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By the 15th century, Islam had become the dominant religion throughout the entire Taklamakan region in northwest China. As the overland trade routes of the past gave way to the sea, desert towns and villages became increasingly shut off from the outside world. Under the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) the Silk Road was abandoned by China, further isolating the once-flourishing communities. Only the largest and best-watered of the oases survived the advance of invading sands. Today, the...