Oceans of Time

A Rider in Ramses Palace

As another year draws to an end on the Julian-Gregorian calendar, it is time to bid farewell to the old and ring in the new; to forget the failures and sins of the past (at least for a few hours); and to pray to or resolve in some way to do better in the future. I woke this morning to find the forest blanketed in a few inches of surprise snow and look forward to a quiet, contemplative passage amidst this crystalline, whitewashed landscape.

A couple of hundred years ago, these rolling hills were pastureland traversed by streams. Now, our woods are made up of tall, deciduous hardwoods, a few gnarly, old pines, and some large hollies, bejeweled at this time of year in rubies and garnets. Fallen giants lay strewn like burnt matchsticks in the snow forming the basis for a rich, new forest floor.

Taking a great leap back in time, the great desert that today stretches from North Africa through the Levant made up part of the bottom of the vast Tethys Sea. Today, this area is covered with sand that ranges from warm, silky Saharan sand that allows one to silently pass to hard, calcium, salt-rich sand that crackles underfoot.

The sand all around can be transformed into clear glass, and great cities and dynasties can fall to dust. Transience . . . impermanence . . . No matter how hard we try for immortality, time, more often than not, has other plans.

On the blazingly hot August afternoon that I took this photograph, I watched the donkey trod slowly and methodically across the ruins of the palace, crunching eons of history beneath his hooves. The palace was once unequaled for its splendor and beauty – occupied by one of Ramesses’ sons and his court. Lives, loves, and intrigues were all played out within these walls that had long-ago fallen away. The path that led now leads to the souk was once a colonnaded reception hall for a prince who later became a pharaoh – a God descended. An Egyptian mud brick here, a piece of Greek pottery or Roman vessel there, the donkey was indiscriminate in his destruction as he strode on.

Some of the great empires and metropolises of the Silk Road have met the same fate as Ramesses’ palace, others have had modern cities grow up around them and eventually devour them, leaving a tourist attraction or a museum in place of a living, breathing humanity.

Modern physics teaches us that time is not linear progression, but rather like space it folds over on itself. So it follows that if you listen or look carefully, that you can hear and see the fragmented echoes of history in the present. China’s Jews may have vanished, but the coarse hair and Caucasoid facial features of their descendants remain. Similarly, the modern merchants who profit off of the sales of shark’s fin and bird’s nests for expensive, Chinese delicacies have forgotten that the great explorer, Zheng He brought these foods back to China from Southeast Asia. Readers of the Silk Road Gourmet, however, can feel and taste the remnants of China’s first great age of globalization in every bite.

Like the artisan restoring a lost mural, first the outline becomes clear and then one-by-one the details become evident as we find the past constantly informs the present. In the act of restoring the past, the man from the future also effects the past – at the very least by changing the knowledge and appreciation of it in the present and future.

If asked, “Who was the most important person of the 20th Century?” Most people would probably answer with the name of a prominent politician – perhaps Franklin Roosevelt or Mikhail Gorbachev, or a scientist like Einstein or an inventor like Bill Gates. Few if any would utter the names of Frank Fenner or DA Henderson who prevented the deaths of uncounted billions of people by conceiving and implementing the ring-vaccination that eradicated smallpox.

History is decided and redecided by each generation as it passes and is intimately bound with their perceptions of the present. As we determine history, we are also altering the past, in part by figuring the relative importance of individuals and events. But the past, even if we are not aware of it, is altering the present – events having provided one eventuality and not another in today’s world. And the present also determines the future – so all points on what used to be considered a timeline are always influencing each other.

So as you cross a major timekeeping barrier – like New Year’s Eve – realize that everything you’ve done, indeed, to some degree, everything you are and everything you will do is only partially under your direct control – that the past and the future are also in play. Relax, have fun and have a Happy New Year! (Words and Photos by Laura Kelley)

The Great Silk Road

Several readers have commented that they have been surprised at all of the countries that I’ve included in the Silk Road Gourmet and in the blog. Being used to only considering the northern land route from Xi’an to the Caucasus as the Silk Road, some folks are amazed to learn of the many other land and sea routes that actually networked to move goods around the Old World. And of course with the goods came the exchange of religion, culture and food as well. Geographically, the Silk Road is an interconnected series of ancient trade routes between Xi’an, China with Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Caspian and Caucasian states as well as Europe and North Africa. The best representation of the major routes can be found in the picture below.

