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Sojourner in Islamic Lands

Russell Fraser

Publication Year: 2013

Sojourner in Islamic Lands takes us on a journey from Kazakhstan in the far north of Central Asia, across the mountains to the former Soviet Union, then south to Iran just below the Caspian Sea. Russell Fraser follows the ancient Silk Road wherever possible. For centuries the Silk Road was the primary commercial link between Europe and Asia, with much of it over desert sands and accessible only by camel. Building on history and personal experience, Fraser’s narrative describes this vast territory with an eye to geography, artistic culture, and religion over more than two thousand years. The book that he gives us depends first of all on travel, but the author’s eye is on an interior landscape, and he focuses on the influence of religious ideology on the cultural landscape of Central Asia. Delving deeply into art and architecture, he takes them to be Islam’s most significant creative expressions. Although Islam is currently the predominant religion in the region, the book also examines the two other belief systems with modern-day followers—Christianity and an antireligious sect Fraser calls secular progressivism. His aim is to present Islam to Western readers by describing its achievements during the High Middle Ages and comparing and contrasting them with those of modern Islam. The book offers insights into the history of a major world religion through the eyes of a well-known literary scholar on a journey through exotic parts of the world. He steeps us in the latter, inviting the reader to share the journey with him and participate in the sensations it gives rise to.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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p. C-C

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv

Table of Contents

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p. v-v

List of Illustrations

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p. vi-vi

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pp. vii-x

Sojourner in Islamic Lands, as its title suggests, tells of time spent in Islam. It is more than a travel book, however. Its primary concern is with Islamic history and culture, in particular art and architecture. I became interested in Islam a generation ago when I went to Constantinople (Istanbul) to write...

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1: Islam Past and Present

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pp. 1-9

A loose and baggy monster, Asia sprawls like Tolstoy’s novels, but its Islamic heartland imparts a shape to the whole. If I run my eye over the map, beginning to the east of the mountains in China, it runs west to the Caspian Sea. Along the way the eye takes in the five “Stans” on the western side of the...

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2: The Roof of the World

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pp. 10-28

I am en route to Central Asia from my domicile in Hawaii, halfway round the world. I can fly east or west, pretty much a tossup. This time I take the easterly route via Frankfurt, across Russia and on to the former Soviet republics, the Stans. “Stans” is a suffix giving each of these five countries its grammatical...

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3: Looking for Tamburlaine

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pp. 29-45

A four-lane highway takes me southwest to Samarkand, from ancient times the heart of the Silk Road. Not bothering with a rental car, I go by bus. I am looking for Tamburlaine, Central Asia’s greatest hero. Staring out the window at the endless fields of cotton, I try to imagine what he looked like. I...

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4: Shakhrisabz and the Once and Future King

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pp. 46-61

The Khudjum Embroidery Factory in Shakhrisabz, the birthplace of Tamburlaine, is having its annual gala. So reads the colored brochure handed to me by the clerk at the checkout counter in Samarkand’s Hotel Afrosiab. The colors in the brochure are garish, too bad, for it is promoting Oriental...

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5: Medea’s Magic Bath

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pp. 62-80

Shakhrisabz is behind me, but before getting under way again, I want to rethink the ground I’ve covered. What strikes me most about it is the recurring of the past in the present. But though it keeps confronting me, I don’t find it inevitable, like the Marxist reading of history. On the contrary: it...

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6: Thieves of Mercy

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pp. 81-98

When I first traveled to Central Asia, I took the westerly route, over the Pacific to Beijing. An ongoing flight brings you to Lanzhou in the center of China—a huge city, but I remember coming in when darkness had fallen and nary a light was visible below the wings of the plane. You can continue on by...

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7: The Storks of Bukhara

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pp. 99-116

Like the Time Traveler in H. G. Wells, I can move from past to present, enabled by language. Reliving time past, I have been traveling through western China. Now, quitting the Macartneys and their villa in Kashgar, I return to the long parabola I began with, from Kazakhstan to the Caspian Sea. My...

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8: Khiva and the Pot of Basil

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pp. 117-137

The desert has a new skin west of Bukhara. Sloughing its old one, it teems with noisy life, birdcalls in the near distance, gophers and foxes flitting across the sands. Deeper in are lowing cattle, heard before seen. A beaten path, obviously trod by man, leads toward them but breaks off, whisked away...

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9: Ashkabad, City of Love

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pp. 138-153

My destination is Ashkabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, a new country carved out of the erstwhile Soviet Union. Of old a nomad encampment, it has metamorphosed overnight to an Asian-style Las Vegas. To get there I cross the border and pick up a plane at Dashoguz. The choice between lounging...

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10: The Return of the Mongols

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pp. 154-175

My next venue is Mary, a small industrial city to the east in Turkmenistan. The limo driver who takes me out to the airport is a talker like cabbies everywhere. “Famous men of Islam,” he says, as we pass a pair of worthies aloft on their pedestals. “Famous men” gets me thinking. What did they do to boost...

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11: Persia of the Ages

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pp. 176-194

Ashkabad lies just above the Iranian border. I need to cross the border and head west for Tehran, where I have arranged to meet with Mary. My wife is a “multi-tasker,” too busy at a multitude of chores to come with me. Now, however, she has got her life in order, and we can do the last leg of the trip...

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12: The Pattern of the World

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pp. 195-213

Modern Iran is huge, bigger than France and Spain, seven times larger than the United Kingdom. But greater Iran, an intermediate area between the limits it reached in history and the present-day state, its territory fixed in 1907, is much larger. All of what is now Iraq used to be part of it. Spreading north...

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13: The Pilgrim of the Heart

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pp. 214-222

When Marco Polo returned to Europe after years in the East, he made the journey by camelback, horseback, and sail. It pleases us to follow him. We leave the Fertile Crescent behind and go north before going west, getting on the old branch of the Silk Road that went through Anatolia to the Black Sea...

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173178
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173161

Page Count: 232
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Asia, Central -- Description and travel.
  • Islamic countries -- Description and travel.
  • Fraser, Russell A. -- Travel -- Asia, Central.
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