Pearls in the desert. generations 446-450, 900-1000CE

Samarkand, Bukhara, Nishapur … to me, these names are exotic and evocative. They are cities in Khorasan that witnessed one of the flowerings of the golden age of islam.

Ark Fortress, Bukhara

Carvings and tilework at an entrance to the Ark Fortress in Bukhara

Where is Khorasan? It is a region of central Asia. The Caspian Sea is to the west. North are the steppes, south are the mountains of Afghanistan. Persia (now Iran) is to the south-west.

The region is dry. Each city is an oasis, fed by a delicate system of irrigation canals carrying the precious water from the rivers and wells to the fields. The Silk Road crosses through here. At Samarkand the caravans from China continue down into Persia or carry on further west to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and the Mediterranean.

The caravans brought silks and spices, and different foods from all over the known world. And technology. The Arabs conquered Khorasan in around 710, and discovered the art of papermaking from the Chinese. They turned it from an art into an industry. The  first water-driven paper mill was at Samarkand. In the markets of these cities one could buy carpets, soaps, cotton and silk cloth, foods from as far away as China, India and Africa – and have your purchase wrapped up in paper.

The Arabs brought a legal system, too. The second of the five pillars of islam instructs those with wealth to distribute some of it for the benefit of those in need. This was embodied in law as ‘waqf’, a tax break for charitable endowments. Hospitals and schools were built for the public good using waqf funding. A larger city such as Bukhara had several hospitals. It was said that admission was free of charge. All were treated, regardless of religious adherence. However, some of the physicians became very rich, so maybe they charged their wealthier patients.

There was a flourishing of learning. Its location on the Silk Road and its inclusion in the islamic world made Khorasan a meeting point of cultures. Indian mathematics, Chinese medicine, Persian sophistication, Arabic law based on the Quran – all mixed here. Added to that, there was now access to the body of knowledge translated from the ancient Greek into Arabic a century earlier, which could now be transcribed on to paper and made more widely accessible. Although nominally within the Abbasid caliphate, this region was self-governing and open to other influences than those emanating from Baghdad.

kalyan mosque and minaret, bukhara

Kalyan Mosque and minaret, Bukhara

Advances in medicine spread across the known world. In this period a surgeon in Cordoba in al-Andalus developed a range of surgical instruments, some of which, such as the forceps, are still in use today. He also wrote several books. I am sure that al-Zahrawi’s work was known to his counterparts 7000 km away in Khorasan.

Scholars from this region pushed back the boundaries of knowledge. We have already met Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, who lived here a century or so later. Of the many original thinkers who come from this region, another stands out in this period. Al-Farabi grew up here and then moved to Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote on music, cosmology, philosophy and mathematics. His understanding of Aristotle was so clear that he was one of the few sources acknowledged by the otherwise self-taught Ibn Sina. Ibn Sina wrote that Aristotle was impenetrable to him until he read al-Farabi’s commentary. As Ibn Sina’s work became the primary reference for later thinkers including Thomas Aquinas (who went on to influence the direction of Catholic thought) this means that al-Farabi was influential indeed. He was known to his students as the ‘second master’ (the first being Aristotle).

The arts flourished, too. Nishapur, in the south of Khorasan, was already a centre for pottery making. With the influx of new techniques from China along the Silk Road, it went up a gear. There were two styles of decoration. For the muslims there were sayings, or quotes from the Quran.


The inscription on this bowl is in a style of arabic called kufic script. it reads: “Magnanimity has first a bitter taste, but at the end it tastes sweeter than honey. Good health.” Bowl in the Louvre Museum, Paris

But there was also a continuation of Persian art traditions, with depictions of humans, birds, animals and plants.

bowl, Nishapur

This polychrome slip-ware bowl is in the National Museum of Oriental Art, Rome.

Here is another world that I knew nothing of. It flourished for another three centuries until Genghis Khan and his army came from the steppes to the north, destroyed the irrigation channels and levelled the cities. Some of them never recovered and only now are being excavated from the sand. Others, like Bukhara and Samarkand, were rebuilt nearby. But for a while this was the place to be. These cities formed links in the chain of transmission of human learning from the ancient world until now.



Generation 499, 1975-2000. The decline of the gatekeepers?

Back we go, to the generation that came to maturity between 1975 and 2000, the last quarter of the twentieth century.

By the time we get to the start of this period, there is no internet, no mobile phones, no digital photography, no satellite television, and no CCTV. In the UK a woman could be refused a job on the basis of her gender, and be paid less than a man if she was employed.

Lack of internet means that accessing information is slower, more difficult, more expensive and mediated by gatekeepers. I have to order a book from the library or a bookshop. There are four TV channels in the UK, and although I can record a programme if I want to, the choice is determined by the TV companies.

I get news from the newspapers, another set of gatekeepers. They describe a world that is polarised into the communist and capitalist blocs, and demonise the one they are not in. Information can be suppressed or manipulated by rich or powerful individuals who lean on the relevant gatekeepers. The Berlin Wall came down in the middle of this period, after some intrepid East Germans got into their Trabants and made a long journey to the other bloc. The wall itself became an irrelevance.


A young man stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The moment was photographed by a journalist and sent around the capitalist bloc.


Some of the gatekeepers believed themselves to be benevolent guardians and keepers of standards. Even now, if you watch terrestrial TV you can be sure of a certain standard and when output is deemed to fall below it the complaints are loud. Compare that with the anarchy of digital TV output.

Music is played on CDs at the end of the period, LP’s or cassettes at the beginning. What I can listen to is determined by the music companies. Photographs are taken on reels of film, usually 24 or 36 exposures. They are sent away to be developed, and that is expensive.

There is no CCTV, so when I go to the city centre or supermarket my movements are not recorded by ranks of hidden cameras as they are now. No speed cameras catch me when I drive over the speed limit. Lack of mobile phones means that when I go into the wild I am alone in a way that is almost unimaginable now. It also means that if I get stuck there is no way to let anyone know where I am. There are public phone boxes on the street in the towns.

In this period there are different freedoms from those of generation 500. A student in the UK could get a maintenance grant rather than a loan as is the case now. In the world of work, a person could expect to be in one job for a long time, and to retire with a company pension. At the start of the period air travel was expensive and so for the few who could afford it. On main roads a hitch-hiker with their thumb out asking for a lift was a common sight. I rarely see a hitch-hiker now.

This is also the period in which the authority and accountability of the gatekeepers begins to be questioned. At the start of the period a medical doctor has almost demigod status. By the end their pronouncements can be challenged. The questioning of the behaviour of some people in the church also begins here, to be taken up much more by the following generation.