For centuries, the great civilizations of East and West were connected by the Silk Road, a fragile network of shifting intercontinental trade routes that threaded across Asia’s highest mountains and bleakest deserts. The heartland of this trade was Central Asia, whose cosmopolitan cities grew fabulously wealthy. Traders, pilgrims, refugees and diplomats all travelled the Silk Road, exchanging ideas =, goods and technologies in what has been called history’s original superhighway.
There was actually no such thing as a single ‘Silk Road’ – routes changed over the years according to local conditions. Parts of the network might be beset by war, robbers or natural disaster: the northern routes were plagued by nomadic horsemen and a lack of settlements to provide fresh supplies and mounts; the south by fearsome deserts and frozen mountains and passes.
Though the road map expanded over the centuries, the network had as main eastern terminus at the Chinese capital Chang’an (modern Xi’an) and extended through the desert and mountains of Central Asia into Iran, the Levant and Constantinople. Major branches headed south into the Karakoram range to India and north via the Zhungarian Gap and across the steppes to Khorezm and the Russian Volga.
Xi’an. The beginning and end, Tang China’s capital was home to a cosmopolitan mix of Central Asian traders, musicians and such exotica as Samarkand’s famed golden peaches. Initially, the only way was through the Gansu Corridor until just before Dunhuang, when it split north and south.
Northern Route. This route through the Sungarian Gap along the north of the Tian Shan offered easier travel and better pasture for caravans but was also more prone to nomadic raids.
Fergana Valley. It was China’s desire for horses to battle its northern nomads that prised open the road. China’s first expeditions west were to source its horses.
Penjikent. The Sogdians were the Silk Road’s consummate middlemen and their communities dotted the Silk Road as far as Xi’an. This city was once a thriving bazar town with a rich mix of artistic influences.
Samarkand and Bukhara. From its earliest days to its glory days under Timur, they have been great trade centers for 2500 years and have become a literal symbol of Silk Road exotica.
Konye-Urench. Astride a Silk Road branch following the Amu-Darya en route to the Volga region, it grew rich on transcontinental trade until the destruction of its irrigation canals shifted the capital to Khiva.
Southern Route. A string of oasis along the Taklamakan Desert made this tough desert stretch feasible, until climate change dried wells and covered its cities with shifting sand.
Dunhuang. The best example of Silk Road artistic fusion, with Central Asian, Tibetan, Indian and Chinese influences blending in spectacular Buddhist caves on the edge of the desert at Mogao.
Jade Gate. Jade from Kotan was as important a product as silk. This customs gate and defensive garrison marked the division between the Central Asian and Chinese worlds.
Kashgar. This remains a vital Silk Road hub at the junction of trade routes to Fergana, the Wakhan, Hunza and the jade markets of Khotan, China.
Tashkurgan. This was one of the great trading posts half way along the route and a place of pause before the tough mountain or desert crossings to come. It was also on the Karakorum pass to Pakistan and India.
The Wakhan. A side branch through the Pamirs from Tashkurgan towards Balkh and the Indian borderlands beyond. This was the path taken by Marco Polo and Buddhism as it spread east.
Merv. All routes met here before continuing through Iran – Hecatompylos (Damghan), Reu (Tehran), and Ecbatana (Hamadan) – and then swung either north via Tabriz to Anock in Syria or south via Ctesphon and Baghdad in Iraq and on to Palmyra, Damascas and Tyre on the Mediterranean coast.
CARAVANS AND TRADE
Silk was certainly not the only trade on the Silk Road but it epitomized the qualities – light, valuable, exotic and greatly desired – required for such a long-distance trade. China’s early need for horses to battle nomads on its northern border was actually the main impetus for the early growth of the Silk road; the silk was traded to the nomads in exchange for a steady supply of mounts.
