Silk Roads Programme Events

Everyone is very welcome to join and participate in the events hosted by the King's College Silk Roads Programme, please add your details here to join our mailing list or get in touch. We do not record the seminars or mini-conferences as you will be hearing about brand- new, often unpublished research and we hope to facilitate questions and discussion between the audience and speakers.

Upcoming Events

  • Noah’s Grandsons and the Elephant: Functions of Pseudepigraphic Writing in Persianate South Asia
    01-12-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Online Event
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    This lecture examines Muslim elephant keepers and the function of Persian-forged texts in South Asian society. It will inquire into forgery as a tool to domesticate technological knowledge translated from Indic sources and to legitimate the status of a guild that has emerged from Muslims’ interaction with the South Asian natural environment and society. It investigates the function of apocryphal writing in the translation context as a stratagem to produce semantic shifts concerning features of both the translated and the translating cultures. In the Kursī-nāma-yi mahāvat-girī (Genealogy of the mahout), a text of uncertain period about the elephant and the elephant keeper, apocryphal writing functions as a device that allows to Islamize professional and technical skills assimilated from the Indian environment.

    This is accomplished by making them congruent with Muslims’ conception of the origin of technical and scientific professions as practices connected to the early Islamic prophets. Thus, the Kursī-nāma-yi mahāwat-girī creates a legend about the mahout as a profession practiced by Noah’s grandsons. This fictional account also entailed a reflexive meaning in that it operated a significant shift from earlier Muslim negative views on the elephant and provided a new framework for emerging Muslim professional groups involved in the care of this animal.

    About the speaker

    Fabrizio Speziale is Professor at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), Center for South Asian and Himalayan Studies, Paris-Marseille. His research interests focus on the history of sciences in Persianate South Asia and the interactions between Persian and Indic textual cultures. His last book, Culture persane et médecine ayurvédique en Asie du Sud (Leiden, 2018), presents a detailed study of the translation process of Ayurvedic sources into Persian, which took place in India between the 14 th and the 19 th centuries. In one of his recent articles, he examines the accounts of the alchemical techniques associated with yogis in Persian medical texts (“Beyond the “wonders of India” (‘ajā’ib al-hind): Yogis in Persian medico-alchemical writings in South Asia.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 85, 3, 2022).

Recent Events

  • An Indo-Persian history-cum-memoir: the illustration of history at the intersection of India, Iran and Central Asia
    27-10-2023 @ 00:00
    Platform | Audit Room, King’s College (and online)
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    How is history visualised and interpreted in illustrated manuscripts? This presentation will seek to explore this question with regard to Persian manuscript production at the Mughal court, in the context of some important precedents. In particular, we will look at the so-called History of the Timurid dynasty, commissioned by the emperor Akbar and, among its sources, ‘Ali Yazdi’s Zafarnama and Babur’s memoirs, the Baburnama. There are four well-known and closely-linked copies of the latter, but also a little-studied outlier that offers a very different focus on what is worth illustrating in the text. 


    About the speaker

    Charles Melville is Professor emeritus of Persian history at Cambridge and fellow of Pembroke College. His research has focused on the history of medieval Iran from the Mongol to the Safavid periods, Persian historiography and epic literature. He is director of the Cambridge Shahnama Project and currently editor of the ‘Idea of Iran’ series on behalf of the Soudavar Foundation. 

  • Silk Road Worlds, Large and Small: Intersections in Mongol-era Armenia
    03-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Audit Room, King’s College (and online)
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    The scalar expanse of the Silk Road as a historical phenomenon and cultural imaginary challenges us to consider how such scales—of distance, difference, and differential desire—might have been understood by people living in ‘small worlds’ scattered across what we now think of as the Silk Road lands. In this talk I frame the span of the medieval Silk Road within the experience of people living in Armenia, specifically the southern region of Vayots Dzor, during the ‘long Mongol thirteenth century.’ I will explore intersections of material culture, modes of political life and human mobilities, as well as considering how the ‘big world’ we now call the Silk Road could be ‘provincialized’ within the lifeworlds of people with local projects as well as universal aspirations.


