by Emlyn Phillips
Congratulations to the winner of our 2022 New Writers’ Competition! In his article, Emlyn Phillips traces connections between the Celtic Britons and eastern Eurasia, Iolo Morganwg, and the precarity, yet possibility, ahead for Wales as power arguably again shifts eastwards to the ‘New Silk Road’.
What connects the ancient Druids and the Buddha, Alexander the Great, Edward Longshanks and Kublai Khan, the Pharaohs and today’s cost of living crisis? How does Iolo Morganwg fit into this? And what does it mean for contemporary Wales?
Let’s begin by picturing Afghanistan. Not the impoverished, wounded country we see in today’s news, though. Picture instead the Afghanistan of two thousand years ago: a larger country, then known as Bactria, which extended into modern-day Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the Punjab region. Bactria was rich – a wealth derived from fertile lands and oases and, even more, from its location on the Silk Road. Bactria was an important hub on the trade routes which have transported goods and ideas between the far-flung edges of Eurasia since time immemorial. Its famously beautiful capital, Balkh, was just one of a string of glorious cities including Xi’an, Kashgar, Tashkent, and Samarkand; Baghdad, Smyrna, Constantinople and Rome. It was a transcontinental route linking Korea with the Yemen, and Sri Lanka with Somalia.
Bactria’s wealth attracted Alexander the Great, who conquered it in 327BC. He established a new kingdom where Greek and Indian cultures merged to create something new: a country of Greek-speaking Buddhists.1 Coins of these Greco-Buddhist kings, including some issued by King Menander, have been found in Britain – a number in Wales, others near Stonehenge and elsewhere.2 Menander reigned a century before Julius Caesar visited Britain; two centuries before the Emperor Claudius invaded. This means that people – perhaps Druids – were travelling between Celtic Britain and Greco-Buddhist Bactria.
That may seem unlikely to us, but it shouldn’t. Cultural influences between the western and eastern ends of Eurasia can be traced back for many millennia: Ötzi the Iceman, whose body was discovered in the Alps, has tattoos at points used in Chinese acupuncture.3 The mummified bodies of Tocharian people buried many centuries ago in Xinjiang, where China blurs into Central Asia, show that they were red-haired with blue eyes, and wore fabrics very similar to examples preserved from the Celtic Hallstatt period.4 In the days of the Druids, Greek city-states existed all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and onwards to Central Asia.5 Along the way, in what is now Türkiye, was a powerful Celtic kingdom – Galatia. Galatian warriors were renowned, widely travelled mercenaries. They served, amongst many others, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt – including the Ptolemies, descended from Greeks.
We know from classical authors that some Druids could speak Greek. For them, a journey from Britain to Bactria would have been a series of hops from one Greek colony to another, perhaps with a stay amongst their fellow Celts in Galatia at the halfway point. Starting in Marseille and ending in Balkh would have been a long and arduous journey, of course – but they would have known where they were going, and would have had experienced local guides for each stage.
These travel routes remained open for many centuries. In the second century AD, Clemens – a Christian from Greek-speaking Alexandria in Roman Egypt – wrote that his teacher, Pantaenus, had lived and studied in India.6 In the sixth century, Christian monks who had been living in India and learned about silk production there went from Constantinople to China on behalf of the Emperor Justinian; they returned with silkworm eggs, thus enabling Europeans to produce silk for the first time.7 In 1288, Edward I of England met the emissary of a Mongol Khan to discuss a military alliance against the Muslim Mameluke empire of Egypt.8 The emissary was Rabban Bar Sauma, a Christian bishop.9 Rabban had been sent by Arghun, the Mongol ruler of Persia (who himself was a Buddhist), but he had been born in China: he was a Uighur, and a subject of Kublai Khan – the same Kublai who was playing host to a Venetian, Marco Polo, at the same time. The Anglo-Mongol alliance did not happen: Edward was already busy fighting the Welsh. What would Wales be like if he had chosen differently? Rabban eventually settled in Azerbaijan and died in Baghdad, having repeatedly travelled through Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. No-one thought him unusual, because he wasn’t.
This traffic across Eurasia only ended after 1453. Constantinople fell to the Turks, who stopped the flow of goods along the Silk Road and deprived Europeans of the spices and luxuries to which they had been accustomed for so many thousands of years.
The world changed. Within a generation, Columbus – seeking a new source of spices – had landed in the Americas. Europe began its rise to global dominance: a dominance based on sea power and oceanic travel. The cities of the Silk Road fell into obscurity and poverty, sad shadows of their past glory, and Europeans forgot that their ancestors had once travelled those roads.
Europe’s empires grew quickly as they sought the world’s resources. Spain and Portugal were first, stripping the wealth of south and central America, and making the first inroads into India and south-east Asia. Within a century and a half they were supplanted by the rising powers of northern Europe – England, France and the Dutch.
