The relationship between the ancient and the modern world has never been quite so easy to understand as it is today, with the advent of technology, we’re able, more and more, to get a greater sense of how those civilisations, which form the base of our contemporary civilisation, be it the Greeks, the Romans, the Babylonians et al, lived, thought and created the bountiful treasures we see in many museums of our great cities. However, although the furtherance of technology can bring dead worlds back to life, it doesn’t surpass nor come close to, for that matter, seeing these worlds first hand, which brings me to the subject of living history.
As many reading this will certainly be familiar with, living history is when a group of history lovers get together and reenact specific moments in time, be it a battle or some other memorable moment from the great tapestry that is civilisation. In the Western world, people are familiar with seeing such reenactments, like the Battle of Waterloo, which takes place each year in Belgium; however, so unfamiliar is the sight of the ancient Sogdians in the lush green fields of England, looking every inch the essence of the Orient.
Eran ud Turan is the end result of one man, Nadeem Ahmad, and his devoted research into the history of Central and South Asian civilisations of Late Antiquity. His endeavours have proved felicitous in bringing the knowledge of these civilisations to greater attention, being the only living history group to focus on these specific cultures.
Nadeem has proven that through a little ingenuity, and a heap of studious research and careful preparation, that a lost world can be successfully reborn, a world which we can see glimpses of in many important cultural gems from the region, whether it be literature like Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or architectural achievements such as the Timurids tombs at Gur-Emir.
Overflowing with all the trappings of the era, from Persian textiles and weapons to cuisine and even manuscripts, written in the Classical Sogdian language, Eran ud Turan is a true tour de force, neatly filling a gap in the the living history arena. Its focus is predominantly on the cultures of the Silk Road, which was far from being a 1000 mile long ancient motorway, as people so often think. Indeed, the Silk Road was a treacherous, less than straightforward array of small and large communities, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies and rivalries.
The Sassanian Persians, the Sogdians, Tokharians, Gokturks and Kucheans are various peoples to whom Nadeem and his group pay homage. They have successfully given modern audiences a taste of several links in the cultural chain of a part of history that saw a tremendous exchange of arts and crafts, as well as many battles.
Speaking with Nadeem, he explained that their labour of love for Eran ud Turan has seen the group gain a wide amount of attention across the UK and Europe. “People are used to seeing Ancient Roman or Medieval reenactments” he said “But when it comes to the Sogdians or the Sassanians we understand how the average person can be a bit confused. But this hasn’t stopped people from wanting to learn about and experience the culture. We’ve set up camp at numerous places, from the British Museum, where we simply just turned up out of the blue one day, in full Sogdian regalia, to official, full scale living history displays everywhere from London to Newcastle. People’s natural curiosity always gets the better of them and we are always willing to give the most in-depth and immersive experience.”
On the tremendous amount of research and acquiring the right artifacts, Nadeem says “It’s simply been a matter of searching long and hard, also cross-checking the facts. There’s a surprising amount of information on this period and the various cultures we are devoted to. We’re lucky in respect that we have attracted a number of people who seriously know their stuff; we know a few craftsman who specialise in creating ancient weaponry, coins etc, living as far away as the US.”
It is fair to say the Sogdians are the main focal point for Eran ud Turan; a civilisation that existed in Samarkand and blossomed into one of the foremost powers along the ancient Silk Road, under the auspices of many a dynasty, such as the Achaemenid, Tang Chinese and others, finally having its autonomy quashed by the Arab invasions of the 8th century. A society revered and feared in equal measure, they could be found in Imperial China, as top generals and military men, and as far Westwards as the Byzantine Empire, as traders.
Evolving and transforming with the times, over four to five centuries, seen most notably in their art, which was informed by many religions over time, including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Early Christianity. As Markus Mode relates in Encyclopedia Iranica, on the Zoroastrian period: “The themes (of Sogdian art) comprise religious images, narrative compositions, scenes of banquets, and ornamental friezes. In certain cases, mural paintings are combined with inscriptions. Non-narrative images of deities, mostly Zoroastrian, were focal points in the decoration of chapels in temples and of the main halls in private residences. In the latter case, they displayed tutelary gods of the house-owners, and served as objects of adoration.”
The Sogdians interaction with differing cultures can be seen in all its technicolor glory thanks to Eran ud Turan’s collection of diligently procured artifacts, which blend a mix of Middle Eastern, Far Eastern and South Asian motifs. For the Sogdians, it is their language which was one of many sources of pride, as it became the dominant lingua franca of the Silk Road, and this is something Eran ud Turan have brought to life as well. “We were really intrigued by the language of the Sogdians” Nadeem says “It’s a difficult script at first, but after engaging in some greater research, we were able to become quite proficient in writing it. We now offer classes to people in writing Sogdian and it’s becoming quite successful.”
Eran ud Turan, as a living, breathing microcosm of extremely important components in the history of the ancient Silk Road, lets us intimately experience an aspect of our ancient past, illuminating a lost world that was crucial in the development of civilisation itself.