The Silk Roads @ UNSW initiative brings together experts from across UNSW in a program of interdisciplinary projects exploring the ancient and contemporary human connections and material exchanges across Eurasia and the seas. We use ‘Silk Roads’ as a concept of interrelatedness, rather than defined geographical routes. Combining research projects with cultural events and teaching activities, this initiative aims to be a platform for developing collaborative grants, innovative teaching and community-facing events that position the university at the forefront of a new global research frontier sparked by major programs such as the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative and the formation of new multilateral agencies that span Eurasia (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; Shanghai Cooperation Organisation).

Emeritus Professor of Modern Chinese History Louise Edwards
Emeritus Professor of Modern Chinese History
Senior Lecturer (Asian Studies/Chinese) Ayshe Eli
Senior Lecturer (Asian Studies/Chinese)
Judith Neilson Post-Doctoral Fellow in Contemporary Art Minerva Inwald
Judith Neilson Post-Doctoral Fellow in Contemporary Art
  • Thursday, 26 August 2021, 12:00 to 1:00pm

    Title: Iranian Literature after the Islamic Revolution: The Case of Iranian Writers in Australia. 

    In this seminar, Laetitia will discuss Iranian writers in Australia, in the context of her recently published book which explores how Iranian literature, especially prose, has functioned and circulated from the 1979 revolution to the present. The book analyses contemporary Iranian literature in both Iran and its diaspora, in relation to the social, economic, and political fields. It is based on 15 years of fieldwork and travels in Iran and countries of the Iranian diaspora (North America, Western Europe, and Australia). After underlining the main ideas of the book, Laetitia will focus on one chapter studying Iranian writers in Australia, make comparisons to other diasporic locations and argue that Iranian writers in Australia – perhaps because of, rather than despite, the short history of migration – have adapted to their Australian readers quickly by selecting certain forms, genres, and topics attractive to Australian readers. 

    About the presenter: Laetitia Nanquette is Senior Lecturer in the School of the Arts and Media at UNSW. She studied in France, the United Kingdom, Iran, and the United States, before coming to Australia. Nanquette was a DECRA fellow of the Australian Research Council between 2015 and 2019She travels to Iran for research fieldworks and translates contemporary Persian literary texts into English and French. Her first book was Orientalism Versus Occidentalism. Literary and Cultural Imaging Between France and Iran Since the Islamic Revolution (I.B. Tauris, 2013). Her work on Iranian literature has appeared in leading journals including Iranian Studies, The Translator, Interventions. Iranian Literature after the Islamic Revolution: Production and Circulation in Iran and the World was published in May with Edinburgh University Press.

  • 10 August 2021, 12:00 to 1:00pm Online

    Speaker: Alison Betts

    Title: When China first met the West 

    Although China’s cultural development rose in parallel with the other early great Old-World centres in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus valley, her physical isolation meant that contact between China and the west developed very slowly and very late, relative to the rest of Asia. This talk presents the recently documented and remarkable story of the first east-west contact, a story that is almost invisible, except for fragile traces in the palaeobotanical record. 

    About the Speaker

    Professor Alison Betts is Edwin Cuthbert Hall Chair of Archaeology and Mythology of the Ancient Middle East at the University of Sydney. She specializes in the archaeology of the lands along the Silk Roads from the Near East to China, with a particular interest in nomadic peoples. She has worked extensively in eastern Jordan, Central Asia, and China, and currently run major field projects in Uzbekistan and Xinjiang, both of which have been supported by ARC Discovery grants. 

  • 13 July 2021, 5:30 pm–6:30 pm Online

    Speaker: Rachel Harris, SOAS.

    Title: Music-making, National Survival and Social Heat: Heritaging Uyghur Meshrep in Kazakhstan.

    This talk is based on an ongoing British Academy Sustainable Development project, which partners with academics and community organisations in Kazakhstan. The project explores how Uyghurs in Kazakhstan engage with discourses and practices of preservation and revitalisation in their responses to China's policies of cultural erasure in the Uyghur homeland (Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).  

