Eurasia – 2500 years of history and conquests. A magical voyage through time and space, exploring the history, culture and religions that link East and West: from the Persian Empire of Alexander the Great to the huge Mongolian Empire of Kublai Khan, the destinies of highly developed civilizations intermingled until they converged to take the shape of a Eurasian civilization shared by all of us. Babylon, Persepolis, Ai-Khanoum, Baghdad, Rome are virtually recreated with incomparable realism by computer generated images.
Part 1: Alexander The Great Conquers The World
Alexander was been the king of a tiny realm. He was only twenty when he embarked on one of history’s most cherished dream : to unite the East and the West. He proved to be a political and military genius and he succeeded in conquering the greatest empire of his time, an empire that reached to the borders of India. In only thirteen years, he imposed a new vision onto the world.
Our series begins 2 300 years ago at the outset of his great conquest : after leaving Macedonia, Alexander and his army headed for the great Achaemenid empire of Persia. He fought memorable battles against Darius and conquered a territory stretching from Afghanistan to India. Following Alexander closely, we also witness what he discovers for himself : the intelligence and sheer splendour of the Persian and Egyptian cultures. The experience had a profound effect on him he became fascinated by the different forms of government When his army deserted him upon reaching the Indus, he turned back, disenchanted. He died three years later on 13 June 323, probably by a fever he caught in Babylon. He was not even 33 years old.
The Greek universe, which had ended at Byzance only ten years earlier, now stretched to the Indus valley. But his dream to unite all under the same law, just like the infinite light of the sky died with Alexander.
Part 2: Quest for the Forgotten Alexandria
Is it myth or reality ? It has always been said that Alexander left a string of some seventy cities in the wake of his conquests all named Alexandria in his honour. However, none of these legendary cities was ever found, except for Alexandria in Egypt and, naturally, generations of archaeologists have been searching for them
In 1961, Mohamed Zahir Shah, who was then King of Afghanistan, discovered a Corinthian capital while he was out hunting. It was the first evidence of a yet unknown archaeological site : Ai-Khanoum. Ceramics and fragments were unearthed as well as hundreds of coins marked with names of Greek kings and Greek inscriptions. Gradually, it became evident that this city separated from the Mediterranean world since the 3rd century BC had been colonised by Greeks who continued to speak their own language, use their own scriptures. They had lived in harmony with the peoples of Central Asia: the Bactrians, Scytes Sogdians and Tokharians.
It was like entering the Greek universe 5000 km from Greece A virtual reconstruction of Ai-Khanoum takes us back through time and history to the forgotten Alexandria.
Part 3: Buddha Wins Over the Souls of the East
In India in the 6th century BC, Sakyamuni, “a wise man of the Sakya tribe”, had been meditating under a tree when, suddenly, he was struck with the comprehension of all things. He became Buddha, meaning the Illuminated . His message, based on a pragmatic philosophy, taught how to free oneself from all needs in order to achieve illumination. After the death of the Enlightened One, his disciples a few monks began to spread his teachings all over India, from Ceylon to the Himalayan.
Fearing man’s penchant for idol worship, Buddha expressly forbade that his image should be represented in whatever form. Therefore, the Indian philosophers told his life story without ever showing in any form other than that of a simple lotus, a tree or a horse without a rider. The Buddhist missionaries began to build monasteries they discovered that the local population was a mix of settlers from Greece, Egypt and Antioch as well as descendants from Alexander’s soldiers.
Influenced by Greek sculpture, Buddhism began to represent the Enlightened One in a Hellenised form. The Buddhist philosophy became less abstract and was better understood and henceforth widely adopted. Buddhism is a blend of spirit and culture which is unique in the history of mankind it achieved the successful encounter of East and West.
Part 4: The Romans Open the Sea Route to China
Ancient Chinese documents dating back 1600 years have revealed the presence of Romans at the very heart of China as far back as the year 166 AD. According to these chronicles, they had been emissaries sent by the powers in Rome in order to establish relations with the Han Empire. Were they ambassadors or just ordinary merchants ? Maybe they were both
At the times of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, the empire had been enjoying two prosperous centuries. It was the era of the Pax Romana and Rome’s power was to expand rapidly due to contacts and trade. Endless caravans supplied a steady stream of goods from the Orient to the ports of the Mediterranean. Each trip represented a perilous voyage of 11 000 km with dangers lurking along the trade routes, not least of them being the Huns who turned travelling into a dangerous and uncertain enterprise.
Setting out from Antioch (Antakya), the merchants sent their goods to Asia via the terrestrial trade routes to Lo Yang, the capital of China. Along the road, intermediaries forced themselves upon the Roman and Chinese traders: the Parths, an Iranian tribe which occupied Persia. Their hold on the caravan routes was to become so powerful that the Romans looked for alternatives: it would be the maritime route.
During the reign of Augustus, some 120 ships crossed the Indian Ocean. On behalf of the Romans, Tamil sailors expanded their maritime routes towards the golden land, in other words Indochina, then crossed the Malacca straits to reach China. The Romans had established trading posts all along the coast of Indochina and put Tamil or Indian agents in charge of them.
Part 5: The Silk Road Unites East and West
Chinese Empire. After a perilous trek of some 11 000 kilometres across steppes, mountains and deserts, the caravans entered China through the Jade Gate. For seven hundred years, one particular tribe of caravaneers, the Sogdians, held the monopoly of crossing these hostile regions and became masters in the art of organising and leading caravans between East and West. They were among the best merchants the Silk Road had ever known.