    About the speaker

    Kate Franklin is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Birkbeck, University of London. Kate has worked in the Republic of Armenia for more than a decade, with her 2014 PhD from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago focused on the participation of medieval Armenians in the networks of travel and trade now called the medieval Silk Road. Kate’s work explores ideas of place and landscape in materiality and text, and the role of space in entwining the local, the everyday, and the global. Her first book, Everyday Cosmopolitanisms: Living the Silk Road in Medieval Armenia (UCPress 2021) combines historical and archaeological research centered on the role of caravanserais, or inns for travelers, within Armenian political and social life. Her second, co-authored, book Landscapes and Environments of the Middle Ages (Routledge 2023) presents methods and case studies for thinking in interdisciplinary ways about medieval creation, perception, and representations of the ‘natural’ world. Kate is Co-PI of the Vayots Dzor Silk Road Survey, which works to research, record and re-imagine the medieval worlds of Vayots Dzor, Armenia.

  • Beyond the Spice Route: 6th November Afternoon Session
    06-11-2023 @ 15:00
    Platform | Audit Room King's College and Online
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    15:00 - 15:05 Welcome address by members of King’s “Silk Roads Programme”

    15:05 - 15:30 Andrea Acri (EPHE/EFEO) “Keynote Address”

    15:30 - 16:00 Francesco Bianchini (King’s College Cambridge) “Bathing, Health, and Knowledge Exchange: perspectives from Monsoon Asia”


    Coffee Break


    16:15 - 17:00 Anne Blackburn (Cornell University) “The ‘Pali arena’ as heuristic: linking intellectual and material histories in early second-millennium Southern Asia.” (Online)

    Drawing on her forthcoming book publication (University of Hawaii Press 2024), Blackburn proposes the idea of “the Pali arena” as a tool for studying Buddhist intellectual history, and exemplifies this through cases from 14th- 15th-century locations.


    17:00 - 17:45 Jinah Kim (Harvard University) “An Ambitious Itinerary: Journey across the Medieval Buddhist World in a Book”

  • Beyond the Spice Route: 7th November Morning Session
    07-11-2023 @ 09:00
    Platform | Audit Room King's College and Online
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    9:00 - 9:45 Bill Mak (ISF Academy), Kunthea Chhom (Apsara National Authority) “Maritime Transmission of Indian Astral Science in Southeast Asia: Notes on Indian Calendrics and Time Reckoning in Khmer and Javanese Inscriptions”

    The Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia and Java from the latter half of the first millennium to the early are some of the earliest material testimonies to the civilizations of Southeast Asia and their interaction with the Indian culture through the maritime route. Though these inscriptions are generally dated with expressions that can be found in their South Asian counterparts, certain expressions and the combination of the constituents appear to be unique to their locale. While such variations could have been local development, they could also be a testimony to an older form of Indian calendric science that is no longer extant in the South Asian subcontinent. In this paper, we shall have an overview of the extant corpus of Sanskrit inscriptions from Cambodia and Java, followed by an analysis of their content and a comparison with their extant Indian counterparts.


    9:45 - 10:30 Iwan Pranoto (Institut Teknologi Bandung) “Tracing the Transmission of Decimal Number Knowledge in Monsoon Asia” (online)

    The mathematical concept of decimal numbers journeyed throughout Sanskrit Cosmopolis in the 7th century CE, leaving behind records and manuscripts as this knowledge traveled and matured across Monsoon Asia. This presentation examines the transmission of this vital idea across the region, centered on the probable sources of decimal knowledge discovered in Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta. Although the timeline of Kedukan Bukit and Sambor inscriptions suggests that decimal knowledge was more likely to have been derived from Aryabhatta, further research is required to determine the precise transmission paths and the role of cross-cultural exchange in transmitting this knowledge. Additionally, we will delve into the work of Louis-Charles Damais, a prominent authority on ancient Indonesian history and monuments, to better understand numeral writings in Monsoon Asia and their values to the world history of mathematics.


    Coffee Break


    10:45 - 11:30 Louis Copplestone (Harvard University) “Building on the Go: Mechanisms of Exchange and Buddhist Architectural Networks in Medieval Southern Asia”

    Architecture is unique among objects of cultural transmission for its intrinsic connection to a particular place. In an absolute sense, buildings are immobile. And yet the buildings built for Buddhists in medieval Southern Asia share certain formal features and were used and described in similar ways despite the significant cultural and geographic distances between them. Each temple or monastery project was ultimately contingent upon its particular local conditions; it was set within a landscape, produced in proximal materials, and made meaningful within a particular society. The period of architectural production considered in this paper, however, reveals significant instances of architectural exchange.