    The project focuses on meshrep, a type of all-male gathering involving music, dancing and joking, which plays a prominent role in modern imaginings of Uyghur national identity, and in local processes of community-making. Since 2009, Uyghurs in Kazakhstan have engaged in new forms of “heritaging” meshrep, attempting to revive their role as a medium for strengthening communities, and sustaining language and culture. I argue that the unruly, affective and performative aspects of meshrep in Kazakhstan are key to the success of these social goals, highlighting the role of these musical gatherings as a space for the negotiation of tensions between religion, nation, and what I term 'hot male sociality.'

    About the Speaker

    Professor Rachel Harris is an ethnomusicologist and she teaches at the School of Arts at SOAS, University of London. Her research focuses on Uyghur religious and expressive culture, and the politics of heritage in China and Central Asia. Her latest book 'Soundscapes of Uyghur Islam' is published by Indiana University Press. She currently serves as principal investigator on a sustainable development project to revitalise Uyghur cultural heritage in Kazakhstan.

  • Tuesday, 22 September 2020. Online seminar: 12:30pm - 2pm 

    Title: Exiles or Intermediaries? Uyghurs in the Interwar Middle East 

    Dr David Brophy


    Worsening political repression in Xinjiang has raised the question of the degree and nature of support for the Uyghur cause in the wider “Islamic world.” Most discussion of Uyghur exile political activity in the Middle East begins with the 1949 Chinese revolution and the relocation of prominent Uyghur activists to Turkey. This talk examines a series of individuals from Xinjiang who were active in the Middle East in the interwar period, with an emphasis on Egypt as a hub of intellectual exchange. While in some respects these activities laid the foundations for the emergence of pro-independence agitation from the 1950s onwards, they also form part of a wider milieu of pan-Islamic and pan-Asianist thinking, which offered Xinjiang Muslims a role in mediating, as opposed to interrupting, the growing ties between Republican China and the Islamic world. 

    About the speaker: 

    David Brophy is a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Uyghur Nation (Harvard 2016), and translator of the forthcoming In Remembrance of the Saints (Columbia 2020).

  • Wednesday, 1 July 2020 - Online seminar - 5pm - 6.30pm (Sydney time)

    Title: Transoceanic Fishers: Multiple Mobilities in and out of the South China Sea 

    Dr Edyta Roszko, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway

    Subsidised, militarised and state-supported fishers of Vietnam and China are at the forefront of the South China Sea dispute. Political scientists and economists have largely assumed that fishers, responding to regulations and incentives, are instruments of their states’ geopolitical agendas. This present-centric approach obscures the actual motivations and modalities of fishers’ expansion of their fishing domains. It also downplays the inter-ethnic networks which connect different fishers beyond state territories and localised fishing grounds in both past and present. Using a combination of ethnography and historiography, this research analyses how fishers move in and out of legal and illegal, state and non-state categories of fisher, poacher, trader, smuggler, and militia. I argue that these shifting occupational categories are predicated on ethnic networks within and beyond states. They reflect wider interconnections between modern state-supported and technology-driven fisheries with older pre-nation-state patterns of mobility, producing new forms of versatility under the states’ radars. 

    About the Speaker: 

    Edyta Roszko is a social anthropologist and senior researcher at Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway. Her research interests include religion and politics in Vietnam, maritime 'Silk Roads', and oceans and seas that emerge as social, political and economic arenas. Funded by European Research Council, her current project Transoceanic Fishers: Multiple Mobilities in and out of the South China Sea (TransOcean), expands her geographic field beyond Vietnam and China to include other global regions in Oceania and West and East Africa. Her monograph Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam is forthcoming in October 2020 with NIAS Press. 

