Christopher I. Beckwith: Empires of the Silk Road

Readers are introduced to Professor Christopher I. Beckwith’s text: “Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Asia from the Bronze Age to the Present” (available on


  • Author: Christopher I. Beckwith
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Date: Reprinted in 2011
  • ISBN-10: 0691150346; ISBN-13: 978-0691150345

This book is recommended reading for Kaveh Farrokh’s Fall 2014 course “The Silk Route Origins and History“. Readers interested in the history of the Silk Route are also referred to the “Soghdian-Turkish Relations Symposium” (21-23 November, 2014) being held in Istanbul, Turkey (for brochure of conference, list of participants, etc., kindly click on images below to enlarge): Sogut_Program


Christopher I. Beckwith’s text provides a comprehensive history of Central Eurasia from antiquity to the current era. This is an excellent text that provides a critical analysis of the Empires of the Silk Road by analyzing the true origins and history of this critical region of Eurasia.


Statue of a foreigner holding a wineskin, Tang Dynasty (618-907) (Photo source: Public Domain).

Beckwith examines the history of the great and forgotten Central Eurasian empires, notably those of the Iranic peoples such as the Scythians, the Hsiang-Nou peoples (e.g. Attila the Hun, Turks, Mongols, etc.) and their interaction with China, Tibet and Persia.


One of the critical land bridges of the Silk Route: the Pamir Mountains which as a 2-way gigantic connector between the civilizations of the east and West (Photo source: Public Domain).

Beckwith outlines the scientific, artistic and economic impacts of Central Asia upon world civilization. Beckwith also tabulates the history of the Indo-European migrations out of Central Eurasia, and their admixture with several settled peoples, resulting in the great (Indo-European) civilizations of India, Persia, Greece and Rome. The impact of these peoples upon China is also examined.


Italian pottery of the 1450s influenced by Chinese ceramic arts; housed at the Louvre Museum, Paris (Photo source: Public Domain).

This is a book that has been long overdue: Empires of the Silk Road places Central Eurasia within the major framework of world history and civilization. It is perhaps this quote by Beckwith which demonstrates his acumen on the subject:

The dynamic, restless Proto-Indo-Europeans whose culture was born there [Eurasia] migrated across and discovered the Old World, mixing with the local peoples and founding the Classical civilizations of the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Indians, and ChineseCentral Eurasians – not the Egyptians, Sumerians, and so on– are our ancestors. Central Eurasia is our homeland, the place where our civilization started” (2009, p.319).


Second century CE Kushan ceramic vase from Begram with a “Western” motif: a Greco-Roman gladiator (Photo source: Public Domain). The Silk Route challenges the fallacy of a so-called “Clash of Civilizations” – to the contrary, East and West have had extensive adaptive contacts since the dawn of history.

New Course: The Silk Route-Origins and History

A new course by Kaveh Farrokh entitled “The Silk Route-Origins and History” is being offered at the University of British Columbia (final lecture on December 16, 2014):


The lectures will be delivered at the Tapestry Center in the University of British Columbia’s Wesbrook Village. For information on registration, etc., kindly contact the University of British Columbia-Continuing Studies Division.


Tajik girls celebrate the Iranian Nowruz (New Year) on March 21, 2014 in Dushanbe, Tajikestan.

Below is a synopsis of the course as delivered in the Class syllabus:

The origins and history of the east-west Silk Route that connected the empires of Asia, Central Asia, Persia and the Romano-Byzantine West, as well as the lesser-known north-south route that connected Persia, the Caucasus and East- Central Europe. Emphasis will be placed on the development and transfer of the arts, music, culture, mythology, cuisine, and militaria. The peoples of the Silk Route from China across Eurasia, Central Asia, Persia to Europe are also examined


The curriculum and impetus of this course is the direct outcome of meetings with the Cultural Diplomacy’s Department of Traditions & Cultural History of the WAALM Academy based in London, England. WAALM is affiliated with the Academic Council On The United Nations System (ACUNS) and The International Peace Bureau. WAALM was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. Kaveh Farrokh has been featured in WAALM’s Tribune Magazine (click here…).

silk painting

Chinese painting of Leizu (Xi Ling Shi) the ancient Chinese empress credited with inventing silk in c. 2700 BCE; she was the teenage wife of the Yellow Emperor Huangdi.