    It is not always clear how or why architecture travelled in the past; whether as memories and anecdotes, drawings, plans or models, or in the active presence of migrant experts. In this paper, I consider several cases and distinguish a typology of mechanisms of architectural exchange at work within Buddhist networks in medieval Southern Asia. Of particular interest is the role played by agents of transmission and the inevitable transformation that occur in mediation: the shift in meaning (both loss and gain) that accompanies the movement of architectural ideas and practices across space, when materials, techniques, and social circumstances are traversed. I situate my findings within theoretical frameworks developed in the study of architecture elsewhere in the medieval world and establish a practical guide for a future transregional study of Buddhist architecture in medieval Asia.


    11:30 - 12:15 Gregory Sattler (UCLA) “Rethinking Tenth-Century Diplomacy in East Asia: New Perspectives on Relations between Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and a Politically Fragmented China”

    Contrary to the conventional view of present-day historians that Japan was in the midst of a centuries-long state of self-imposed isolation, this paper will build off two of my recent articles to demonstrate that Japan was fully engaged in state-level diplomacy with the Chinese kingdom of Wu-Yue (907–978). I will introduce a range of primary sources which reveal that ministers and envoys from Wu-Yue (until now misidentified as sea merchants) were frequently visiting Japan in the tenth century. Moreover, I will challenge the notion that requests from the king of Wu-Yue for the transmission of Buddhist texts were rejected by a reclusive Japanese court. Hundreds of sutras belonging to the Mahayana Tiantai sect were destroyed during the collapse of the Tang dynasty (618–907), and the provision of copies of these texts from the Koryŏ (918–1392) and Japanese courts to Wu-Yue reflects the earliest major instance in East Asia of the transmission of Buddhist knowledge taking a westward trajectory. Analysis of these events will raise new questions concerning influential narratives produced by nationalist historians in Japan after the Second World War, as well as provide clarity and insight on the complex diplomatic relationships that emerged as a multitude of small states rose from the ashes of the Tang and Silla (668–935) empires.  


  • Beyond the Spice Route: 7th November Afternoon Session
    07-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Audit Room King's College, and Online
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    14:00 14:45 Anwesha Das (Emory University) “Weaving Pieces Together: Material Culture in the Medieval Indian Ocean (12th-15th CE)” (online)

    My research focuses on the ways transoceanic ties shaped the material culture of the medieval Indian Ocean. In this paper, I use material and visual evidence of Indian block-printed textiles produced in Gujarat and traded to the wider Indian Ocean world during the 12th-15th century CE. These textile fragments weave a story of networks that connected people, regions, and economies across the Indian Ocean before European powers began to gradually dominate this maritime space in sixteenth century. I turn to the textiles themselves, as I trace their cultural biographies as traded commodities and going through processes of transformations, and customizations. My paper probes into networks of religion and culture and how these factors left an imprint on the block-printed textiles production in Gujarat. I argue for a critical scholarship that integrates the study of material remains of the textiles’ fragments in museums and private collections, the illustrations of textiles in medieval Jaina manuscripts and sculptural remains from medieval Gujarat. I argue that, while the commercial activities of the Jaina community were a factor in developing a Jaina stylistic language in the textiles traded, it is important to consider the regional artistic pool from which many of the motifs and patterns on these textiles were derived. Thus, these textiles underline Gujarat’s transoceanic ties across the medieval Indian Ocean and allow me to illustrate the dynamic interplay of the global and local in premodern maritime Asia.