  • Wednesday, 26 February 2020 – Morven Brown 310 – 12pm - 1.30pm 

    Title: The Acquisition of Motion Event Expressions by Uyghur-Chinese early Successive Bilinguals 

    Dr Alimjan Tursun-Niyaz, University of Cambridge 

    In this talk, I investigate the relative role of universal cognitive factors, language-specific properties and cross-linguistic influence in the spatial language development, that is motion event expressions, of children exposed to Uyghur (a Turkic language of central Asia) and Mandarin Chinese successively (around age 3). I show that, although there is clear influence of universal cognitive factors, bilingual children’s developmental trajectories in Uyghur and Mandarin respectively can be most accurately explained with reference to the impact of language-specific properties. Contrary to previous assumptions, structural similarities between languages do not necessarily lead to cross-linguistic influence, especially when there is a trade-off to be made between structural overlap and syntactic complexity. Bilinguals do not show much divergence from developmental patterns observed for children learning languages similar to Uyghur. Although they show both quantitative and qualitative differences with their age-matched monolingual Chinese peers, bilingual children’s motion descriptions become indistinguishable from the latter over time (» age 8). The findings highlight the potential of the human mind’s ‘language making capacity’ and the need to tap into it by encouraging and sustaining bi/multi-lingualism at home, school and society at large.

    About the Speaker:

    Dr Alimjan Tursun-Niyaz is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge. His areas of research interest include bi/multilingual acquisition, psycholinguistics and Turkic linguistics.

  • Wednesday, 20 November - Morven Brown Room 310 - 12.30pm - 2pm. 

    Title: Open Secrets: Ambivalent affect and deflective Strategies in Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Histories and Presents 

    Professor Catherine Alexander, Durham University 

    Between 1947 and 1989, the Soviets tested approximately 456 nuclear weapons on and in a vast tract of land in North east Kazakhstan. When the Soviet-turned-Russian Army finally returned to Russia in 1993/4 from the small town (Kurchatov) that had housed them on the edge of the test site, Kazakhstan was not only left with radioactive contamination, but lacked much of the test documentation needed to understand the effects and was plunged into poverty. Nonetheless, partly in a bid to secure remaining nuclear expertise on the site and town, the National Nuclear Centre (NNC) was set up in this isolated, once closed and secret town to spearhead Kazakhstan’s ‘nuclear renaissance’ and monitor the site. Here I track the various strategies used by the Soviets to contain and disappear this highly secret site before moving to more recent attempts by the government-sponsored NNC to be more open – including opening up a large part of the site, after 25 years of remediation and monitoring, to commercial and agricultural use. Juxtaposing these narratives and strategies with accounts from long-term residents and more recent arrivals in the town provides a sense of far more ambivalent engagements with the town and site, and attempts to contain wastes in a Soviet past and move onto a brighter nuclear future. Instead, what appears is a resistance to any kind of spatial or temporal containment, a denial of progress. I end by thinking through the consequences of assuming the site can be limited in terms of radioactive contamination. 

    PhD Masterclass with Prof. Catherine Alexander (Durham University) 

    Date: 1pm - 3pm, 22 November 2019

    As part of the Silk Roads@UNSW Initiate at the School of Humanities & Languages, Prof. Catherine Alexander from Durham University is visiting UNSW in November 2019. In connection with a seminar titled Open Secrets: Ambivalent affect and deflective Strategies in Kazakhstan’s Nuclear Histories and Presents, we intend to organise a masterclass for a limited number of PhD students during her visit. In this session, Prof. Alexander will draw on her expertise on the anthropological studies in Turkey, post-Socialist Central Asia (Kazakhstan), and the UK to help research students contextualise the challenges they face in the post-fieldwork writing-up period.   

    It will be of interest to participants who have completed their fieldwork; and those with a research focus on the built environment, migration, waste and technology, urban studies, and economic and political anthropology are particularly encouraged to apply.

    About the speaker: 

    Professor Alexander has carried out fieldwork in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Britain on changing relations between state, market and the third sector, the built environment, migration, waste and technology. Her most recent period of fieldwork explored how formerly elite closed ‘nuclear’ towns in Kazakhstan were trying to re-connect to broader economies. 

