What Hath Samarkand to do with Anything?

I sit here on a train in Athens, headed out for the day to Corinth – yes, Biblical Corinth.

I’ve been traveling for several weeks. When I get back to the States I will have been to 11 different cities in 4 countries. Some of that is my own traveling, by myself, but the first part was a 3 week study abroad program with my seminary, in Uzbekistan (with a quick stint in Istanbul).

As a student of theology and church history, I can’t help but be in Athens and think of the famous phrase of Tertullian in the 2nd century, when he was writing on what role, if any, the classical world and its culture and philosophy, should have in Christian thought. He asks: ‘What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?’

Much ink has been spilt on this question. Thankfully for all our sakes, I have a different one to ponder.

A good chunk of my time traveling was spent in a country few Westerners have heard of: Uzbekistan (in Central Asia). One of the most important cities there is the ancient city of Samarkand. It is a city that left me fascinated.

I know when I get home, I will be bombarded with questions. And many will scratch their heads in confusion when I tell them about Uzbekistan – and the cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and Tashkent. They will likely become even more puzzled when I tell them I’m writing a paper about Samarkand for this study-abroad Church History course. What does Uzbekistan, a post-communist Muslim country in the part of Asia that no one knows anything about, have to do with my seminary education? Indeed, What hath Samarkand to do with Jerusalem?

For that matter, what hath Samarkand to do with anything?

Good question.

On this trip I was reminded, and humbled, by how closed off our view of history can be in the West. Everything we learn about (if we learn any history) is through a very narrow, Western, lens. And of course, there’s something natural about this. It is normal that you learn your own history, primarily. But it is limiting, and the narrowness of the Western perspective has become pretty bad. We know so little about the rest of the world.

And this narrowness has many costs. It even limits our ability to understand our own history. So much of Western Civilization’s history can only be made sense of in light of what’s going on in the rest of the world. But we don’t see it.

Take Samarkand, for example. Her most recent period of greatness was during the Timorid dynasty, an empire that took over much of Central Asia, and almost wiped out the Ottomans before they laid siege to Constantinople. Samarkand was, in much of this period, an intellectual powerhouse. One thing we don’t often learn in the West is that while Europe was in her medieval age, culture and intellectual power had shifted East – and the Islamic world was, for a period of time, a great center of learning. So many modern scientific advances, developments in mathematics, preservation of ancient history, took place under this Islamic intellectual heyday. Baghdad was the first center of this intellectual boom, but after her decline, Samarkand succeeded her. Huge leaps in astronomy can especially be tied back there – we visited a huge observatory built by a man named Ulug Beg, in the 15th century.

So many important achievements can be traced back to Samarkand, and other cities in Central Asia. As an important city on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a place where ideas, goods, and achievements were passed one to another, disseminating around the world. Places like this helped allow for the spread of ideas into the West that would greatly shape our scientific revolution. Places like this are very important for our own history, yet we know so little.

But, more than this, Samarkand was also an important Christian center – believe it or not. It was never a ‘Christian’ city, but centuries before certain parts of Europe had heard the gospel, Christians were spreading along the Silk Road, and there were many in Samarkand. There was even a bishop there. As I learned this during our trip, I began to feel sad that I have heard so little of my own Christian history. The perspective I have been given is so very limited. There is much of my Christian heritage that I have missed out on, because we rarely step outside our own bubble. We learn Christian history as if what happened in Western Europe is all that matters. But it isn’t all that matters. We miss so much. This city has very much to do with my faith.

Samarkand is also, like many regions along the Silk Road, a place where very many religious traditions have all interacted with one another. Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, and eventually Muslims, all had some presence here at one point or another. Sometimes they all lived here peacefully. Sometimes they didn’t. Often it was somewhere in between. But in this microcosm of globalization and religious diversity, we could find a great deal to learn. Our whole world is becoming this diverse, and oftentimes it is leading to tremendous strife and conflict. As our professor commented at one point, maybe knowing a little bit more about these sorts of places, which have seen great religious diversity for a long time, could be instructive us for how we can live together in this globalized age.

A lot depends on figuring this out, we are living in a world where differences of all sort cannot be avoided. Figuring out how to live with differences will be the deciding factor between peace and war in many cases. We should spend some time thinking through it, studying how it has or hasn’t worked throughout history.

Indeed, Samarkand has a lot to do with a very great deal.

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