The “Shir Dar” (Lion Gate/doorway) of the Islamic college at Samarkand built originally in 1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62). The sun motif is characterized by Kriwaczek (2002, picture Plate 1) as ”…the image of Mithra, the rising and unconquered sun, Zoroastrian intercessor between God and Humanity” (Courtesy of Kriwaczek, 2002).

Chinese women silk-12th century CE

Chinese women produce silk in the 12th century CE.

Kyrgiz MusiciansKyrgyz musicians performing with traditional instruments. Hsiang-Nou races replaced Iranian speaking peoples of Central Asia; Despite this: These greatly assimilated the cultural and mythological traditions of their Iranic predecessors.


One of ancient founding peoples of the Silk Route? Mummies bearing Caucasoid features uncovered in modern northwest China; these were either Iranic-speaking or fellow Indo-European Tocharian (proto-Celtic?). Archaeologists have found burials with similar Caucasoid peoples in ancient Eastern Europe. Much of the colors and clothing of the above mummies bear striking resemblance to the ancient dress of pre-Islamic Persia/Iran and modern-day Iranian speaking tribal and nomadic peoples seen among Kurds, Lurs, Persians, etc.  (Source: Kaveh Farrokh’s lectures at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division – this was also presented at Stanford University’s WAIS 2006 Critical World Problems Conference Presentations on July 30-31, 2006, the annual Tirgan event at Toronto (June, 2013) and at Yerevan State University’s Iranian Studies Department (November, 2013) – Diagram is Copyright of University of British Columbia and Kaveh Farrokh). For more on this topic, see also here…

New Course: Forgotten Gifts of Persia

Kaveh Farrokh, an instructor at the University of British Columbia’s Continuing Studies Division is offering a new course entitled:

The Forgotten Gifts of Persia

Below is the official course description:

Learn about the forgotten contributions of Persia to world civilization in the realm of technology and architecture. Topics include the world’s first movies, the artificial eye, the battery, aqueducts, refrigeration and air-conditioning systems, windmills, pontoon bridges and the world’s first hospital and medical university, as well as examples of the influence of Persian architecture in China, India, Rome, Western Europe, and throughout the Middle East.


[Click to enlarge] An 18th century Persian Astrolabe  housed in Cambridge Museum’s History of Sciences section Picture source:

For details consult The Forgotten Gifts of Persia | UBC Continuing Studies (pdf):

  • Format: In Class
  • Code: UP723 W13 A
  • Start: Weds Mar 13, 2013
  • Schedule: Weds  1pm – 3pm
  • Location: Tapestry at Wesbrook Village (University of British Columbia Point Grey campus)


[Click to Enlarge] (RIGHT) Iranian researcher examining the artificial eye found at Shahr e Sookhteh – further tests are being conducted in Iran to determine the exact chemical composition of the prosthetic (LEFT) A curious feature of the “eye” are parallel lines that have been drawn around the pupil to form a diamond shape …READ MORE

There is also a determined drive from the Asian Studies department of the University of British Columbia to establish a full-time Iranian Studies program.

Professor Harjot S. Oberoi of the UBC Asian Studies program introduces “An Evening with Dr. Kaveh Farrokh – Sassanian Architecture” (Monday March 12, 2011). This talk was given as part of the overall drive to promote support for the University of British Columbia’s Iranian Studies and Persian language initiative.


The Ice Houses of Iran

The article below appeared originally in the website. This is a thesis summary of Hemming Jorgensen’s ice house research project in Iran.


Only very limited literature and no archaeological material exists about the traditional Persian mud-brick ice houses the origins of which may be connected to that of the qanat, the typical Iranian subterranean water supply system for irrigation. These unique examples of vernacular architecture are facing a sorry fate after they went out use about 50 years ago; with the advent of electricity countrywide they were supplanted by modern refrigeration and most of them left to decay and disappear.


