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Bringing Peace to Central Asia -- Ancient Poems and Stories More Powerful Than Modern Weapons

New America Media, Commentary, Franz Schurmann Posted: Feb 24, 2006

Editor's Note: Cultural threads -- woven together over millennia of wars, migrations, trade between ancient neighbors -- provide a foundation for stability in Central Asia that could prove more durable than the interventions of outsiders, whether Russia or the United States.

Neither America nor Russia but the historical neighbors Iran, Turkey and China will bring peace in Central Asia and maybe the Middle East as well.

The key is the common cultures these three ancient empires share over millennia. All three have fought bloody wars with each other. Yet out of the interactions of wars, migrations and trade have come poems, stories and festivals that resonate across all three populations, generating recognition and trust. As folk wisdom has it, it is better not to like each other than not to know each other exists.

Twenty centuries ago, Iran -- then called Persia -- was already a vast empire, as was China, which included Central Asia. The Turks were only tribes. But when civil wars engulfed China, the Turks decided to take on the glorious Tang dynasty (618-907). The Turks were defeated. As a result, they decided to get as far away from China as possible. They settled in Anatolia, where they assimilated into Greek culture, eventually extending it as far as the Chinese borderlands.

Twenty five centuries ago the Chinese referred to Persia as Bosi -- the same word Chinese today use for all Iranians. Some scholars believe the word Bosi comes from the still-functioning port of Bassra in modern Iraq.

Modern day Iranians speak an Indo-European language called Farsi, but old Persian was close to Sanskirt, the holy language of Indias Hindus. There were people living in Chinas northwest Province of Gansu who spoke a Persian language named Tocharian that has affinities to Germanic languages. We know this because the Tocharians were Buddhists and and some of their writings and even natural mummies were preserved in the Gansu deserts.

The late scholar Zeki Velidi Togan of the University of Istanbul always believed there were links between the Chinese, the Iranians and the various Turkish tribes dating back 4,000 years. As he noted, when the Seljuk Turks settled in Anatolia, they remembered the glories of Tang China. Two centuries later, in what is now Afghanistan, one of the worlds greatest poets was born, Jalal ud-Din Rumi, not far from the China borderlands. But Rumi lived most of his life in Konya, an ancient Greek city that later fell under Muslim and Turkish control.

Rumis parents had fled before the Mongol invasion from the ancient city of Balh in northern Afghanistan -- a city Professor Zeki Veledi mentions several times in his book The History of (All) Turks. The local people still call Balh The Mother of all Cities.

Rumis stories and poems are recited in Farsi. They have appeared all over Muslim Russia, Muslim China, Muslim India and Pakistan. One of his poems -- from Divan, 562:7, goes:

I silently moaned so that for a hundred centuries to come
the world will echo the sound of my tortured life
It will turn on the axis of my life.

Even more striking than Rumis popularity is the widespread celebration of the Persian New Year, called New Rooz Day. Although Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shiite, Persian New Year is celebrated by Sunnis as well as non-Muslim Turks, like the throat singers of Siberia.

These are the cultural threads onto which the two behemoths -- the United States and Russia -- attempt to impose their political will. But both are losing confidence they can prevail, whether through superior technology or brutality.

China, on the other hand, spreads an infrastructure of roads, TV stations, oil and LNG wells and pipelines, across this common cultural foundation. It is as if China after 25 centuries has finally heeded the wisdom of Sunzi, their famous general, who wrote in Art of War that the greatest general is one who never fought a battle.

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