Though the balance of trade was heavily stacked in favor of China (as it is today!), traffic ran both ways. China received gold, silver, ivory, lapis, jade, coral, wool, rhino horn, tortoise-shell, horses, Mediterranean coloured glass (an industry mystery as inscrutable to the Chinee as silk was in the West), cucumber, walnuts, pomegranates, golden peaches from Samarkand, sesame, garlic, grapes and wine, plus – an early Parthean craze – acrobats and ostriches. Goods arriving at the western end included silk, porcelain paper, tea, ginger, rhubarb, lacquerware, bamboo, Arabian spices and incense, medicinal herbs, gems and perfumes.
And in the middle lay Central Asia, a great clearing house that provided its native beasts – horses and two-humped Bactrian camels – to keep the goods flowing in both directions. There was in fact little ‘through traffic’; caravanners were mostly short- and medium-distance haulers who marketed and took on freight along a given beat. The earliest exchanges were based on barter between steppe nomads and settled towns. Only later did a monetary economy enable long-distance routes to develop.
Bukhara and Samarkand marked the halfway break, where caravans from Aleppo and Baghdad met traders from Kashgar and Yarkand. A network of rabat (caravanserai) grew up along the route offering lodging, stables and stores. Middlemen such as the Sogians amassed great caravan towns such as Gurganj, Merv and Bukhara. The cities offered equally vital services, such as brokers to set up contracts, banking houses to offer lines of credit, and markets to sell goods.
The CULTURAL LEGACY
Besides trade, its true legacy was the intellectual interchange of ideas, technologies and faiths that the trade routes facilitated. It’s curious to note that while the bulk of trade headed west, religious ideas primarily travelled east.
Buddhism spread along the trade routes to wend its way from India to China and back again. It’s hard to imagine that Buddhist monasteries once dotted Central Asia. Today only the faintest archaeological evidence remains; at Adjina-Tepe in Tajikistan, Kuva in the Fergana Valley, and Fayoz-Tepe and the Zurmala Stupa around Termiz in Uzbekistan.
The spread of Buddhism caused Indian, Chinese, Greek and Tibetan artistic styles to merge, forming the exquisite Serindian art of Chinese Turkestan and the Buddhist Gandharan art of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Musical styles and instruments (such as the lute) also crossed borders as artists followed in the wake of traders, pilgrims and missionaries. Technology transfer consisted of Sogdian traders to reveal the skills behind chain mail, fine glass, wine and irrigation. The Chinese taught Central Asia how to cast iron and make paper. Prisoners from the Battle of Talas established paper production in Samarkand and then Baghdad, from where it gradually spread into Europe, making it culturally the most important secret passed along the Silk Road.
The DEATH of the SILK ROAD
The Silk Road received a major blow when China turned its back on the cosmopolitanism of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and retreated behind its Great Wall. The destruction and turbulence wreaked by Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and Timur (Tamerlane) and the literal and figurative drying up of the Silk road led to the further abandonment of cities in desert regions. The nail in the coffin was the opening of more cost-effective maritime trading routes between Europe and Asia in the 16th century.
The REBIRTH of the SILK ROAD
Since the falloff the Soviet Union, Central Asia has seen a mini-revival in all things Silk Road. The re-establishment of rail links to China and Iran, the growth of border trade over the Torugart, Irkeshtam, Qolma and Khunjerab passes, the rebuilding of bridges to Afghanistan and the increase in vital oil and gas pipelines along former silk routes have all reconnected the ‘stans with their ethnic and linguistic relatives to the south and east, while offering a means to shake off ties with Moscow. Goods from Turkey, Iran, and China now dominate local bazaars as they did centuries ago. Even drug runners use former silk routes to transport their heroin from Afghanistan to Europe.
Future Silk Road dreams include constructing a rail line from the Fergana Valley over the Tian Shan to Kashgar and using the US-promised ‘New Silk Road Initiative’ to shore up Afghanistan by linking it closer to Central Asia. Railway cars may have replace camel trains and scrap metal replaced silk, but the Silk Road remains as relevant as ever.