UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Isenbike Togan

Isenbike Togan, Ph. D. (1973) in East Asian languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, is Professor of History at Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.
She has participated in the UNESCO Silk Road expeditions of 1990 and 1991, and conferences related to Unesco Silk Roads. In her research she focuses on historiography, tribe-state relations along the Silk Raod, as well as tangible and intangible heritage such as funerary architecture and oral traditions.

She has published
Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998; "Fortunate Occasion to Salvation," in N. N. Vohra (ed.) Culture, Society and Politics in Central Asia. New Delhi: India International Center, 1999 (pp. 39-48); "As Culture Evolves into Religion: Pre-Islamic Notions of Cosmology and Orientation in Central Asian Islam" in Collection of Materials. Unesco International Forum "Culture and Religion in Central Asia" (Kyrghyzstan, September 1999). Bishkek: National Commission of the Kyrghyz Republic for Unesco, 2000 (pp.213-243).
“UNESCO Silk Roads Project: A Passageway to a Holistic Approach in History”

At a time when some changes were taking place in world affairs, but where all of these changes were leading was not yet clear, Doudou Dienne from Unesco launched the project “Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue”. He had the assistance of Gail Larminoux and Klara Issak in this endeavor. After long preparations, the project started in 1990 with the Desert Route in China which was followed by the Steppe Route in the then Soviet Union. These were in turn followed by the Buddhist Route, Nomad Route, and Sea Routes. Having participated in the expeditions of 1990 and 1991, my assessment will be limited to them.

The participants were from diverse disciplines and paths of life. They were not only academicians, but journalists, writers, artists, critics, curators, and others. The academicians were also from diverse disciplines. The caravan consisted of foreigners and local experts. Local experts had a deep understanding of the terrain and its history. However, one could not say the same about the foreign participants.
In China for instance, the focus of the desert route was on Buddhist sites. Among the foreign participants there were not too many who were experts on Buddhism.
Whether or not we were experts on the sites, we were expected to participate actively in the daily expeditions, the guided tours that were given by the local experts, and in the nightly seminars that assessed the findings or contextualized the sites within a historical perspective. It was not only a rigorous program on a physical level, requiring participation on the daily excursions, but it was also rigorous on an intellectual level, where the participants interacted with those coming from different cultural and disciplinary backgrounds using different languages.
At first, all this created a state of confusion among the foreign participants, including myself. However, when we all traveled together in the same bus for over a month, we ended up getting to know each other on a quite familiar level. The physical proximity in which the participants found themselves gradually led to an atmosphere of friendship and interest in each other’s life and work. The term “interdisciplinary” was not yet part of our daily vocabulary, but we learned to be interdisciplinary out of necessity. If somebody asked us about our experience on the expedition at that time, I do not think we would be able to provide an accurate assessment. We may not have been immediately aware of it but we were changing. It was only retrospectively, over the next few years that we could see what was happening.
Thus, participation in these two expeditions resulted in my incorporating an interdisciplinary approach into my later work, thereby making use of other disciplines such as archeology, art history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religious studies, literature, especially oral literature, and folklore.

The timing of the expeditions was so that no matter how detached you were from the rest of the world while doing your research in an ivory tower, you became a direct participant observer of the events of 1991. The role of a participant observer shifted your focus from books and written material, which is all that a historian needs as evidence, to people. This shift of focus made you aware that writing history is not only an academic matter, but that it involves the people you are writing about. This focus on the people, on the other hand, was so strong that it lifted the barriers set by your discipline. Such an approach was also able to override boundaries of ethnicity, nation, country, religion, and focused on interregional, intercultural and interreligious networks and/or individual perceptions and expressions of human sentiment. Lifting of boundaries paved the way for comparative studies based on our new understanding.

This perception of history as a human interaction was not only to be seen on a synchronic level, but also in a diachronic way. There you would become aware that what we call culture of our present times consists of many layers. One good illustration of this sentiment was becoming aware of the fact that a particular site was considered to be auspicious by people who had chosen this site at different times for their Zoroastrian, Manicheistic, Buddhistic, and/or Muslim saints. Such a moment is a realization of the divisive nature of our disciplines, because when you learn about such a site from written academic material, the information is divided between religious studies, between different languages, and the books would not only be on different shelves but also in different libraries, and sometimes even in different countries. Well prepared guidebooks for tourists are an exception, yet even such guidebooks cannot convey to you the colors, the aroma, or the tune of the region.
Another good example of our outlook would be given by the plant athemisia, which is woodworm in English. In the steppe regions of Asia it has a different name in each language (erim, jusan, yavshan, polin, haozi). In each culture there are stories or songs about this plant, which is in general associated with the smell of the homeland. Varieties of the same plant also are used for treatment in Chinese medicine (moxa), in the culinary art to give special flavor (tarragon), or in alcoholic drinks (vermouth and absinthe).
If we learn about this plant from academic sources, we learn about it in relation to a specific use and do not think about it any further. However, for the peoples of the steppe regions (also for the Bedouin in the North African desert), it is a symbol of the open country which is their homeland. Although this plant is very important for the people concerned, we do not learn about its existence or its importance for the people from the written historical material. This is because the material is mostly written by members of sedentary cultures rather than steppe people, and also because the aroma of a region is not an academic issue. This example of artemisia compels us to see the importance of using the local language to learn about what is dear to the people in a specific culture -- irrespective of how small or how unimportant the groups of people may seem to be. Only then, can this focus on the people be realized. Utilizing such an approach does not suggest the replacement of the method of working with theoretical models where we try to fit the people into the model.
On the contrary, both methods can coexist together, and complement each other. Furthermore, the focus on the people then makes us aware of other avenues like oral literature and music, which are all conceptualized under “intangible heritage.”
Silk Road expeditions were also a valuable experience for incorporating an interactive approach into the classroom experience. As the participants in these expeditions, we were all members of literate societies who had been educated in school systems.
Therefore, we were used to learning from books and written material. For instance, I had been studying Inner Asian history for about 30 years without having seen Inner Asia; maps and historical travelogues had been my guide in this field. The expedition took us to sites which most of us knew very little about. We were given information by local experts in the field; this was an invaluable on-site training experience. The evening lectures by other local experts complemented the on site training. Experts who were not satisfied with the information given or who wanted to contribute something could also give an additional evening seminar.

Furthermore, participants could also request that one of the fellows in the expedition speak on a specific topic. This was not only a learning process, but also a new teaching method. Unlike teaching based on readings structured according to the assessment of the teacher, this was a flexible way of teaching in which accommodation of the needs of the students was of primary importance. By visiting sites without having prior knowledge, students could have a learning experience which was unhampered by the limitations of the respective disciplines, ask their questions and then go back to the reading material –in diverse languages—that was floating around. Therefore, the students were not passive recipients, but active participants. The flexibility of these methods revolutionized my teaching. From then on, I did not teach only using written material, but also incorporated films, videos, slides, and field trips into my classes.

Lastly, I would like to state that today as we are living in nation states we become immersed in ourselves and in the immediate “important” cultures. By doing this, we not only forget about others who share the same planet, but also do not have much knowledge of the tangible and intangible heritage of ours. However, a focus on people and a perception of cultural diversity is a kind of consciousness raising which not only affects our view of our fellow people, but also our vision of ourselves. When such studies are carried out on a comparative level, they are bound to be holistic and to come out with a new understanding – one which we are very much in need of.

Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific