British Academic Caravan Returns to the Silk Road
Dr. Siddharth S. Saxena
iCambridge Central Asia Forum and the UK Committee for Central and Inner Asiaj

Central Asia has a mystical resonance in the British imagination, whether through the writings of the Orientalists or the biographers of the Great Game. The colonial withdrawal and Soviet takeover of the region instigated a steady decline in what was once a glorious tradition of scholarship of the region in Britain, as the access to it became restricted. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and liberalisation in China and Mongolia have removed barriers to research in Central and Inner Asia, but the UK academic community is only now beginning to fill this vacuum. In the last decade there have been some initiatives from within the UK (e.g. archaeological work at Merv in Turkmenistan, social anthropology in Central Asian states and Mongolia, research into the politics, international relations and security of Central Asia), and a considerable number of post-graduate dissertations have been, or are being, written on Central and Inner Asian subjects. It is now well recognised that the region has tremendous potential for academic research in the arts, humanities and social sciences, as well as being of strong contemporary commercial, political and strategic interest to the United Kingdom. The prospects for research into the archaeology, history, languages and literatures, art and material culture, and contemporary states and societies of Central Asia are exciting, especially when one considers the possibility of collaboration with scholars of the established academic tradition of the region. Central Asian research promises to generate findings that will be of intrinsic academic significance, and to stimulate comparative insights for the study of the surrounding regions. In Britain we are committed to direct collaboration with the colleagues in Central Asia, Russia and China as a priority, and hope to co-ordinate our activities with already well developed initiatives in Japan, Europe and the United States.

The United Kingdom Committee for Central and Inner Asia ( was formed in 2002 and its efforts are concentrated on promoting research within established disciplines, as well as encouraging new multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research on Central and Inner Asia. The three years of the Committee's existence demonstrate the high level of interest in the field among UK-based scholars and students, and suggest that there is a need to build on the work of the initial period to develop a longer term mechanism to support existing initiatives and to promote new work in the region.

Our activities have included two annual lectures given by Professor Denis Sinor, (Indiana University) titled 'A rediscovered world: Central and Inner Asia', and Prof. Franz Grenet (CNRS, Paris) titled 'From Samarkand to Xi'an: the Sogdian Self-Image'. We hosted the 47th Permanent International Altaistic Conference in Cambridge which was themed 'Tradition and Modernity in the Altaic World'. In the last three years we have given seed grants to more than eighty projects ranging from the Ethnomusicology of Uighur and Afghan music to conferences on the geopolitical strategies of the Central Asian states. Many of these have already resulted in monographs, publications and doctoral dissertations by both young and established scholars. We have hosted a number of scholars working on Central and Inner Asia related topics from abroad under our auspices. These include some Japan-based scholars, who have been instrumental in consolidating Japan-UK-Central Asia research collaboration. The majority of the funding has come through the generosity of the British Academy and the Research Councils of the United Kingdom as well as sources within the University of Cambridge.

The Committee sees the promotion of bilateral academic relations between the region and the UK as part of its primary purpose. This implies gathering and disseminating information about existing activities both there and here, and sharing this with those who need it. The first edition of the Central and Inner Asia Register of Experts and Interested Parties, maintained by the Cambridge Central Asia Forum, University of Cambridge, jointly with the UK Committee, was issued in June 2003. It seeks to be inclusive, listing not only those with professional academic research interests in the region, in particular research students, but also those in other disciplines in contact with colleagues in the countries in question. The Committee believes that it will help to promote awareness of the region and to bring together those involved in research there. We have pooled information with the Centre of Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

We provided a grant allocation in Central Asia to create a web-site in Russian providing details of academics working in the region. This exists in draft form and will be known as Academics of Central Asia ( The Committee has established contact with a number of bodies in the region. The regional programme of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has asked us to assist in setting up a workshop as part of their "capacity-building" programme for young Central Asian women leaders. We have various links with the British Council in Tashkent (for Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and Almaty (for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). We assist with finding UK contacts for academics from the region visiting under British Council umbrella. In Afghanistan we have joined forces with the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit which is establishing an academic library in Kabul, incorporating the books from the old British Institute in Kabul and the Society for the Protection of Afghan Culture and Heritage. The Afghan expedition was a joint effort between the National Museum of Ethnology, in Osaka, the Cambridge Central Asia Forum and The UK Committee. Faculty members and a graduate member from the University of Tokyo's Institute of Oriental Culture and the University of Cambridge participated in a study of social and institutional conditions and their impact on development in a post-conflict society.

Apart from Cambridge and SOAS, Oxford University has launched its own Central Asia society known as The Oxford Society for Central Asia (TOSCA) and is active in organising seminars and activities, while the University of Reading hosts the Centre for Euro-Asian Studies. The Royal Institute for International Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London have fully fledged Central Asia focus programmes. The Chairman of the UK Committee is on the faculty of the University of Manchester, while the Universities of Birmingham, St. Andrews, Nottingham, Durham, Southampton as well as Goldsmith's College, University College, King's College, London School of Economics and Politics, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, The British Museum, the British Library and Westminster University in London all have active staff members and research groups involved in Central Asia related research. The student community has also been very active, and its efforts preceded that of the Committee through formation of the UK Central Asia Graduate Network, which organises its own conferences and a Europe-wide Central Asia Research Network. Bodies like the Royal Asiatic Society, the Royal Institute for Asian Affairs and the Ancient India and Iran Trust have promoted academic and popular interest in the region and hold important archival material.

The recent impetus for academic interest in the region came through the nucleation of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum in 2001, which facilitated the formation of the Committee at the UK level. The Cambridge group is comprised of Anthropologists, Orientalists, Economists, Historians, Educationalists, Geographers, Archaeologists and Natural Scientists who work together on interdisciplinary projects and educational development in the region. We have been very lucky to host both regional visiting fellows and those from Japan who are collaborating with colleagues here on projects on the role of local community structures like Mahalla in Uzbekistan and development models in Afghanistan. More recently, Cambridge teams have been doing field work on projects such as those on the origins and role of cosmopolitanism in Bukhara, education reform in the Central Asian states, and economic policy directives in transition states, conservation of Biodiversity in Ferghana valley, as well as manuscript-based historical work.

We are delighted by the support we have received at individual and institutional levels as this is indicative of positive future for Central Asia related activity in the United Kingdom.

Bukhara and Cambridge:Ancient Academic Centres