Teaching/Learning Guides

Silk Road Resources: Videos and CD-ROMs

Titles listed (some to be annotated later):

The Great Moghuls
The Mughal Emperors
Mysterious Mummies of China
The Silk Road (NTK/CCTV production)
The Silk Roads: Roads of Encounter (UNESCO)
China's Frozen Desert (NGS "Treasure Seekers")
The Silk Road (NGS "Treasure Seekers")
Art and the Islamic World
Islamic Art and Architecture
The Muslim Town: Urban Life under the Caliphate
Once Upon a Time: Baghdad during the Abbasid Dynasty
The Silk Road: Digital Journey (CD-ROM)


  • The Great Moghuls

    A six-part series of half-hour films devoted to the most important of the Mughal emperors, starting with the founder of the Dynasty, Babur (ruled 1526-1530) and ending with Aurangzeb (1658-1707). The second Mughal ruler, Humayun, does not have his own film, but his successor Akbar gets two. Well researched series with excellent photography and script by the urbane narrator Bamber Gascoigne. Gascoigne also wrote an accompanying book for the series: The Great Moghuls (NY: Harper & Row, 1971). In contrast to the often empty commentary in the Silkroad video series reviewed below, this series has some real substance and should appeal both to school audiences and to adults. Northwest educators may borrow the videos from the JSIS South Asia Center outreach collection; they are also available through the King County Library system.

  • The Mughal Emperors.

    A 28-minute video also available through the JSIS South Asia Center.


  • Mysterious Mummies of China

    NOVA VHS WG2502, available from WGBH in Boston for $19.95.

    A somewhat sensationalized NOVA film about the fascinating mummies excavated in Xinjiang in the Taklamakan Desert of Western China. The talking heads include Victor Mair and Jeannine Davis-Kimball, who are experts on various aspects of the early cultures of Inner Asia. The film contains excellent footage showing burial objects, textiles (some of the most important evidence about Western connections); information on nomadic-sedentary interaction going way back in Inner Asian history, and the importance of wool before the Silk Road came into being. There are some very interesting views of a major petroglyph site with ritual art that is to be connected with the early inner Asian nomads. The film can be used very successfully in classes, since student audiences, perhaps attracted by the somewhat ghoulish subject and images, do respond to the material, and issues that are raised about cultural interaction across Eurasia from very early times provide a good springboard for discussion.

    There is undue emphasis on the degree to which the Chinese authorities have attempted to keep the mummies secret because of the fact they show that the early inhabitants of the region were not Chinese but in fact seem to have come from the West. Another regrettable feature of the film is the sense that it gives about the discovery of the mummies really being new. In fact, some were unearthed a century ago by explorers such as Sven Hedin. The viewer is not told how controversial some of Mair's views are concerning the identification of the mummies with the mysterious Tocharians. The scene where he identifies his Tocharians on a cave mural painted centuries after the date of the mummies is a curious exercise in "proof" if there ever was one.

    Those who find this material interesting may wish to read Elizabeth Wayland Barber, The Mummies of Ürümchi (NY; London: Norton, 1999), a well-illustrated book valuable for its analysis of the textiles found in the burials. Be warned though that the book rambles, and it is hard to connect a lot of its material into any kind of coherent narrative. For Mair's own views in print, see: J. P. Mallory and Victor H. Mair, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest People from the West(London; NY: Thames & Hudson, 2000).


  • The Silk Road

    A thirty (!) part VHS videotape series, jointly produced by Japanese (NHK) and Chinese (CCTV) Television, filmed over four years beginning around 1980 and first aired in 1990. Each film runs 50 minutes. The first twelve are on individual cassettes; the last eighteen are three to a video. The complete series is available for Northwest educators to borrow from the JSIS REECAS outreach collection; also, a non-circulating copy of the first six films is available in the UW Bothell library. The films may be purchased from Central Park Media. At least the first 12 films may be purchased individually for $29.95 ea.; boxed sets contain pts. 1-6, 7-12, 13-30. Parts 1-12 are available as a 3 DVD set. The soundtrack of Kitaro's electronic Silkroad Suite is available on two CDs.

    The strengths of the series include stunning photography of landscapes, historic sites and art, and contemporary cultures of Eurasia from China to the Mediterranean. A substantial amount of the footage is not otherwise readily available. Parts of the narration are quite meaty, and the commentary generally quite well informed. The film crews had access to important museum collections, which are tapped to show specific archaeological/art objects; occasionally some technically sophisticated techniques are used which enhance understanding of material.