  • 25 September 2019, 5pm - 6pm in UNSW Library, Seminar Room Level 5. UNSW Sydney Kensington

    Speaker: Pedram Khosronejad  
    Title: African Sitters of Qajar:  Photography, Race and Slavery in Modern Iran 
    The seminar will be followed by an exhibition opening at 6pm (see details below) 

    The use of photographs in research activities and fieldwork is an accepted and regular aspect of contemporary anthropological practice. Whether formally acknowledged as ‘photo-elicitation’, or the subject of casual conversations, talking to people about photographs is something that visual anthropologists frequently find themselves doing. Photographs of enslaved people defy easy categorisation because they are both the record and a relic of the brutal racism and domination at the core of chattel slavery. Photographs of enslaved children, women and men provide compelling and haunting documentation of individuals otherwise lost to the written historical record. Yet, the history of such photographs is firmly embedded in the dynamic of exploitation and dehumanisation that lay at the core of slavery. 

    Photography of Africans enslaved in Iran (1840s-1930s) should be considered an ignored topic in the field of Iranian studies. These visual sources capture the presence of African slaves who have too often been ignored from the socio-historical records of Iran. I view these photographs as powerful images with enduring meanings and legacies. In that context, these photographs are important and perhaps the only visual material that can inform the thinking of readers and scholars about the intertwined histories of African slavery and photography in Qajar Iran. These photographs reveal the different ways African slaves were posed by others and remind us to ask ourselves about the meaning of being an African slave in Iran. 

    About the speaker:  

    Pedram Khosronejad obtained his PhD at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and currently a Visiting Professor at Religion and Society Research Cluster at the Western Sydney University. Prior to this position, he worked as the Associate Director of Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies at the Oklahoma State University in United States (2015-2019), and The Goli Rais Larizadeh Chair of the Iran Heritage Foundation for the Anthropology of Iran in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland (2007-2015). His research interests include cultural and social anthropology, the anthropology of death and dying, visual anthropology, visual piety, devotional artefacts, and religious material culture, with a particular interest in Iran, Persianate societies and the Islamic world. He is chief editor of the Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia (ACME). 

    Photography Exhibition – Race and Slavery – African Sitters of Qajar Era Iran 
    23 September – 18 October 
    UNSW Library Exhibition Space 
    Main Library, Level 5 
    Exhibition Opening Ceremony – September 25 at 5pm 

  • 19 August 2019, 4pm - 5.30pm in Morven Brown MB310

    Speaker: Dr Cyrus Yee, Sun Yat-sen University.

    Title: Crisis Management vs Ethnic Tension: The Qing Dynasty’s Dilemma

    This seminar examines the controversial migration of Han Chinese farmers to Inner Mongolia during the Qing period (1644–1911). The Qing government regarded the presence of large numbers of Han settlements in Mongolia as undesirable since they had tried to keep Mongols and Hans separate since the establishment of their dynasty. Mongol landlords initially recruited Han farmers as labourers but soon found that they lost land to these newcomers. For Han migrants, the decision to migrate and settle in an alien land had been prompted by hardship. In short, rather than any imperial design, this large-scale population movement was the product of the convergence of diverse factors: geography, social conditions, human greed and an instinct to survive. The presence of Han settlers in Mongolia continues to impact relations between modern Inner Mongolia and China today. 

    Dr. Cyrus Yee is an Associate Research Fellow in History at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou. He received his PhD (History) from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (2017). He holds two MAs and an MPhil degree in History from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the University of Hong Kong, respectively. His areas of interest include China’s frontier studies, the history of the Mongol Empire, history of modern China, history and politics of Taiwan, cross-Strait relations, history of China’s foreign relations, and the comparative study of Chinese and Western culture. Major publications include “Han Migrant Farmers in Qing Inner Mongolia: Reluctant Pioneers or Human Great Wall?” (forthcoming) and “Wither Mongolian Consciousness? or Ethnic Politics in Mongolia in Early 20th Century.”