Hemming Jorgensen at an ice house in Iran (Picture originally posted on:

On the basis of a comprehensive field work, which included survey and registration of still identifiable ice house sites, this dissertation endeavors to answer the questions as to where, how and why the ice houses were built, operated and largely forgotten. The survey found, registered and mapped in total 129 ice house sites, of which remnants of ice houses were found on only 104 of them. An Ice House List and the pertaining location map represent the most important documents of the dissertation project.

There did turn out to be both a variation in types and within types of ice houses; the main types were domed (111 examples), walled (6) and underground ice houses (12). They were situated at villages (104), at towns (13), and at caravansaries or forts (12). Of the total of 129 ice houses, 71 had (had) an associated open-air ice-making plant, and 58 were pure storage facilities. The survey triples the number of previously registered examples. This study represents the first study of the traditional Iranian way of making and preserving ice for daily use.


Excellent view of the ice house at Ali-Abad village near Tehran (Picture originally posted on:

Information on the origin and function of the ice houses was difficult to come by, yet some headway was made into these thorny issues. Although it appears reasonable to connect the origin and history of ice houses to that of qanats – which made life and agriculture possible on the perimeter of the large deserts – there is no textual or archaeological evidence for their existence in Iran before the 17th century AD. No ice house exists anymore in its original form and full extent. Unless a concerted effort is made in terms of restoration and preservation, the prognosis is not good for the majority of Iran’s ice houses.


Plate in Robat Karim Museum (Picture originally posted on:

Professor S. Roaf: Badgir-Iran’s Ancient Air Conditioning System

This article by Professor S. Roaf first appeared in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1988


The Badgir (wind-tower), literally “wind catcher,” a traditional structure used for passive air-conditioning of buildings. Wind catchers are found throughout the Middle East, from Pakistan to North Africa (Coles and Jackson, “A Wind-Tower House in Dubai,” pp. 1-25; idem, “Bastakia Wind-Tower Houses,” pp. 51-53) where they have been built since antiquity.


[Click to Enlarge]The Badgir system at Yazd (Above photo appeared in See also Professor Roaf’s reconstruction of the Yazd Badgirs.


[Click to Enlarge] A wind tower in Yazd with projecting timber poles to which scaffolding is attached for maintenance (from Encyclopedia Iranica).

In construction and design they exhibit a great deal of regional variety but they all perform a similar function (Badawy, pp. 122-28): channeling prevailing winds trapped in vents above the roofs of buildings down to cool and ventilate the rooms below.


[Click to Enlarge] Sectional plans of five typical Yazdi wind tower types at vent level. A. Unidirectional. B. Two-directional. C. Four-directional. D. Octagonal with two vents on each side. E. Four-directional with two “false” vents on two opposite sides (from Encyclopedia Iranica).

Wind catchers are built in many regions of Iran, predominantly on houses in areas with a hot arid climate. In Bandar-e ʿAbbās and other ports along the Persian Gulf they are normally square towers built on the roofs with vents on one side open to the sea-breezes.


[Click to Enlarge] Cross section through a wind catcher serving the main summer rooms of a house in Yazd. A. Ṭālār. B. Basement. C. Courtyard with pool (from Encyclopedia Iranica).

Light bamboo screens are often placed across the vents over which water may be thrown on summer afternoons to cool by evaporation the air passing down into the rooms below (Roaf, 1983, pp. 257-68). In Khorasan and Sīstān, rooms have simple unidirectional vaulted vents over them called locally mehna (Tavassoli, p. 49). In the Sīrjān region, houses have distinctive unidirectional barrel-vaulted vents with slatted openings. Ḵūzestān has many fine wind catchers which serve the basements for which towns like Ahvāz are famous. Wind catchers are also built in Shiraz, Isfahan, Tehran, Qom, Semnān, and Dāmḡān but they are most widely used in the cities, towns, and villages to the south of the central desert in the Kāšān, Nāʾīn, Yazd, Kermān, and Ṭabas regions. Yazd is known as “šahr-e bādgīrhā” (the city of wind catchers) and is renowned for the number and variety of its wind catchers, some of which date from the Timurid period (Figure 7) (O’Kane, p. 85).


