At the heart of the Silk Road: the cultural heritage of Kashgar

Uri Gilad, Marika Vicziany & Xuan Zhu

Figure 1
Figure 1. Kashgar's location on the Old Silk Road. Sketch originally published in Michell et al. (2008: 6-7). The Old Silk Road is based on Whitfield (2004: 10). The locations on this sketch have not been authenticated.
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The cultural heritage sites of the oasis region of Kashgar, at the heart of the Old Silk Road, are under-explored and under the threat from modern development works (Michell et al. 2008; Jenkins 2009; Wines 2009). Understanding and preserving Kashgar's cultural heritage sites are important, as this is the gateway to an area that has played a key role in the relationship between China and Central Asia for thousands of years (Di Cosmo 1996: 88). Acknowledging this significance, the 'Kashgar Project' brings together teams from the Monash Asia Institute and the School of Geography and Environmental Science (Monash University) in Australia; the Oasis Institute of Urumqi Normal University and the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute in Urumqi (Xinjiang, China). This international research collaboration, an initiative of the Monash Asia Institute, seeks to document, measure, map, and define the significant cultural heritage sites of Kashgar. This short report aims to introduce Kashgar, the current condition of its cultural heritage sites, and several associated issues concerning their management.


For many centuries, Kashgar has been a major crossroads between East Asia, Central Asia, and the Indian sub-continent. Nowadays, the region is a part of China and is referred to by the Chinese as the Kashgar Prefecture. The prefecture is composed of several environments, including the two main oases of Kashgar and Yarkand; the western edge of the Taklimakan Desert; and the Kunlun Mountains in the south, rising to elevations of above 7500m. Its location in the heart of the Silk Road (Figure 1) has lead to a diverse cultural heritage, and subsequently there exists a variety of cultural heritage sites including Buddhist stupas, mazars (Islamic cemeteries), mosques, irrigation canals, and small scale artefacts. Most of the archaeological research conducted in Kashgar was carried out by European scholars at the turn of the twentieth century (Petrovski 1892; Stein 1907; Hambis 1964); however, during the 1930s China's civil wards limited access to the region, rendering the sites unapproachable to foreign scholars. The Kashgar Project aims to re-introduce the cultural heritage sites to the world (Michell et al. 2008) and act for their preservation.

General observations on the current state of the cultural heritage sites of Kashgar

Today, the only published document to contain a comprehensive record of the cultural heritage sites of Kashgar is the second national Chinese archaeological survey of cultural heritage sites (OCRSX&CRST 1993). This publication provides basic details of 390 heritage sites, such as site type and period (Figure 2) and location (Figure 3).

Figure 2
Figure 2. (a) Site type. (b) Site period (classified according to earliest period mentioned in the Chinese second Archaeological survey, OCRSX&CRST 1993).
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Figure 3
Figure 3. Types of cultural heritage sites in the Kashgar Prefecture.
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While several of the cultural heritage sites in Kashgar are frequently visited by locals and tourists, most sites are hidden from visitors' eyes as they are located in the midst of local settlements or in remote areas. The most prominent cultural heritage sites in the prefecture are the mazars. These are usually found outside villages or on elevated grounds in the agricultural fields of villages, where centuries of erosion by the irrigation systems have lowered the surrounding terrain (Figure 4a). Most mazars that are considered to be cultural heritage sites have new graves in addition to the surviving older ones. If a well-known person is buried in the mazar, the tomb is likely to be under a protective structure (Figure 4b), often locked, and under the supervision of local mazar keepers. The tombs are usually made of a mixture of mud bricks, clay, and dried plants (Figure 4c).