    14:45 15:30 Tansen Sen (NYU Shanghai) “When did Maritime Asia End? Zheng He and the Issue of Periodization” (online)

    By focusing on several facets of the Ming admiral Zheng He’s (1371–1433) seven maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1433, this presentation addresses the issue of periodizing the precolonial history of the Indian Ocean world. The presence of the powerful Ming fleet lead by Zheng He not only introduced an unprecedented militaristic aspect to the Indian Ocean region, but also led to the emergence of state-directed commercial activity in the maritime world that extended from Ming China to the Swahili coast of Africa. Additionally, these expeditions stimulated the movement of people, animals, knowledge, and technologies across the oceanic space and might eventually have facilitated the rapid entry of European commercial enterprises into the Indian Ocean region during the second half of the fifteenth century. What led to these exceptional Ming voyages? How do they differ from the earlier maritime interactions and the entanglements of coastal polities with Indian Ocean mobilities? Did the cessation of these voyages in 1433 imply an end to “maritime Asia”? And, how do these voyages help us conceptualize the longue durée history of the Indian Ocean world? These are some of the questions the presentation will attempt to answer.


    Coffee Break


    15:45 - 16:30 Tom Hoogervorst (KITLV, Leiden) “Culinary contact in the Pre-modern Indian Ocean”

    The Indian Ocean has seen the movement of foodcrops, fruits, vegetables, and domesticated animals since the introduction of agriculture if not earlier. Spices have received the greatest portion of academic attention, both as food items and pharmacopeia. This study explores what can be known about the Indian Ocean’s pre-modern cuisines and especially the way they influenced one another as a result of maritime contact networks. It emphasizes the value of interdisciplinary methods that bring together archaeological, philological, historical, and linguistic data. Focusing on the foodscapes of the Indo-Malayan archipelago, I take a long durée approach to cultural contact, culinary convergence, and the agents involved in these processes. In addition to the oceanic dispersal of ingredients, I also examine the extent to which interethnic contact resulted into the transmission of cooking techniques, utensils, and religious ideas about food. This allows for a more informed engagement with some key open-ended questions. Is there something like an Indian Ocean cuisine and if yes, what does it look like? What can the archaeological data of Khao Sam Kaeo, Oc Eo, and other important sites tell us about the culinary history of Southeast Asia? To what extent did the region’s contacts with Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim communities influence pre-existing cooking practices? How far did Southeast Asian culinary influences spread beyond the region in premodern times? What Southeast Asia’s earliest “curry” really a curry?


    16:30 - 17:15  Alex West (Independent Researcher) “The Hemispheric Middle Ages and Maritime Asia”

    In this paper I will dispute the notion of the ‘Maritime Silk Road(s)’ and of a circumscribed ‘Maritime Asia’ and attempt to justify replacing them with a broader conception of the medieval world as encompassing the entirety of greater Afro-Eurasia, including the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, before the sixteenth century.

    In the millennium or so before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, Afro-Eurasia was already being knitted together by trade and cultural interactions covering vast distances. These interactions were in no way limited to ‘Silk Roads’, whether overland or maritime, and involved almost the entire Afro-Eurasian supercontinent and its neighbouring islands. Commodities from what is now eastern Indonesia — cloves, nutmeg, but also birds — can be found referenced in pre-16th-century texts and in other media produced across Afro-Eurasia, from Europe and North Africa to China and Japan, and the same can be said for commodities from further north and west, like cubebs and ‘Jatim’ glass beads (from Java), mastic (from the Aegean island of Chios), and musk (from Central Asia and the Himalayas). Some symbols and stories, like that of the Buddha, who became known in Europe as a Christian saint named Iosaphat, travelled similar distances, and so did some human travellers, like Marco Polo (1254-1324), Wāng Dàyuān (汪大淵, fl.1311-1350), and Sulaymān the Merchant (التاجر سليمان, fl.c.850).

    I believe that more productive and interesting questions can be asked when we look at South and Southeast Asia before modernity as parts of a wider hemisphere of cultural and economic interaction, and that by dissolving the geographical and temporal boundaries between the rest of Afro-Eurasia and ‘Maritime Asia’ we can better understand both southern Asia and the medieval world as a whole.


    17.15 - 17.45 Final discussion

  • Empires of the Steppes: The Nomadic Tribes Who Shaped Civilisation
    09-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Online Event
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    Kenneth Harl is Professor of Classical and Byzantine History at Tulane University. He specializes in Ancient History. He has published widely on history and numismatics, most extensively on the Imperial Roman coinage. 

