The Chang’an-Tian-shan Silk Road Corridor, one of the major arteries of the historic Silk Roads that opened up trade from China to the west, has become the first stretch of the Silk Road to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The trans-boundary trading corridor, covering some 5,000 kilometers across China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, was in active use from the 2nd century BC until the 16th century AD, connecting cities, peoples and cultures across Central Asia as merchant caravans traversed the mountainous steppe lands. Its designation by the World Heritage Committee is a vital step in recognizing the historical, cultural and social importance of the Silk Roads, and it was inscribed on the List, along with 25 other new sites, during the 38th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in June 2014.
One of the earliest and most important routes to connect the Far East with Central Asia, the Chang’an-Tian-shan corridor runs from Chang’an (Xi’an), in the Shaanxi province of northwest China, westwards through the Hosi Corridor, passes through Tian-shan mountains and the valleys of southeastern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan. The eastern passages of this route were first established in the 2nd century BC, when the Chinese explorer Zhang Qian set out from the Han capital of Xi’an, and travelled to Central Asia and India, laying the foundations for official relationships with foreign kingdom and most importantly, demonstrating the potential for trade to the west. Traffic along these routes gained momentum as the Roman and Chinese Han Empires began to trade with each other, with Far Eastern goods such as silk , considered as an expensive luxury in the west. The corridor remained at the heart of trade across Central Asia from the 8th century to 12th century, with merchant activity peaking in the 8th and 9th centuries, reflecting the prosperity of the emerging Islamic Caliphate, the Tang dynasty and the Byzantine Empire. This trade remained prosperous during the Pax Mongolica in the 13th-14th century, before declining after the breakup of the Timurid Empire in the 16th century.
The merchants that travelled these routes brought not only new merchandises, but new cultures, skills, beliefs and languages into the regions that lay along the Silk Roads. The Chang’an-Tian-shan corridor is lined with monuments reflecting the cultural, intellectual and scientific exchanges that took place along this route across history, with 33 different sites being recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, including capital cities, palaces, Buddhist cave temples, caravanserais, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings. Buddhism in particular was disseminated across western and central China, as witnessed by the construction of pagodas, cave temples and Buddhist monasteries in regions surrounding the corridor.
As such, the Chang’an-Tian-shan corridor has been of enormous importance in the history of Central Asia, shaping the cultures, cities and customs of the regions along this route in China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Its identification as a distinctive stretch of the Silk Roads and its inscription on the World Heritage List is a milestone in the recognition of the Silk Roads as part of a common heritage of humanity. These routes have been the subject of intensive study at UNESCO in recent years, as part of the “Serial Transnational World Heritage Nominations of the Silk Roads” initiative, leading to the identification of 54 different ‘corridors’ along the 150,000 kilometers of the Silk Roads network from the Mediterranean to the Far East, and it is anticipated that many more such nominations will be received for future inscription.