Silk Road - Introduction

Silk Road

Silk Road Introduction

Nowadays silk is available in markets around the world. It is transported easily and cheaply by sea and air freight. This was not always so.

The early trade in silk was carried on against incredible odds by great caravans of merchants and animals travelling slowly over some of the most rough territory on earth - waterless deserts and snow locked mountain passes. In high summer, the caravans travelled at night, less afraid of legendary desert demons than of the palpable, scorching heat. Blinding sandstorms forced both merchants and animals to the ground for days on end - their eyes, ears and mouths stifled - before the fury abated. Altitude sickness and snow-blindness affected both man and beast along cliff-hanging and boulder-strewn tracks. Death followed on the heels of every caravan.

For protection against gangs of marauders, who were much tempted by the precious cargoes of silk, gemstones, spices and incense, merchants set aside their competitiveness and joined forces to form large caravans of as many as 1,000 camels under the protection of armed escorts. The two-humped Bactrian camel could carry 400 to 500 pounds of merchandise and was favored over the single-humped species, which, although capable of the same load, could not keep up the pace.

The journeys of China's emissary, Zhang Qian, in the second century BC brought the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) into political contact with the many kingdoms of Central Asia and opened up the great East-West trade route. But it was only in the 1870s that the German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, gave it the name by which we now know it - the Silk Road.

The long route was divided into areas of influence both political and economic. The Chinese traders escorted their merchandise probably as far as Dunhuang or beyond the Great Wall to Loulan, where it was sold or bartered to Central Asian middlemen - Parthians, Sogdians, Indians and Kushans - who carried the trade on to the cities of Persian, Syrian and Greek merchants. Each transaction increased the cost of the end product, which reached the Roman Empire through the hands of Greek and Jewish entrepreneurs.

The Han-dynasty Silk Road began at the magnificent capital of Chang'an (Xi'an) - Sera Metropolis. The route took traders westwards into Gansu Province and along the Hexi Corridor to the giant barrier of the Great Wall. From here, many caravans favored the northern route through the Jade Gate Pass (Yumenguan) northwest of Dunhuang, along the southern foothills of the Heavenly Mountains (Tian Shan) and, skirting the northern rim of the Taklamakan Desert, past the rich oasis towns of Hami, Turpan, Yanqi, Korla, Kucha and Kashgar. Others chose the more arduous but direct route through Yangguan Pass southwest of Dunhuang, and along the northern foothills of the Kunlun Mountains - and the southern edge of the Taklamakan - to Loulan, Khotan, Yarkand and Kashgar.

At Kashgar, there were more choices. Some went westwards over the Terek Pass in the Heavenly Mountains into the kingdoms of Ferghana and Sogdiana (in the vicinity of Tashkent and Samarkand) and across the Oxus River to Merv (present day Mary in Turkmenia). Others crossed the high Pamirs to the south near Tashkurgan and went along the Wakhan Corridor of Afgahanistan to Balkh, in the ancient Graeco-Iranian kingdom of Bactria, to meet up with the northern route in Merv. Still another route from Kashgar passed Tashkurgan and went over the Karakoram Pass and down into India.

From Merv the Silk Road continued west on an easier path to the old capital of Parthia, Hecatompylos (present-day Damghan), continuing south of the Caspian Sea to Hamadan, southwest of Teheran, then on to the ancient twin cities of Seleuceia and Ctesiphon, near Baghdad on the Tigris River. From here various routes led through Syria to Antioch, Palmyra and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Roman Empire.

Alexander the Great's expansion into Central Asia over 2,300 years ago stopped far short of Chinese Turkestan, and he appears to have gained little knowledge of the lands beyond. So the empires of Rome and China, developing almost simultaneously in the second century BC, had only the vaguest consciousness of each other. The Chinese knew of a country called Ta Tsin or Li Kun, which historians believe was Rome, while the Romans knew of Seres, the Kingdom of Silk. But with the thrust of the Han Dynasty into Central Asia, commerce developed between the two distant powers.

The Silk Road flourished until the weakened Han Dynasty lost control over the Tarim Basin kingdoms in the third century and political instability hampered trade. In Asia Minor, Parthian power gave way to the Sassanid rulers in Persia, disrupting the traditional overland routes and causing the Mediterranean traders to make greater use of the already long established sea routes to India. By the sixth century, the southern Silk Road, from Dunhuang Via Khotan to Kashgar, was shunned in favour of the new northern Silk Road, which took a course through Hami, over the Heavenly Mountains and along their northern slopes, through the towns of Barkol and Jimusaer, westwards to Yining and beyond to Samarkand and Merv.

The Indo-European Sogdians proved themselves consummate Silk Road traders during the fifth and sixth centuries, selling glass, horses and perfumes to the Chinese, and buying raw silk. Sogdian documents and paintings have surfaced at Dunhuang and Sogdian inscriptions are carved into the stones and rocks strewn along the Indus River Valley, beside the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan.

By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), 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 route was over. However, silk continued to play a most important role as a tributary gift and in local trade with the "Western barbarians," who were radically to change Chinese culture by introducing new arts, skills and ideas.

Revised June 13, 2011