    The challenges (read weaknesses) of the series are also significant. Since the series is so large and is not accompanied by any kind of viewing guide, the blurbs on the cassette boxes provide too little indication of content. For this reason, we offer on a separate page a generally detailed table of contents for each film. One easily tires of Kitaro's electronic score, which often accompanies extended views of the Silk Road Expedition's jeeps raising dust clouds in the desert. Even if accurate, commentary is often frustratingly thin and seems to get thinner and more repetitive as the series proceeds, probably because the script writers ran out of ideas.

    At the point where the "expedition" left China (starting with film 13), the production was taken over fully by the Japanese crew, with a resultant shift in tone, script, and narrator. Especially in the the parts where the Chinese crew participated, there is occasionally a kind of cultural snobbery that borders on the offensive--the non-Chinese peoples in China, who are central to many of the films, are happy "tribes" who enjoy colorful markets if somewhat primitive ways and are, of course, benefitting from government programs of "modernization." There is a very different side to that story, and it is not told. One consequence of the switchover in the production team is that there is a lack of uniformity in pronunciation of proper names. The narrator for the Chinese parts of the series pretty much gets the pronunciation right, but in the purely Japanese part of the series once they have left China, names are often pronounced so as to be unrecognizable. Also, the then Soviet republics of Central Asia are referred to by the ethnonym, not the regional designation (i.e., Kazakh, not Kazakhstan). With one or two exceptions, it never occurred to the producers that most viewers would benefit from some maps. Without knowing quite a bit about the geography of Eurasia ahead of time, one can easily get lost, since the genenerally East to West progression of the series breaks down in the middle. The viewer may not know whether she is in Kazakhstan or Kyrgyztan or when the team returned to a previous location, where exactly are those locations in Iran or what part of the Caucasus is being filmed.

    If it were possible to excerpt about three good hours of the twenty-five or so hours of this footage, and combine it with a really substantial script, the result would be an incredibly good film. Probably because of the exigencies of producing a long series whose audience was, in the first instance, Japanese TV viewers (there is a passion for everything about the Silk Road in Japan), the result is less than satisfactory for many educational purposes. The films run the gamut from a fair amount of sophistication to banality. Generally the earlier films in series are done better than the later ones. Nonetheless any number of snippets and, in some cases, even most of a given film could be used for classes ranging from lower grades up through college.

    List of films. Click on each to bring up a description of its contents.

    Film 1. Glories of Ancient Chang'an.
    Film 2. A Thousand Kilometers Beyond the Yellow River.
    Film 3. The Art Gallery in the Desert.
    Film 4. The Dark Castle.
    Film 5. In Search of the Kingdom of Lou-Lan.
    Film 6. Across the Taklamakan Desert.
    Film 7. Khotan: Oasis of Silk and Jade.
    Film 8. A Heat Wave Called Turfan.
    Film 9. Through the Tian Shan Mountains by Rail
    Film 10. Journey Into Music: South Through the Tian Shan Mountains
    Film 11. Where Horses Fly Like the Wind
    Film 12. Two Roads to the Pamirs
    Film 13. Across the Pamirs.
    Film 14. The King's Road.
    Film 15. Legendary Ladakh.
    Film 16. Xuanzang's Travels in India.
    Film 17. The Scorching Sun and the Southern Road of Iran.
    Film 18. In Search of Wisdom.
    Film 19. Beyond Baghdad.
    Film 20. The Road Vanished into a Lake.
    Film 21. Across the Steppes.
    Film 22. The Sky Horses of Davar (Ferghana).
    Film 23. The Soghdian Merchants.
    Film 24. The Glory of Samarkand.
    Film 25. Across the Karakum Desert.
    Film 26. The Other Silk Road.
    Film 27. The Caravans Move West.
    Film 28. The Horsemen of Turkey.
    Film 29. The Silk City at the Edge of Asia.
    Film 30. All Roads Lead to Rome.

  • The Silk Roads: Roads of Encounter.

    UNESCO publishing, 1997. ISBN 92-3-103691-2 88 minutes. PAL (i.e., European) format. The jacket description (my own review will be forthcoming once I have converted the film to VHS):

    A unique documentary in its wealth and depth of information. Original documents were filmed by local television teams of nine countries in Central Asia as the expedition, organized within UNESCO's programme "Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Route of Dialogue" retraced the 2,000-year-old 20,000 km. silk and spices route linking East and West and thus ideas, religions, people, products and cultures in both directions. John Lawton composed later a fascinating kaleidoscope, where, from Sian in China to Constantinople at the doors of Europe, the legendary and the present meet. And the dialogue is still alive.
    Note: As part of this project, UNESCO published a useful collection of academic essays The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce. Vadime Elisseeff, ed. (2000), some of which should be of interest to the general reader. A review of the book will be provided elsewhere on our web site.


