There are 195 countries in the world. There was a time when the word “country” meant the countryside, the area surrounding a walled city. Civilisation and empire are words used to describe those political and cultural identities whose expanses of power or authority had ever-changing boundaries. The contemporary “country” is a political term used to describe a territory with well-defined and heavily protected borders.

Countries or nation states, emerged with the growth of capitalist economies, the ‘Age of Discovery’, when the competition between monarchs for discovering new lands and trade rights led to the formal demarcation of kingdoms and realms. As Ali Khan writes in his paper ‘Extinction of Nation States’, the King of the French became the King of France.

In the 16th century, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius developed the idea of territorial sovereignty, which became the framework for the modern nation state. Eurocentric colonialism and global economic systems imposed this model across the world.

Gradually, each country established a uniform culture as a matter of state policy. State languages were imposed, centralised laws governed every aspect of people’s lives, national flags and anthems were created and national armies fiercely guarded the borders.

The great casualty of this defining of borders has been the free dissemination and exchange of knowledge and cultures. Just looking at two sources that have benefitted the world that are inconceivable in today’s political climate — the Silk Route and the Islamic Empire — we realise how much we have lost.

From the 2nd century BC to the 15th century AD, when sea trade became organised, the Silk Route connected China, the Mediterranean and Africa and everything in between. Along this route, traders, travellers, missionaries and adventurers exchanged goods, shared discoveries, cultures, languages and philosophies. Apart from silk, which was a guarded secret until a 6th century Christian monk smuggled caterpillar eggs into Byzantine, there was a free transfer of knowledge. From China came silk, porcelain, the art of casting iron, gunpowder, alchemy, paper-making, printing with moveable type, Chinese medicine, acupuncture, clock-making, the compass, and of course, tea. China itself acquired a taste for Indian sandalwood, Persian saffron and pistachios, Egyptian glass and horses from Ferghana Valley. Craftsmen and scientists from Europe were invited to China to share their skills on ambitious projects. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam entered China through the Silk Route.

The great casualty of this defining of borders has been the free dissemination and exchange of knowledge and cultures.

The Muslim Empire was even more generous as it did not aim to enrich Makkah or Medina, but to enrich the lands they settled in — a unique borderless empire as scholars, Sufis, scientists, administrators, artists and craftsmen considered the entire Dar-ul-Islam as home. They generously shared their discoveries and transferred knowledge they had acquired to any seeker, Muslim or non-Muslim. They preserved and built upon the philosophy and sciences of the Greeks and Indians through translations and established libraries. From Indian numerals and the concept of zero, to Chinese papermaking, navigational aids, medicine, sciences, international law, urban planning, the concept of hospitals, structures of music and musical instruments, architecture and literature, innumerable transfers of knwoledge and inventions inspired Europe to modernise.

Today, travel and the exchange of knowledge and cultures are restricted by visas, copyright or hefty university fees. The internet is the closest instrument for the free universal right to knowledge but is subtly managed and restricted by search engines. Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta would find this a strange world.

Seekers of a better life take perilous journeys across mountains or seas only to face hostility. The unrestricted dissemination of knowledge and goods is left to underground networks of havala, khepias, smugglers, code crackers and hackers, who perhaps will one day be considered heroes.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 21st, 2019