Figure 4
Figure 4. (a) A typical mazar tomb, overlooking a village. (b) Walls arou nd a tomb at the fifteenth-century Bukhunizam-Anam mazar, Shufu. (c) A typical mud structure, used for the construction of tombs and walls, Yarkand. (d) Remains of the old city walls of Yarkand.
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Figure 5
Figure 5. (a) Ruins of the old city of Khan-oy. (b) Topa-Tim, an ancient stupa that was 28 feet high when visited by Stein (1907: 79-80). (c) The remains of Kaptar Khana, and its broken and eroded sign, reading (d): 'Kaptar Khana, 300 square meters, 92 [for year?] council of county ...[ text unclear]. (Photographs c & d: John Gollings, with permission).
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Crumbling mounds are all that is left of most of the old city walls of Kashgar City, Yarkand (Figure 4d), Shule and Yengisar. These have heights of about 6-8m, and are now embedded in the urban landscape. The ancient settlement of Khan-oy (Figure 5a), the stupa of Topa-Tim (Figure 5b), and Kaptar-Khana (Figure 5c & d), also continue to erode as they lie unprotected. The stupa of Mori-Tim is relatively well preserved and protected by a steel fence and guard; nevertheless, degradation of the structure is evident compared with the photographs taken by Stein a century ago (see Di Castro 2009).

The best preserved sites are from the Qing Dynasty period (sixteenth to early twentieth centuries). Many sites are related to the Qing army, which was fighting to regain control of the region during a time of warring lords at the turn of the twentieth century. The most notable Qing remains are beacon towers (Figure 6a), the fortress of Tashkurgan (Figure 6b) and mosques, usually located at the centre of towns and villages (Figure 6c). The Kashgar region also has several petroglyphs, most of them located in the Kunlun Mountains.

Figure 6a
Figure 6a. A Qing army tower, Shufu.
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Figure 6b
Figure 6b. The fortress of Tashkurgan.
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Figure 6c
Figure 6c. The main mosque of Kargilik, built during the Qing Dynasty period.
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On many sites, an official sign indicates the location and name. Sites are usually under the protection of a 'site manager' (ICOMOS 2002: 6), who might simply be the farmer who cultivates the surrounding land. Decisions regarding the destruction of the site are taken at the appropriate administrative level - county, prefecture, province or national - all depending on the importance of a site which is determined by a system of classification. The greatest threat is to sites that are controlled at the county level, as these are considered the least important. Overall, we found most of the 48 sites that were visited by the Kashgar Project team in 2007 to be in poor condition and in serious danger of further deterioration.

Discussion and conclusions

The most urgent tasks are better registration, documentation and protection of the existing sites. The next steps should be the creation of 'special heritage areas' where sites could be assigned a more detailed management plan which includes periodic monitoring and some light preservation work. It is important that options for the development of heritage sites in Kashgar be expressed in policies that enable minority representatives to be involved. This would help create an environment in which minorities have greater confidence in government policies. The potential for cross border trade and tourism (see ADB 2002) is also considerable, given the long historical and cultural links between western China and its neighbours. Most importantly, the openness of the Chinese governments and the willingness of China's research institutes to engage in international collaborations with foreign institutes provide further impetus to the kind of scholarship on which the re-evaluation of Kashgar's cultural heritage must be based.


The authors would like to thank the members of the Monash Asia Institute's Kashgar Project for their support of this research. In particular, the following individuals have assisted with the collection and interpretation of data, the translation of documents and editorial support to this paper: Dr Angelo Andrea Di Castro, Dr Tim Denham and Dr Fariddullah Bezhan, all from Monash University (Melbourne, Australia); Prof Abuduresule Iidilisi, Director, Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology (Urumqi, China); Prof Shujiang Chen and Prof Tsui Yenhu, Xinjiang Normal University (Urumqi, China); and D. Peter Jia, Department of Archaeology, University of Sydney (Australia). We also acknowledge the permission given by John Gollings to use two of his photographs of sites in contemporary Kashgar, taken in 2005.


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* Author for correspondence

  • Uri Gilad*
    School of Geography and Environmental Science & Monash Asia Institute Monash University, Australia (Email:
  • Marika Vicziany
    Monash Asia Institute (MAI), Monash University, Australia
  • Xuan Zhu
    Centre for GIS, School of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Australia