In the 1870s, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name die Seidenstrasse—the Silk Road—to refer to the 5,000-mile-long trade route that connected China and the Mediterranean in ancient times.
Richthofen thus imbued the immense terra incognita of Central Asia with romance. But he also created something of a misnomer: There was not just one route connecting East and West, but several; and silk—craved especially by Roman women—was just one of the treasured commodities transported along these routes. Intrepid caravans carried spices, gems, gold, ivory, works of art, furniture, garments, perfumes, exotic animals and much else across the Eurasian steppes.
Even more important, the great east-west highway carried knowledge: ideas about medicine, printing, engineering and cosmology. Along these routes, monks traveled side-by-side with merchants, instructing those they met in the secrets of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. From about 200 B.C. to the 15th century A.D., the oasis towns of Central Asia witnessed an exchange of cultures that had no precedent in human history.
The origins of the Silk Road probably lie in the politics of ancient China.a The Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–24 A.D.) was suffering from repeated incursions by a fierce nomadic people, called the Xiongnu, who inhabited what is now Mongolia. Unable to subdue these nomads, the Han emperors tried to appease them with tributes of silk, wine and grain. The Xiongnu then began trading some of their newly acquired Chinese goods to other peoples, establishing a pattern of localized commerce extending farther and farther west. In 138 B.C. Chinese embassies were sent westward, bearing silk, gold and other luxuries, in order to court other tribes. These were the first stirrings along what we now know as the Silk Road.
By 60 B.C., after the Han Dynasty had finally defeated the Xiongnu and expanded its influence to the west, the Chinese inaugurated a policy of official trade along the silk routes. If the Romans soon became smitten with silk (and intrigued by the mysterious Seres, or “Silk People,” of the East), the Chinese readily sought Western glassware, jade and silver. They also prized a breed of horse—found in the Ferghana Valley, north of modern Afghanistan—known for its strength and stamina. In the Taklimakan Desert, archaeologists have found Han Dynasty-period coins, seals and silks bearing the images of the Greek gods Zeus and Hermes.
At one end of the Silk Road was the Chinese capital of Changan (modern Xian); at the other, Damascus, Alexandria, Constantinople and Rome. Even today, traveling the silk routes across the inhospitable landscape of Central Asia is not easy. The roads from China to the West pass through vast stretches of desert (including the Gobi and Taklimakan with their brutal winds and swirling sandstorms) and over the perilous 024passes of the Himalaya, Karakorum, Tianshan and Pamir mountain ranges. One can only wonder how such travel was possible in ancient times.
Indeed, journeys along the entire Silk Road—from China to the Mediterranean and back—were undertaken rarely, if at all. According to Chinese sources, a 73 A.D. Chinese embassy to the Romans made it to the Persian Gulf, but no sources attest to a Chinese presence in Rome. Why not? Because merchants traversed only parts of the Silk Road; they would travel to Samarkand, say, in modern-day Uzbekistan, where they would sell their goods before returning home. The Silk Road thus became controlled by middlemen who sought to buy goods cheap and then sell them dear, to merchants working farther along the route.
In the East, the Mongolian Xiongnu acted as middlemen, exchanging goods with merchants from China and Central Asia. In the West, this role was performed by the Parthians, an Iranian people who had built an empire in the third century B.C. However, no people were better known for their skill as merchants than the Sogdians, who inhabited the region around Samarkand (see Frantz Grenet, “Old Samarkand: Nexus of the Ancient World”).
The Silk Road’s greatest legacy is the exchange of religious beliefs and ideas that took place along its caravan routes—the teachings of Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Confucianism and others. Who knows how long it would have taken Buddhism, which originated in India, to reach Central Asia and China had it not been for the merchants and monks, those early cultural ambassadors, who stopped at the oasis towns on the Silk Road—places such as Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Bactra and Kashgar—bearing scriptures and winning converts?
The Chinese emperors of the first and second centuries A.D. were so intrigued with Buddhism that they dispatched missions to India. These embassies returned with Buddhist texts and art, and soon Buddhist art spread through Central and East Asia—as far as Japan. During the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., when China was politically fractured into several kingdoms, Buddhism became increasingly prevalent, and soon monasteries, stupas and Buddhist grottos became part of the Chinese landscape.
