Holy sites of Serindia (Altishahr) in the 11th and 21st centuries

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This essay offers an experiment in chronological boundary crossing as way of addressing questions about continuity and change in Central Eurasia. It analyzes the violent transformations of holy sites in Altishahr (Eastern Turkistan or Xinjiang), examining the 11th-century transition from Buddhist to Muslim rule alongside the 21st century efforts of the People’s Republic of China to transform sacred Islamic sites into nationalist showpieces for “Silk Road” tourism. This juxtaposition calls into question prevailing understandings of the 11th -century transition as a simple refashioning of existing Buddhist sites into Islamic manifestations, while placing current Chinese restrictions on Islamic holy sites in a broader historical perspective. Together, the two examples show that shrines act as cultural arbiters, establishing routes by which change has entered Altishahr and stubbornly preserving not just older meanings, but also older ways of knowing. At the same time, they are places where the dynamics of continuous meaning creation come into clear view, where cultural change itself becomes an explicit part of the narratives that bind people together in supposedly stable identity groups such as religions and nations.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 20 Aug 2023


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