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Shadows on the Silk Road

The Islamic Golden Age of science and art that predated the Italian Renaissance by 400 years was illuminated by Turkic and Persian thinkers from the eastern rim of the Abbasid Caliphate, in what is today Central Asia, western China and parts of Iran.

Ms. Yuvakaeva ticked off some homegrown Einsteins. Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, a ninth-century genius who helped formulate the precepts of algebra, has lent his name to the word “algorithm.” A century later, the brilliant polymathic Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni wrote more than 140 manuscripts on everything from pharmaceuticals to the anthropology of India. (A typical al-Biruni title: “The Exhaustive Treatise on Shadows.”)

Probably the most celebrated Silk Road sage of all was Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina, revered in the West as Avicenna, who in the 11th century compiled an encyclopedia of healing that was still in use by European doctors as late as the 18th century. Avicenna’s “Canon of Medicine” accurately diagnosed diabetes by tasting sweetness in urine. Its pharmacopoeia cataloged more than 800 remedies. A millennium ago, Avicenna advocated quarantines to control epidemics. What would he make, I wondered, of the willed ignorance of today’s anti-maskers in the United States?

Pacing off continents is an exercise in humility. You inhabit the limit of your daily strides. To the next tree shade. To the next horizon. In return, the walk confers a kind of equanimity. Call it the long view. The Silk Road soon enough becomes every road. And just as some nations sink into their dreams along your way, others blink awake.

Take Uzbekistan. A crossroads of the old Silk Road, the landlocked ex-Soviet republic recently baby-stepped from police state to modest reform. Ruled a thousand years ago by Iranian and Turkic kingdoms, the region traded lucratively with China, Persia and India, enriching cities like Bukhara and Samarkand. More than six decades of Communism under the Soviet Union forced the settlement of nomads, suppressed religion and steamrollered the old feudal hierarchies. By the late 1990s, a fundamentalist backlash led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan erupted and was ruthlessly suppressed.

When I walked through the country, billboards exhorted citizens to “Be vigilant!” These Orwellian notices ostensibly targeted Muslim militancy. But in practice, they stoked suspicion of any “other,” including my Uzbek walking partners, two pack donkeys and me. A paranoid fear of outsiders gripped the muddy hamlets along the Amu Darya, the river Alexander the Great called the Oxus. Peeking from behind lace curtains, cellphones clamped to ears, local farmers constantly reported us to the police. Uzbek security forces detained us for questioning 34 times.

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