people) also despise much about the U.S., and have huge economic dealings with that oil-rich country, the U.S. can do so with Iran.
But the neocons don’t want to settle for normalized relations. Even if Iran submitted to all their demands (nuclear inspections, al-Qaeda handover, end to support for Hamas and Hezbollah) they wouldn’t be satisfied. They want victory over Evil, dammit, and settling for anything less constitutes a “loss of will.” Victory means toppling regimes (like the U.S. did in Iran in 1953) and building up new ones dedicated to good American values and democracy. But their vision of democracy is idiosyncratic. As we see in Iraq, it doesn’t mean free elections (which could empower Islamists), or the right to freely demonstrate, or the right to freely criticize the imperialist enterprise. It means occupation, military bases, and hand-picked leaders. Long term, it means exclusion from the “democratic” political process of anyone challenging the imperialist-dictated program. It entails adherence to the globalization agenda, and non-hostile if not fully normalized relations with Israel. It means an end to Islamism as a threatening political phenomenon. But to make Muslims (or other normal people for that matter) think like Richard Perle would require years of occupation, and the sort of thought-remolding methods that people throughout the Muslim world would likely resist.
So on the modern Silk Road (linking Iraq to North Korea), Iran, the central cog in the Axis of Evil, mourns its losses while the world in general feels cause to mourn, with Iran, its human and cultural tragedy. Colin Powell wonders how to use the Bam tragedy to produce a breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations. So does Iranian President Khatami. Meanwhile, neocons wonder how to use it to facilitate regime change; they dearly hope it won’t lead to any mellowing of relations with the current regime, a regime of Evil. The mullahs similarly hope it won’t alter Iran’s hostile stance towards “the Great Satan.” These two latter complement one another; as I mentioned, there are very interesting links between people, ideas, and mythologies the world over.
Changing the subject: this evil Satan figure is another Iranian product trafficked down the Silk Road for centuries. The Jews in Babylonian exile (586-538 BCE) encountered the Iranian, Zoroastrian concept of an evil being nearly equal in power to the good God (these called Angra Mainyu and Ahura Mazda respectively), and developed the character of Satan, which means “adversary” in Hebrew. He accompanied the exiles back to Judea. In later Judaism, Satan becomes insignificant, but in Christianity, as well as Islam, he of course remains quite important. Christian, Manichean, and Islamic missionary efforts and trade (and in the Islamic case, military conquest) brought belief in Satan into India, Central Asia and beyond. In the original Zoroastrian conception, the two deities, Evil and Good, war upon one another throughout the history of the cosmos until the whole process culminates in the triumph of Ahura Mazda over Angra Mainyu. Thus, however difficult times may seem, people (at least the most gullible, and there are many) can always have hope, knowing that good will ultimately triumph.
But in the real world, the centuries roll on, and people in power cynically exploit these very, very old, simple ideas (which they themselves often do not believe) to organize support for their own, merely mundanely evil, objectives.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at: email@example.com