Black Death Renaissance

For over a thousand years the Silk Road acted as a bridge between all the major civilisations - Egypt, China, India, Persia, Arabia, Byzantium and Rome - and as a catalyst in their development. As well as silk, these ever shifting trade routes also carried fruit, plants, paper, art, compasses, jewels, gold and gunpowder. More importantly the Silk Road carried ideas, skills and DNA. It also carried the Black Death.

The people who populated the dry steppe of the Eurasian landmass relied upon the huge desert lakes and the rivers that they fed, for their very survival. If a river were to change its course or they were to lose their access to their water supply then they would have no choice but to migrate. Just as today, whoever controlled the water had the power.

When Genghis Khan laid siege to the city of Konye-Urgench in 1221, in revenge for the murder of his envoys in Otrar by Mohammed II, the citizens stood their ground. It was only when the Mongols diverted the Amu-Darya River that the population was drowned and the city was razed to the ground. It was eventually re-established under Mongol rule as part of the Golden Horde but was flattened again by Timur in 1388 as he considered the revitalized city of Urgench to be a threat to Samarkand. The city again lived through a minor renaissance in the sixteenth century but was eventually abandoned for good when the Amu-Darya River changed its course. Today, where once there was a great city, there is now little more than desolate ruins scattered across a wasteland in what is now Turkmenistan.

During the cold war, the Soviet Union saw the great lakes of Eurasia - such as Lake Balkhash in Kazakhstan, Lake Sevan in Armenia and the Aral Sea - as key to their economic development. Whoever controlled the source of the rivers would also control the dependent economies. These huge resources of fresh water were ruthlessly exploited both to power hydroelectricity projects and to provide irrigation to the expansive cotton plantations established amongst the barren lands of Central Asia.

In Armenia, the peninsular on which the two rough-hewn churches of Sevanavank stand used to be an island until a vast quantity of Lake Sevan's water was drained off by the Soviet Union to use for irrigation and hydroelectricity. In 1910, Russian civil engineers suggested lowering the water level by 45 metres. This plan was modified to 55 metres during the Stalin era and approved by the Armenian Supreme Soviet without any consultation with the local people. Fortunately, these plans took longer than expected to put into place and, by the time that the environment had started to noticeably deteriorate and the fish had begun to die, the Stalin era was at end. Various projects since then have helped to raise the level of the lake and improve the water quality but it is still 20 metres lower than it used to be.

Some of these same civil engineers were also involved in the disastrous draining of the Aral Sea. The port of Moynaq in Uzbekistan used to be a fishing town but the coast now lies more than 150 kilometres away. Tourists go to take pictures of beached ships rusting in the newly formed Aral Desert. The Aral Sea used to be the fourth largest lake in the world and about half the size of England until Soviet planners starting tapping the rivers that fed it, in order to irrigate the cotton fields. Despite Uzbekistan's mainly poor-quality desert soil, the Soviet Union decided that intensive cotton production would lead to a great leap forward economically for the Soviet textile industry. As cotton production rose, the Aral Sea shrank dramatically. The level of the sea dropped by about 16 metres, it dried up into two smaller parts, and as well as most of the fish dying so did much of the other surrounding wildlife. As the once-sizable fishing industry collapsed and the environmental devastation led to a whole host of health problems - such as high rates of cancer and birth defects - most of the former population deserted the surrounding towns.

Along with the competition over oil and natural gas there is likely to be increasing tension along the Silk Road over access to the remaining water supplies as both global warming and populations continue to rise. With the health and livelihoods of so many in the region destroyed there is a widespread concern that current levels of dissatisfaction will inevitably bolster the support of the politicized Islamic groups that Central Asia's current regimes feel so threatened by; this will, in all likelihood, only result in further repression, human rights abuses and the kind of political instability that only perpetuates poverty.

As if things couldn't get any worse for the former fishing communities of the Aral Sea, there is also the matter of 'Voz', the Soviet Union's main testing site for biological weapons. Vozrozhdeniye (Renaissance) Island used to be isolated in the middle of the Aral Sea but the sea has now shrunk so much that it is now connected to the mainland. Biological and chemical weapons were buried in huge pits on the island in stainless steel canisters and there is now a real fear that spores from these buried plagues could leak out and be spread into the wider environment through what remains of the local wildlife.

In some of the pits, anthrax sludge is already beginning to leach up through the sand and a number of plagues are believed to have originated in the area and then been spread along the Silk Road. It may well be that the Silk Road itself will undergo something of a renaissance itself - only this time instead of just carrying the Black Death (aka bubonic plague) it will also be a fountainhead for the spread of anthrax and the resurrected smallpox virus.


Full Length Books

Tearing up the Silk Road

Two Globes A 100,000 word travelogue detailing a journey from China to Istanbul, through Central Asia, Iran and the Caucasus.

Click here to view more details and the original book blurb for the back cover. You could also check out some of my initial ideas for book cover designs, view the final printed cover and check out the slide show. |

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Voodoo, Slaves and White Man's Graves

My second full-length travel book revolves around an overland journey through Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali.

The book is now available in both print and eBook editions. Check out the West Africa Photo Gallery to view some pictures from this journey or view the full print version of the book cover. |

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Free eBooks

Turkmenbashi's Land of Fairy Tales

A Short Break in Libya

To Camels from Cows: Algeria Overland

All of these short eBooks are available for free in a variety of formats for use on such eReaders as Kindle, Nook and Sony Touch. After downloading the books in Kindle, Epub, RTF, PDB or PDF format, they can then be copied over to the eReader of your choice.

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