[Click to Enlarge]The world’s sole 6-Badgir water reservoir in the world at the ancient Iranian city of Yazd -تنها آب انبار شش بادگیری جهان-. (Above photo appeared in Note also the below summary of the 6-Badgir at Yazd in Persian by the website:

ب انبار شش بادگیر یزد به دلیل دارا بودن شش بادگیر به این نام معروف شده و تنها آب انبار شش بادگیر جهان است. سه بادگیر آن از ابتدا ساخته شده بود و سه بادگیر دیگر بعدها به آن اضافه شده است، با کمی دقت در شکل بادگیرها تفاوت سه بادگیر قدیمی با دیگر بادگیرهای آن را می توان مشاهده کرد. شش بادگیر آب انبار با توجه به شرایط اقلیمی و جهت باد در این منطقه به شکل هشت وجهی هستند. شهر یزد همچنین دارای تنها آب انبار هفت بادگیری جهان با دو مخزن است که در روستای عصر آباد قرار دارد.

English Translation:

The 6-Badgir water reservoir at Yazd is named as such due to its possesion of 6 Badgirs, the only such water reservoir in the world. The reservoir was first built with three Badgirs with the three other Badgirs constructed later (it is possible to see the differences between the older and newer Badgirs). Note that the Badgirs have been built in an octagon fashion due to considerations of wind patterns and geographical factors. Yazd also has the world’s only seven-Badgir water reservoir (contains two reservoirs) which is located in the village of Asr-Abad.

Wind catchers here are brick towers which generally rise from between 30 cm to 5 m above the roof although the tallest bādgīr in the world, built at Bāḡ-e Dawlatābād in Yazd, rises 33.35 m above the roof of the garden pavilion it serves. Wind catchers have vents at the top in one, two, or up to 8 sides (Figure eight) and these vents were decorated in brick, mud plaster or ornately carved lime plaster.

The most common use of wind catchers is to cool and ventilate summer living rooms on the ground and basement floors of houses (Roaf, 1982, pp. 57-70); air trapped in the vents of the tower is cooled as it descends and in turn cools the occupants of the rooms below by convection and evaporation (Figure 9).

When there is little or no wind, air rises up the tower, the walls of which are heated by the sun, so drawing cool humid air from the courtyard and basement through the summer rooms (Bahadori, pp. 144-54). Ventilation by wind catchers is particularly important in basements which are slept in on summer afternoons and nights. Wind catchers are also built onto the living quarters of caravanserais, over prayer halls of mosques, and on water cisterns where they efficiently chill stored water by evaporative cooling.


A. Badawy, “Architectural Provision against Heat in the Orient,” JNES 17, 1958, pp. 122-28.

M. N. Bahadori, “Passive Cooling Systems in Iranian Architecture,” Scientific American 239, 2, February, 1978, pp. 144-54.

A. Coles and P. Jackson, “A Wind-Tower House in Dubai,” Art and Architectural Research Papers, 1975, pp. 1-25.

Idem, “Bastakia Wind-Tower Houses,” The Architectural Review, July, 1975, pp. 51-53.

B. O’Kane, “The Madrasa al-Ghiyās²iyya at Khargird,” Iran 14, 1976, p. 85.

S. Roaf, “Windcatchers,” in Living with the Desert, ed. E. Beazley and M. Harverson, Aris and Phillips, 1982, pp. 57-70.

Idem, “Windcatchers in the Middle East,” Islamic Architecture and Urbanism, selected papers from a symposium organized by the College of Architecture and Planning, King Faisal University, Dammam, 1983, pp. 257-68.

M. Tavassoli, Architecture in the Hot Arid Zone, Tehran, 1975, p. 49.