Silk Road

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The Birth of Silk

It is said that silk was first discovered by the Chinese when the wife of the Yellow Emperor watched a silk cocoon fall from a mulberry tree into her cup and unravel in the hot tea in front of her eyes. Years later a Chinese princess, unable to face married life in the barbarian lands of Turkestan, hid quantities of silkworms in her extravagant coiffure and China's secret was led innocuously out through the Jade Gates. The 'marvellous vegetable' was traded to the Parthians for an ostrich egg and soon the sensuous Romans, captivated by their new 'glass' togas, were clamoring for the quality that only China could provide. The Silk Road was born.

Silk Road Map.jpg

Traveling in old times

Traversing the Silk Road has never been easy. The physical dangers of crossing the world's greatest deserts and mountains - thirst, heat, cold, altitude sickness, avalanches, blizzards, snow blindness - were rivaled only by the brigands, thieves and slave raiders encountered en route. Merchants would thus gather safety in numbers, often travelling at night to avoid the heat, in caravans of up to 1,000 camels. Remote caravanserais dotted the route at about 25 kilometer intervals, the average daily distance travelled, and offered living quarters under the stars, stables for the animals and secure storage for valuable cargo. Larger city caravanserais grew to become luxuriant points of transit where goods changed hands, fresh animals were procured and guides, mercenaries and resident craftsmen were hired.

Silk Road is born

Yet, the very phrase 'Silk Road' is a misnomer coined in the 19th c. by the German geographer and uncle to the Red Baron, Ferdinand von Richthofen. There was never a single, static Silk Road, but rather a network of routes cast over the continent which evolved over the centuries. Central Asia hosted the key stretch of this long haul and the language of its omnipresent Sogdian middlemen soon became the lingua franca of the commercial world. The two main routes came from Kashgar (for nearby was the Stone Tower, scene of the greatest transfer of goods in the region) via the Fergana Valley or Balkh to Samarkand or alternatively skirted the northern Tian Shan through the Dzungarian Gap to Tashkent. Routes westwards converged on Bukhara or Merv and then split west to Persia and the Mediterranean, south to Kabul and India or north to Gurganj and the Volga. Routes were carefully chosen allowing for the time of year, snowfall, conditions of passes, political considerations and the regional differences in rates of tax, piracy or both. The fragile threads of the Silk Road were always changing, waxing and waning at the mercy of history. Roles changed as well as routes, as traders were joined by a motley crew of diplomats, invaders, refugees, pilgrims and proselytizers en route to outrageous' new lands.

Merchandise of Silk Road

Silk was in reality a mere fraction of the goods carried on the Silk Road. Gold, textiles, saffron, cucumbers, pomegranates, peaches, melons, wine and coloured glass were all carried into China along with the most alluring exotica - golden peaches from Samarkand, blood-sweating heavenly horses from Fergana, dwarf jugglers from Persia and the prized, magical 'camel bird' (ostrich). From the East came not only ceramics, cinnamon, rhubarb and bronze but also paper, printing and gunpowder, as secrets were swapped alongside goods. For the Silk Road's greatest achievements transcended mere trade. Like an ancient information highway, it enabled men of different cultures to meet in a fertile exchange of ideas and philosophy and then to carry these new art forms and religious doctrines back home. Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity both lied along the Silk Road to claim sanctuary in China, but Buddhism took the firmest root, flourishing like a distant echo as it died in the heartlands of India. Art forms were no different. Indian art merged with Greek and Persian to form Gandaharan; a synthesis of styles which consequently spread westwards under the Kushans to confront Roman influences and eastwards to China to become the Serindian art of Chinese Turkestan. Its raison d'etre, silk, was now in full production in Europe, secreted to Byzantium in the staff of a Nestorian monk, and a maritime spice route had shown itself cost-effective, wiping out as it did the numerous middle-men whose rapaciousness had made Silk Road goods so expensive.

Connecting Worlds

The Silk Road connected the two ends of the known world, China and Rome, at a time when each was only a faint glimmer in the imagination of the other. Now, in an age when direct flights from Rome to Beijing take a magical ten hours, a Silk Road renaissance is underway and a near-complete route is open again. An Iron Road leads from Moscow to Samarkand, Urumqi and Beijing and final connections to Iran and beyond are imminent.

The End of The Silk Road

The Silk Road did not regain its vitality after the cosmopolitan Tang dynasty. Wars that led to destruction and turbulence severely damaged the region, and the literal and figurative drying-up of the Silk Road lead to the abandonment of cities along the southern shore of the Taklamakan Desert. The metaphoric nail in the Silk Road's coffin was the opening of maritime trading routes between Europe and Asia.

Central Asia remained largely forgotten by the East and the West until the arrival of Russian and British explorers in the 19th century and the rediscovery of the glory of Xinjiang's Silk Road cities. Ironically, it was only then, 20 centuries after the first Chinese missions to the West, that the term 'Silk Road' was even used, coined for the first time by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.