  • Abstract: In 1998, the Belitung, a ninth-century western Indian Ocean–style vessel, was discovered in Indonesian waters. Onboard was a full cargo load, likely intended for the Middle Eastern market, of over 60,000 Chinese Tang dynasty (619–907) ceramics, gold, and other precious objects. It is one of the most significant shipwreck discoveries of recent times, revealing the global scale of ancient commercial endeavors and the importance of the ocean to these trading networks. But this shipwreck also has a modern tale to tell, of how nation-states appropriate the remnants of the past for their own purposes, and of the international debates about who owns—and is responsible for—shared heritage. In this seminar, I focus on the afterlives of this ship and its cargo, the controversy that has accompanied its discovery and display, and the new knowledge it has brought to the surface about the maritime silk route.

    Speaker: Dr Natali Pearson is Curriculum Coordinator at the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre, the University of Sydney, where she is affiliated with the School of Humanities. Her research focuses on the protection, management and interpretation of underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia. She holds a PhD in Museum and Heritage Studies (2019, USYD), a Masters of Museum Studies (2013, USYD), a Masters of Arts in Strategy and Policy (2006, UNSW Canberra) and a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) with First Class Honours in Indonesian and History (2002, UNSW Sydney). Her first book, Belitung: The Afterlives of a Shipwreck, is published by University of Hawai‘i Press (2022).

  • See event

    In the field of Humanities and Social Sciences, there are a multitude of ‘difficult topics,’ such as those related to colonialism, violence, genocide, disaster, systematic racism, queerphobia and misogyny, for example, which provide both learning challenges and opportunities in the university classroom.

    These topics may be heavily debated in the academic literature but are also increasingly the subject of inaccurate or problematic social media representations, as well as historical revisionism, ethno-nationalism and conspiracy theories. With students and teachers progressively coming from diverse backgrounds, the tertiary classroom therefore has become a complex and dynamic one, demanding specific pedagogical skills from educators in the 21st century.

    This seminar aims to share experiences, identify common issues and discuss appropriate pedagogical solutions to pertinent and enduring topics that can cause disruption, tension or discomfort in the classroom.

    The focus is on Asian Studies, in its broadest sense and in relation to the non-Western ‘other.’ In addition, one of the workshop outcomes is the establishment of a network of concerned educators who can work together and provide mutual support. 

  • The photographs in this exhibition are drawn from government and personal archives throughout Iran, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Photography, Race and Slavery: African Sitters of Qajar Era Iran is the first exhibition organised in Australia that traces the history of Africans enslaved in Iran using photographs of the Qajar (1796-1925) and early Pahlavi periods (1925-1979).

    This exhibition was presented as part of the UNSW Library Exhibitions Program and the Silk Roads @ UNSW Research Network Seminar Series in collaboration with the Religion and Society Cluster of Western Sydney University.

    See the exhibition catalogue for essays and the list of works featured.

  • Peoples and Landscapes in Motion presents the artworks of four eminent Australian artists Barat Ali BatoorHoda AfsharJohn Gollings and Muzafar Ali. It showcases the diversity of humanity and geography along the ancient Silk Roads from Iran, Afghanistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. It is an intimate depiction of memories of home and land, trauma and resilience, longing and belonging, and arresting documentation of the cultural and spiritual landscapes that have helped shape the enduring history of these communities.

    Peoples and Landscapes in Motion was curated by Ayshe Eli and Louise Edwards.

Sounds of the Silk Roads

Travel, trade, and sometimes political expansion contributed to the dissemination of and often, profound changes to peoples’ religious beliefs along the Silk Roads. We use ‘Silk Roads’ as a concept of interrelatedness, rather than defined geographical routes. Learn more.

Peoples of the Silk Roads

View our collection of gallery images representing the peoples and cultures of the Silk Roads.

Religions along the Silk Road​s

Some of the enduring features of the Islamic religious landscape along the Silk Roads are mazar, or ziyarat, the sacred sites that are believed to be the resting places of saints, kings, or prominent religious and intellectual figures.

*Map by Uri Gilad. Background image by Kenneth Townsend, NASA, Natural Earth, John Nelson