Their ancestral trading tradition had been the result of Sogdianas privileged geographical position: the only possible route for caravans from India to reach Russia, or for those from the Mediterranean to travel to China was to cross Sogdian territory. No other trading route in history has been used for so long and by so many. In the year 674, the Sogdian city states would be conquered by the Arabs from the Middle East. They allowed the defeated Sogdians to keep their own language, Persian, but they forced them to convert to Islam. Still – looking back in history – no other people without an empire or military might has contributed more to the cultural encounter between East and West than the Sogdians.
Part 6: Science Thrives in Bagdad
Today, Baghdad is a battered city. But we need to remember that before the ruins, from the 8th to the 13th century, Baghdad had been the capital of a refined civilisation !
Over thousand years ago, Baghdad had been named Madinat al Salam, the City of Peace with the ruling Abbassids – named after Caliph “Abu al-Abbas” – who had founded the dynasty. In 749, the Abbassid Caliphat further spread its sphere of influence, reaching from Spain to the borders of China.
As a protector of ancient knowledge, Baghdad had translated Aristotle, Plato, Euclid. The head of its medical school, Ali Abu Ibn-Sina or Avicenna, a Persian from Bukhara, was also a commentator on Aristotle’s writings.
Baghdad, city of A Thousand and One Nights , was a cultural melting pot where craftsmen, poets and merchants were able to get together through to their common language, Arabic. Baghdad enjoyed a culture of commerce and trade inspired by the Coran – which had been unique for its time: very sophisticated financial transactions cheques issued in Baghdad and cashed in Cordoba, Spain, some 4000 kilometres away.
This side-by-side of different languages, cultures and races turned Baghdad into a cosmopolitan city, a dynamic and colourful metropolis, which had been unequalled at its time. However, after five centuries of grandeur, secure in its comfortable lifestyle and weakened by in-fighting, Baghdad was to collapse all of a sudden. In the 13th century, 12 000 Mongol horsemen under the command of Hulagu-Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan, stormed the city and laid siege to Baghdad and its one million inhabitants, for seventeen days. The event heralded the end of Baghdad as the capital of the Caliphat. The city would never again recapture its intellectual radiance, nor its splendour.
Part 7: The Pope Declares War on Islam
Jerusalem, Holy City three times over. For fifteen centuries, the possession of the city had been incessantly fought over and caused bloody battles. It is hard to believe then, that in the thirteenth century History had been afforded a breathing space through the unlikely friendship between two visionary sovereigns a sultan and a Christian emperor who brought a miraculous period of grace to Jerusalem.
The Christian sovereign was Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Emperor of the Holy Roman-Germanic Empire and King of Sicily. The Muslim was Malik Al Kalmil, Sultan of Cairo and Guardian of the holy shrines. Between the two of them started a friendship which was unique in history . They admired each other without ever having met and against the advice of their respective counselors they decided to put an end to 135 years of wars and crusades.
On February 11th, 1229, after five months of hard bargaining, the two sovereigns won the day still without having met each other face to face. Frederick and Al-Kamil signed the treaty of Jaffa, an outstanding diplomatic achievement in the history of relations between Christianity and Islam. Even more so, this treaty was to be a model of its kind as it drew a line between religion and politics which was totally opposed to the accepted vision of the era.
Upon his return to Sicily, Frederick had been publicly repudiated by Pope Gregory IX, who believed that this peace treaty with the Muslims was a pact with the Devil. He attempted to have Frederick assassinated and upheld the excommunication which he had pronounced against him.
Al Kamil died a lonely man in 1238. He knew that – after his death – Jerusalem would never again find peace. True enough, six years after his passing, his successors would take Jerusalem back from the Francs for good. Two further crusades by the Christians would not succeed in re-conquering the Holy Land. St. John fell at Acre on the 18th May 1291 it would be the end of any Western presence in Palestine. Frederick, the excommunicated emperor, died in 1250, twelve years after his friend.
Each of them had been living a fragment of the longest dream in History , the dream to reconcile East and West. Their dream was to last for only fifteen years.
Part 8: Khubilai Khan Becomes World Ruler
Protected by its great wall and by three thousand years of history, the Middle Kingdom felt forever safe from invaders. That was counting without the hordes of nomadic horsemen who came from the Mongolian steppes, commanded by Kublai.
The great Kublai Khan, grandson of Gengis Khan, was born in 1214. He was the very incarnation of twelve centuries of invasions of sedentary civilisations by nomadic people.
His great ambition was to complete the conquest of the northern part of China which his grandfather had started by defeating the southern part of the country. To him, China was more than just an empire: Kublai’s goal was to conquer a civilisation and make it his own. Since the beginning of its three thousand-year-old history, China had kept to itself. When conquering Siang Yang, Kublai Khan became the only ruler of the Middle Kingdom. From then on, China, Turkestan, Persia and Russia had been united in one Empire, under the authority of the Mongol princes. For the following century, the newly established Yuans dynasty would continue in the traditional lineage of the old Chinese dynasties. Kublai the Nomad carried the ostentatious mantle of the Chinese emperors and adopted their ceremonial protocol.
For the first time in its history, the Middle Kingdom opened to the outside world and established direct relations with Persia and the West. The Mongols, who had secured safe passage for the caravans, opened both transcontinental routes, which had been closed since the end of antiquity. Travellers from Europe could from then on take either the Southern route which led through Persia to the Jade Gate, or opt for the Northern route from the Crimea, crossing the south of Siberia reaching China via the north.
In 1275, a Venetian merchant travelling through Tai-tou, asked to be received by Kublai Khan. His name was Marco Polo who wrote in his memoirs about his reception at the Kublai’s palace, describing the magnificence and splendour of his court. Kublai died in Peking in 1294 at the age of 80. It had taken seventy years for the Nomadic horsemen from the steppes in order to make the dream of Alexander the Great come true: unite the East and the West.