On the eastern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, in the city of Dunhuang, are the Mogao caves. These temples, carved into sandstone hills, house some of the most compelling Chinese depictions of the Buddha. One of the grottos contains pillars crowned with Hellenistic Ionian capitals—just one indication of the multiculturalism at work in an important Silk Road city.b Indeed, the Buddhist sculptures of Dunhuang, made of clay and stucco, were influenced by the art of Gandhara, a region comprising parts of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, where sculptors created the earliest images of the Buddha by fusing Indian, Iranian and Greco-Roman styles.c
The greatest flourishing of art and culture along the Silk Road occurred during the rule of China’s Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.), which had its capital at Changan. By the eighth century, Changan had become a truly international city, home to Iranian, Turkish, Sogdian, Indian and Japanese residents.
The Chinese taste for foreign luxuries was now stronger than ever, and artistic traditions from abroad were absorbed into domestic ones, resulting in a thriving cultural assimilation. Roman and Sogdian metal-working, Parthian clothing, Byzantine coins, Persian textiles—all had some influence on the art of the Tang period. To choose just one example, an exquisite marble funerary couch from China, now in Japan’s Miho Museum, is carved with a banquet scene showing the deceased drinking from a Persian drinking vessel while being entertained by a Central Asian dancer.
Trade along the Silk Road declined when the great empires in the East and West—China, Byzantium, Persia—experienced periods of turmoil or decline. With the fall of the Tang Dynasty in the tenth century, trade along the caravan routes diminished. In the 13th century, the Mongols, led by the ruthless Genghis Khan, conquered most of Central Asia, from China to Persia, and in doing so laid waste to many of the Silk Road’s oasis cities. With the end of the Mongol invasions, trade along the Silk Road 025picked up again. This was when Marco Polo made his famous sojourn in the East; in 1271, along with his father and uncle, he traveled from Italy across Persia, through the Pamir Mountains and into China, where he became an advisor to the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.
In the 14th century, the conqueror Tamerlane (1336–1405 A.D.) destroyed a number of cities along the Silk Road in the process of building his Central Asian empire. Again, trade suffered for a time, only picking up once Tamerlane established control. Tamerlane rebuilt the Sogdian capital of Samarkand, which the Mongols had destroyed, turning it once again into the most glorious caravanserai on the Silk Road—a spectacular city of turquoise domes, minarets and mosaic pavements. Spain’s ambassador to Tamerlane’s empire, Ruy González de Clavijo, described the city’s fabulous marketplaces in his chronicle Embassy to Tamerlane, 1403–1406:
From Russia and Tartary come leathers and linens, from Cathay [China] silk stuffs that are the finest in the whole world … Thence too is brought musk which is found in no other land but Cathay, with balas rubies and diamonds which are more frequently to be met with in those parts than elsewhere, also pearls, lastly rhubarb with many other spiceries … From India there are brought to Samarqand the lesser spiceries, which indeed are the most costly of the kind, such as nutmegs and cloves and mace and cinnamon.
This was not to last. Although he could not know it, Clavijo visited Samarkand in the twilight years of the silk routes. Their demise was essentially caused by three factors: the spread of Islam, which produced a dramatic rift between East and West; the isolationist trade policies of the Ming Dynasty; and the replacement of overland trade routes with sea routes, which by the end of the 15th century were deemed safer and quicker and which were not impeded by middlemen.
Many of the oasis towns of the Silk Road were then abandoned, submerged by the shifting sands. Now, however, with increased research, we are coming to understand them again as part of a remarkable tradition that lasted 1,600 years: the first great flowering of multiculturalism.
In the 1870s, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name die Seidenstrasse—the Silk Road—to refer to the 5,000-mile-long trade route that connected China and the Mediterranean in ancient times. Richthofen thus imbued the immense terra incognita of Central Asia with romance. But he also created something of a misnomer: There was not just one route connecting East and West, but several; and silk—craved especially by Roman women—was just one of the treasured commodities transported along these routes. Intrepid caravans carried spices, gems, gold, ivory, works of art, furniture, garments, perfumes, exotic animals and much else across the […]