And this brings us to Iolo Morganwg. Born in 1747, he saw the modern world being forged in revolution upon revolution. The agricultural revolution fuelled population growth, while the industrial revolution was beginning to transform technology. The American revolution produced the United States while the French revolution led to Napoleon, whose armies introduced a common, scientific, system of measurement and a system of civil law across Europe. In Iolo’s lifetime, though, many indigenous cultures of north America remained untouched by European power. In India, the Mughal Empire and many Hindu states were still being treated as equals by Europeans. In Africa, the slave trade had caused devastation, but there had been little attempt by Europeans to take control of territory.
Iolo died before the British empire reached its full extent, but the trends were clear to him. In Wales, as elsewhere, the growing power of London would try to stamp out local languages and cultures so as to make the world English. Iolo understood that peoples and cultures need myths to live by: stories to explain who they are, and what their values are. His enduring triumph is that he gave the Welsh new myths: myths celebrated still in the National Eisteddfod, myths that were powerful enough to sustain the Welsh and enable them to endure the ‘imperial century’ when London’s rule spanned the globe.10
The Silk Road teaches us a long view of history. Empires rise – and they fall. In Menander’s Bactria, Timur’s Samarkand, Ptolemy’s Egypt, and Justinian’s Constantinople, most people surely imagined that their society would last for ever. Few people really believe that their way of life will one day vanish – but it always does, eventually, and it’s rarely easy for those who go through it. Sometimes everything changes forever in a day – like May 29th, 1453, when the Ottoman armies broke the defences of Constantinople and swarmed into the city. Sometimes it takes generations, such as the slow decline of many kingdoms along the Silk Road. Every year things get a bit worse and a bit different, until, without really noticing it, the people and their society have become something new.
We Welsh are in the second group. We survived the end of Rome, and the Saxon invasions. We survived the Plantagenets, and the British empire at its height. We have adapted to changing circumstances but we are still the people of Caratacus, of Magnus Maximus, and of Glyndŵr, even though they would find us strange. Now, the world is changing again, and so must we.
The British empire formally ended decades ago but its economic systems, designed to extract cheap resources from Asia and Africa, have continued to work just as they were intended – until now. Largely unreported by the British media, a great realignment in the global economy is taking place. The largest states of Eurasia – China, Russia, Iran and India – are integrating their economies more and more closely, for the benefit of their own societies. They are being joined by the resource-rich states of Central Asia; the energy states of the Persian Gulf; more and more African states, and others from the Americas. Türkiye, and Balkan states, and others from southern and eastern Europe, are joining as they lose faith in the EU project. The mechanisms by which this is happening overlap – the Eurasian Economic Union, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRICS, and the Belt and Road Initiative – but we can group them under one label: the reborn Silk Road.
These countries are tired of being exploited for the benefit of Western economies, and are now doing something about it.11 It’s happening slowly, and the outcome is neither fixed nor certain. The intention is clear, though: the countries which have natural resources, and those with a substantial industrial sector (and the second of those depends on the first) intend to keep much more of the value of what they produce for themselves. Britain has little of either these days, so it will cost us much, much more to buy everything from energy to food to consumer goods. As the headlines are already showing, we can’t afford it – and without cheap energy, cheap food, and cheap goods, our economy doesn’t work. Europe may well become what it always used to be: a relatively poor and unimportant peninsula, of no great concern to most of Eurasia. For a few hundred years, we had the military and economic power to shape the world for our benefit; we don’t any longer, and we’ll just have to get used to it.
And there lies the problem. Wales is still governed by a mindset which is increasingly out of touch with this reality. One of Iolo’s enduring slogans was ‘The truth against the world’ and it’s very relevant today, because there are many who would deny what’s happening and seek to suppress discussion of it. The new world coming into view may very well not be what we would want. It may mean dealing with governments that we do not like, and whose values conflict with our own. It means that we, individually and as a Welsh nation, will probably be poorer and our standard of living will be lower. Nevertheless, that is the objective reality that we will have to deal with because, like it or not, we cannot change it. We have to understand and acknowledge what is happening in the world if we are to find our way forward.
Iolo Morganwg lived at a time when European imperialism was in its early stages. Today, we live in a time when that imperialism is in its death throes. As he reinvented the notion of the ‘Druid’, Iolo understood that when dealing with a new reality, we need new myths – or new interpretations of the old ones. Over two thousand years ago, our Celtic ancestors dealt on equal terms with the cultures of the Silk Road. What narratives will free us to act as the heirs of those Druids who journeyed to central Asia? What stories will we tell to connect Bangor with Bukhara, Aberystwyth with Almaty, Swansea with Samarkand, and Cardiff with Kashgar?
We’ll soon need to abandon the outdated story we tell ourselves today: that we are a rich nation, part of the ‘developed world’, and that our standard of living can be taken for granted. We need a new story: one in which we are not part of a privileged ‘West’, but just one – not very affluent – part of Eurasia. That will free us to do the best with what we have, rather than expect what we cannot get.
We need to be creative now. If we can rise to the challenge, the future of Wales may be very interesting indeed.
‘What is the Belt and Road Initiative?’, 2020 © Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. Published under a Creative Commons licence.