  • The Treasure Seekers. A National Geographic series broadcast on a regular schedule through the society's television channel. Apparently these films are not normally sold on videocassette, but the two listed here were shown several times in October and November 2001 and may be repeated.

  • China's Frozen Desert. The description of the film from the NGS website:
    On the edges of the Taklamakan desert, an exotic blend of Indian, Mongol, Chinese, and European influences fueled an astonishing cultural Renaissance. 20th Century archeologist Sir Aurel Stein took on the deadly Taklamakan to prove his own theories about western China’s lost civilization. Again and again 7th Century monk Xuanzang’s writings led him to archeological treasure–once thriving cities now buried in the sand. On this trail, he made his greatest discovery: a thousand year old Buddhist library, in near perfect condition.
    The film is what we might call a "pseudo documentary," with a well-researched script and two expert talking heads, Sally Wriggins and Valerie Hanson. However, it was not filmed on location in Central Asia; so the scenes are all simulations, and actors play the roles of Xuanzang and Stein. A rather disappointing show, at least for the adult viewer. Can one assume the other films in the series are similar productions? What if Wriggins and Hansen could have been brought together with the footage from the NHK/CCTV series reviewed above?

  • The Silk Road. "For thousands of years, the great civilizations of the east and west seemed to thrive in relative isolation. A single trade route, however, kept the two loosely connected. The Silk Road follows two men, Marco Polo and Sven Hedin, who traveled this route in search of great riches and unprecedented adventure."


  • Videos on Islamic art and cities, available to Northwest educators through the JSIS Middle East Center:
    • Art and the Islamic World
    • Islamic Art and Architecture
    • The Muslim Town: Urban Life under the Caliphatee
    • Once Upon a Time: Baghdad during the Abbasid Dynasty



  • The Silk Road: Digital Journey

    Produced by Marek Gronowski (DNA Multimedia Corporation, 1760 West 2nd Ave. Vancouver, B.C. V6J 1H6, Canada, tel. 1-604-736-8783; e-mail: info@dna.bc.ca. Works on both Windows and Mac. Can order for $24.95 through www.cdaccess.com.). What follows is an excerpt from a review I wrote for the REECAS Newsletter a couple of years ago:

    ...Since it has been designed with pedagogical goals in mind, The Silk Road is an excellent resource for a range of class levels. It is sophisticated enough so that it could be used even for a college class, although it is probably intended for middle or high school students. There are numerous good photographs, music clips, samples of phrases in various languages, maps with animated drawings of routes and directions of influence and more. The explanations of major religions and ethnic groups are sound and pack a lot in a short space; one can learn quite a bit about history and exploration. The publisher even offers an internet site where one can access related materials of rather limited scope (the idea is promising; it is not clear that the project has continued).

    Main selections are done at "The Market," where for the basic journey, one can begin with a slide show and accompanying commentary following the route from Xian in China to Rawalpindi in Pakistan. There are occasional glitches, where comment does not match image. Marco Polo is erroneously placed in the 12th century; a mention of K-2 is accompanied by a photo of Rakaposhi; the importance of the recent ethnic changes in Xinjiang is obscured by a misleading comment about Chinese being a small minority in Kashgar. The slide show would have been better had more historical information been incorporated into it.

    For history, one searches under a separate rubric, and the information is rather fragmented. The timelines are pretty sketchy too, but enough material is provided so that a user could pull together a reasonably clear historical sequence of important events. At many points one can click on hypertext connections to learn about important individuals; the interactive maps allow the user to select two countries or regions and bring up immediately a listing of products that went between them.

    There are various quiz questions for review along the way, and at "the university" one can attempt to pass tests in five main categories of knowledge in order to obtain the key to the Cave of Knowledge. There no pot of gold awaits; the message presumably is that the reward is what one learned to gain admittance.

    There is one unfortunate bias in the coverage of the disk--only the eastern half of the Silk Road is represented; very little intimates about its extension the rest of the way west to the Mediterranean world. Even within the region covered, there is too little sense of the complexity and multiplicity of routes. To follow it south along the modern Karakoram Highway into Pakistan, for example, obscures the fact that this particular route was never the most important one to the sub-continent until modern times. Perhaps the limitation was imposed by the amount of information that could be compressed on the one disk; a complementary one for the western half of the Silk Road would be in order.

    © 2001 Daniel C. Waugh. Last updated December 24, 2001.

    Silk Road Seattle is a program of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington.