The Smithsonian Folklife Festival is an international exposition of living cultural heritage annually produced outdoors on the National Mall of the United States by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
The 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival “The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust” celebrated the living traditional arts of peoples of Silk Road lands. The ancient Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes whose flow of ideas, culture, music, and art crossed the mountains and deserts of Central Asia to connect East Asia and the Mediterranean. The Festival presented artists whose stories and histories link to the cultural mosaic of the Silk Road, an enduring symbol of cultural discovery and exchange. In a world of increasing awareness and interdependence, “The Silk Road: Connecting Cultures, Creating Trust” program exhibited ways in which the many cultures of Eurasia were brought closer together through a creative commercial and cultural exchange that continues in the lands of the Silk Road and beyond.
Rarely did one person make the long journey from East to West or West to East along the Silk Road. Instead students, merchants, diplomats, soldiers, religious followers, and adventurers would meet each other at major crossroads to exchange information, trade goods, occasionally fight, often negotiate, and report on their travels. Thus, these crossroads were vibrant political, economic, and social networks stretching over vast geographical and cultural spaces. The Silk Road program represented five "sentinels of arrival" — Nara Gate in Japan, Xi'an Tower in China, Samarkand Square in Uzbekistan, Istanbul Crossroads in present day Turkey, and Venice Piazza in Italy.
Each sentinel tells a different part of the story of the Silk Road. These stories include the complicated interplay of trade and politics, diplomacy and warfare, religion and intellectual exchange. Military expansion of an empire led to new trade routes, while peaceful commercial exchanges could lead to expansion of influence without warfare. Religious followers brought writings with them and often served as informal ambassadors, students exchanged ideas, and artisans discovered new media and motifs. These exchanges not only covered vast territory but also happened over many years. Covering over 1500 years, each sentinel here had a particular period of glory and we share these moments with you.
At the heart of the Silk Road was the exchange of ideas, goods, and technologies. The people who were part of these exchanges met and saw each other's fashions, ate each other's food, heard each other's music. This in turn led to enormous innovation and creativity in which ideas, goods, and technologies were transformed and adapted. The origins of many of these adaptations are, therefore, difficult to trace. But it is precisely this vibrancy of the interaction of traditions and cultures, many of which touch us to this day, that this year's Festival celebrates.