  • Migrations and City Distribution: The Case of Oasis of Bukhara as a model
    17-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Keynes Lecture Theatre, King’s College (and online)
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    Across all ages, the Eurasiatic continent has been a space on which people moved, exchanged, and transformed. These dynamics were rhythmed by phases of increase, decrease and stabilisation of migration waves, coming from everywhere, but soon showing a tendency linking the East to the West and vice versa. Every age is characterised by specific reasons and effects, still today less known, guessed, or unknown. At the light of the recent discoveries, the oasis of Bukhara can represent a model in which observe how people seek, how people settle and how people growth, in terms of behaviours, urbanisation and material culture.


    About the speaker

    Rocco Rante is archaeologist at the Louvre Museum and accredited member of the University Sorbonne-Panthéon. He is director of the Archaeological Franco-Uzbek mission in the oasis of Bukhara and of the Archaeological Franco-Iranian mission in Khorasan. He recently published a trilogy The Oasis of Bukhara vols. 1-3.

  • Rivers, Climate, and Human Settlement in the Countries of the Silk Roads
    23-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Audit Room, King’s College (and Online)
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    This workshop, held in collaboration with the Leverhulme-funded ‘Rivers of the Silk Roads’ Project which is based at the University of Lincoln, will consider changing river flows, courses and floods, and their impact on the human settlements. It will include contributions from across the ‘countries of the silk roads’ and disciplines from environmental science to history and archaeology. The keynote by Mark Macklin (Lincoln) entitled ‘Holocene River Flows and Floods: A Planetary Perspective’ will take place at 5:30 pm and it will be followed by drinks.



    Introduction- Rivers of the Silk Roads

    Peter Frankopan (King’s Silk Roads, King’s College, University of Cambridge & University of Oxford)


    The Selenge as a river of the Great Tea Road: looking through historical narratives of the 18th -19th century

    Sayana Namsaraeva (University of Cambridge)


    Settlement in the Rioni Delta, Georgia over the past 3000 years

    Davit Naskidashvili & Vakhtang Licheli (University of Ghent & Tbilisi State University)


    Rain, River and floods: reconstructing water courses and understanding their impact on the archaeology of landscapes and settlement in the Indus River Basin and its neighbouring areas

    Cameron A. Petrie, Jack Tomaney, Vaneshree Vidyarthi, Arnau Garcia-Molossa, Navjot Kaur, Maria Suarez Moreno, Hector A. Orengo (University of Cambridge, Panjab University Chandigarh, Catalan Institute for Classical Archaeology)


    3:45-4:15 Tea Break



    From the Nile to the Mediterranean, and Beyond: Ancient Egypt Between Nilotic Localities and Global Networks

    Federico Zangani (University of Cambridge)


    Rivers and Water Management in the Otrar Oasis, Kazakhstan

    Katie Campbell & James Thomas (King’s College, Cambridge & University of Lincoln)


    Short Break


    5:30-6:30 Keynote

    Holocene river flows and floods: a planetary perspective

    Prof. Mark Macklin (University of Lincoln)


    6:30 Drinks

  • The Archaeology of Grakliani Gora, Georgia: A centre of Iron Age intellectual innovation in the South Caucasus
    24-11-2023 @ 14:00
    Platform | Audit Room, King’s College (and online)
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    Vakhtang Licheli is Professor of archaeology, and head of the department of archaeology at Tbilisi State University in Georgia. He has also held visiting fellowships at Leiden University (2013), the University of Innsbruck (2011, 2015), and Ca’Foscari University of Venice (2017). Specialising in the Iron Age and Classical periods of the south Caucasus and Black Sea region, he has led several archaeological excavations, frequently in collaboration with international universities. At present, he is focussed on two major excavations. One is at the Iron Age and Hellenistic period settlement of Grakliani Gora in Georgia’s Shida Kartli region, and the other in Cyprus as head of the Georgian Cypriot Archaeological Expedition.

Meet Silk Roads Programme Team
Silk Roads Programme and more.

Silk Roads Programme News


New Research Fellow to join Silk Roads Programme

A third Research Fellow has been appointed to the Silk Roads Programme at King’s.


The new Silk Roads PhD Studentship is open to applicants

This studentship will provide funding for up to 4 years to pursue research on some aspect of the Silk Roads.

Peter Frankopan - Associate Director of the Silk Roads Programme

Peter Frankopan appointed as Associate Director of King’s Silk Roads Programme

King’s is delighted that Peter Frankopan, the foremost expert on the Silk Roads in the UK...