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This family has set up camp with their yurt in Tajikistan.
This family has set up camp with their yurt in Tajikistan.
Photo © Jean-Luc Ray, Aga Khan Foundation

"[If a traveler] chances to lag behind or to fall asleep or the like, when he tries to gain his company again he will hear spirits talking, and will suppose them to be his comrades. Sometimes the spirits will call him by name; and thus shall a traveler ofttimes be led astray so that he never finds his party."

Thus wrote Marco Polo in describing the dangers of the journey across the great Takla Makan Desert in the western part of Central Asia. The area sometimes called Inner Asia or Eurasia is immense, occupying more than 8 million square miles, or about one-seventh of the land area of the world. The land includes tundra, forest, steppe, and desert zones, all of which have been traveled over thousands of years by traders, clerics, scholars, diplomats, and wandering explorers. It is this imposing and challenging region that the Silk Road crossed, connecting Asia and Europe. But who actually lived here?

Some parts of this region were basically uninhabitable, but the steppe, the vast pasture lands, was home to nomads, people who herd animals and move with them seasonally, following the grass and water. "Nomad" derives from the Greek word for pasture, nomos. Nomadism on the steppe originated about 3,000 years ago.

The nomads knew no borders. They moved in small groups, often making temporary alliances with other groups and trading their horses, especially for goods from the great sedentary civilizations of China, Iran, India, and the Mediterranean that surrounded them. They were often the bearers of ideas, new technologies, and products along the Silk Road.

In the early 13th century the Mongol Genghis (Chinghis) Khan consolidated most of the nomadic groups of the steppe and created an empire greater than any that had existed before. Although after his death the empire splintered into four smaller Mongolian empires, which also disintegrated eventually, this period of Mongol rule between the 13th and 14th centuries over what is today Central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia, as well as China, the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe, was called Pax Mongolica. It was not always a time of peace, but it was a time when goods, arts, and ideas could move from China to Paris and when travelers themselves could freely go part or all of the way. The nomads were an essential part of this activity.

At the beginning of the 21st century, nomads are still a vital if often endangered economic and social force in much of central Eurasia. From Siberian reindeer herders and Mongolian horse breeders to Turkmen shepherds and Tibetan yak drivers, modern-day nomads follow a way of life based on many of the traditions of the Silk Road region. Nomads invented the harness and fashioned clothing for riding, made felt (of wool) for warmth and decoration, devised bowed stringed instruments, and created innovative forms of portable housing (the yurt or ger).

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