Silk Road - Its Fall

Silk Road

The Fall of the Silk Road

The Silk Road flourished during the highly artistic and prosperous Tang Dynasty. Chang'an, the capital of China at the time, was the departure point and final destination for travelers on the Silk Road. The city in 742 AD was five by six miles and had a population of nearly two million, including over 5,000 foreign residents.

Numerous religions were represented and the city contained the temples, churches and synagogues of Nestorians, Manicheans, Zorastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews and Christians, and other denominations. Foreigners from Turkey, Iran, Arabia, Sogdia, Mongolia, Armenia, India, Korea, Malaya and Japan lived in Chang'an. Dwarfs, who impressed and delighted the Chinese elite as jugglers and actors, were recruited from all over Asia to come to the imperial court. The faces of these foreigners can be discerned among some of the terracotta figures discovered east of Xi'an.

In addition to Western goods, religious thought and art, Chang'an received caravans from distant lands loaded with exotic treasures such as cosmetics, rare plants including saffron, medicines, perfumes, wines, spices, fragrant woods, books and woven rugs. Strange and unknown animals also arrived: peacocks, parrots, falcons, gazelles, hunting dogs, lions, leopards, and the Arabian ostrich.

By the end of the eighth century, the sea routes from the southern coastal city of Canton (Guangzhou) to the Middle East were well developed. The art of sericulture had been mastered by the Persians and, though silk was not to be produced in Europe until the 12th century, the heyday of the Silk Road was over. The Tang Dynasty's downfall led to political chaos and an unstable economy less conducive to extravagant foreign imports. At the same time entire communities, active oasis towns, thriving monasteries and grottoes along the Silk Road were disappearing in the space of weeks, as the glacier-fed streams ran dry or changed course. Since the end of the Ice Age, shrinking glaciers have been consistently reducing the amount of water in the Tarim Basin. Only the most fertile and well-irrigated oasis towns have survived.

The spread of Islam from the Middle East was one of the most critical factors in the disappearance of the Buddhist civilizations along the Silk Road, and perhaps the most destructive element in the loss of Serindian art. Only those caves and monasteries that had been swallowed by the sands centuries before were preserved. Many of the Buddhist cave frescoes, silk paintings and statues had adopted the Gandharan figuative style, portraying "the almighty" in human form, a practice sacrilegious to Muslims. By the late 15th century, Islam became the dominant religion in the Taklamakan region. Buddhist stupas and temples were either destroyed or left to crumble. At this time, the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) shut China off from the outside world, effectively ending the centuries-old influx of foreign ideas and culture. Islam brought a whole new mix of religion, art and architecture that today is the root of Uygur culture in Xinjiang. The surviving remnants of an intensely artistic Buddhist civilization were to remain interned until the late 19th century, when a new generation undertook archaeological excavations in the Tarim Basin.

Revised June 13, 2011