Silk Road Map

As you can see, the northern and westward route extends through Xinjiang and into Kazakhstan, the middle westward through the Fergana Valley on the border of Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan before splitting into two routes. The westward fork continued across Central Asia and Iran before ending at ports in Mediterranean Turkey, while the southward fork skirted down through Pakistan and met with ships near Karachi that continued across the Arabian Sea towards the Levant and Africa. The route leading south out of Xi’an made a beeline down the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, through Burma and into Bangladesh and Orissa to meet up with maritime routes in the ports of the Gangetic delta in the Bay of Bengal. Another easterly road travelled across north-central China before heading due south to ports in Hong Kong and Guangzhou where it joined ocean-going ships that skirted down the edge of the South China Sea and into the Indonesian archipelago and Malaysia before coursing up the Thai peninsula and meet the southern land route out of Xi’an.

With all of this ancient contact going on, it is easy to see how cultures and cuisines separated by many thousands of miles influenced each other. Fortunes were made and commercial empires built on the flow of goods along these routes. In many cases business dictated politics as we are seeing once again in our own time with the recently renegotiated relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.

One surprise to most people is the extent that Eastern Africa participated in trade with maritime routes stretching all the way down past Sudan and the horn of Ethiopia to Mogadishu, Somalia. The shape of the and political structure of the world today is not the same as it was in times past and the deserts of today with studded with herding villages and encampments of bandits were great kingdoms with important goods to contribute to sell on the globalized market that was the Great Silk Road.

Another thing that surprises a lot of readers is the great age of the Silk Road. They’ve only heard of the Silk Road in its heyday or have learned incorrectly that it was Alexander who started the Silk Road. In reality, the Silk Road had been in existence for almost two thousand years by the time Alexander started to network together the northern and southern land routes and unite the maritime routes with those over land. It began as episodic trade between China and Afghanistan exchanging Chinese jade for Afghan lapis lazuli and grew from there to include more regular trade, more countries and a wider variety of goods. Almost 1000 years before Alexander, special platoons of Chinese soldiers patrolled the northern route form Xi’an almost to the shores of the Caspian to help ensure the safe passage of goods.

Thinking about this swirl of history leads me to contemplate the beauty of impermanence. Mali’s now dusty Timbuktu was only a few hundred years ago, one of the great centers of learning in the Muslim world and would-be scholars flocked there to study and especially to read the law with learned clerics. So the fortunes of families rise and fall as well, and the family of hard working but uneducated laborers that I was born into has an ancestor who ruled part of Europe in the 15th century and his portrait still hangs in the Louvre.

We try, faultily of course, to hang on to things and enforce a false permanence on our lives, our families and our possessions – as if to prove to ourselves that we are in control – when we are not. One of my favorite story lines along the lines of this theme is mentioned off-handedly in the wonderful movie: On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever. Its about the wealthy businessman who is desperately trying to discover his future incarnation – so that he can bequeath his money and estate to himself. Ahh human fraility!

Kalachakra Sand Mandala

I remember watching a group of monks, painstakingly build an intricate and colorful mandala across a series of days. A few grains of sand here, another few grains in a different color there until a stunning geometric latticework lay before them in brilliant technicolor. Words, shading, mythological creatures all incorporated into a vision of an orderly cosmos. At the end of the creation and after many prayers and chants they carried the panel it rested on down a steep stone stairway carved in a slanted rockface. In my mind I can still see the wisps of colored sand flying off the surface to be carried by the wind into heaven. When they reached the base of the steps, they tilted the board and abruptly poured the remaining sand into the river below. Even though I knew the outcome and meaning of the ritual beforehand, I still felt a profound sense of loss and shock at seeing such beauty thrown away. Seeing the monk’s happiness at the completion of the ritual tempered my western negativity a bit and made me feel a bit more sanguine about the passage of time and how it shapes our lives.

So, when you travel or read about other lands, remember always that there is something that came before the present. Even if you don’t know what that something is, just know that it is there. The Great Silk Road is the unseen force that has shaped many of the cuisines of the Old World and is the reason why there are so many southeast Asian ingredients in Sri Lanka’s cuisine or why the Persian and Arab influences in Christian Armenias specialities sing a different cultural tune. So, as you cook and eat your way around the Silk Road, appreciate the history, breathe it in, because like a hidden hand, it has shaped everything you see today. (Words by Laura Kelley, Image from The Silk Road Gourmet Volume 1.)