The name Silk Road conjures up images of caravans trudging through some of the world's highest mountains and most god forsaken deserts. This was true for parts of the route but only tells part of the story. The Silk Road was not one well-established road, but a complex, constantly-changing network of land and sea routes between China, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe that was in operation roughly from the 1st century B.C. to the A.D. 15th century. The term Silk Road was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the Red Baron.
The main all-land Silk Road route went from Xian in eastern China via Kashgar in Western China, Samarkand in Central Asia and Baghdad in the Middle East to coastal cities on the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean such as Alexandria, Allepo and Trabazon.
The main sea route went from China via the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to Basra on the Persian Gulf or Suez on the Red Sea, where the goods were then carried overland across Persia and Syria or through Egypt to ports serviced by European merchants such as Alexandria.
Travelers could feed their animals off the land and find food and drink along the way. In the early stages, goods were often traded trough barter, only later was money used. Silk Road routes were often disrupted and always changing due the presence of bandits, political alliances, passes closed by snow, droughts, storms, seasonal changes, wars, plagues, horsemen raids, and natural disasters. Many Silk Road towns and caravanserais were located within fortresses for protection from bandits and marauding horsemen. Many also had security forces.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu
Silk Road Route in China
Bezeklil Grottoes, near Turpan The overland Silk Road route to the west began in Xian, the capital of China during the Han, Qin and Tang dynasties. It stopped in the towns of Zhangye, Jiayuguan, Langzhou, Yumen, Anxi and Nanhu before dividing in three main routes at Dunhuang.
The three main routes between Dunhuang and Central Asia were: 1) the northern route, which went through northwest China through the towns of Hami and Turpan to Central Asia: 2) the central route, which veered southwest from Turpan and passed through Kucha, Aksu and Kashgar; and 3) the southern route, which passed through the heart of the Taklamakan Desert via the oasis towns of Miran, Khotan and Yarkand before joining with the central route in Kashgar.
On the southern route through western China the going began getting difficult near present-day Langzhou, where the "Gate of Demons," marked the approach to an area, which the writer Mildred Cable said featured "rushing rivers, cutting their way through sand...an unfathomable lake hidden among the dunes...sand-hills with a voice like thunder" and "water which could be clearly seen and yet was a deception."
The going started to get really rough around the Ravine of Baboons (Xingxing Xia), traditionally regarded as the frontier of Chinese Turkestan and entrance to the vast and inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. where Cable wrote, the desert "is a howling wilderness, and the first thing which strikes the wayfarer is the dismalness of its uniform, black, pebble strewn surface." After the Ravine of Baboons, the Silk Road followed a line of oases to Kashgar.
See Marco Polo.
Silk Road Between China and Central Asia
Tang era merchant The Silk Road routes in this area were very complicated and usually defined by oases through passes which were open and accessible. Many goods carried across Central Asia were transported on the backs of shaggy, two-humped Bactrian camels or horses, or, in the high elevations, on yaks. The Himalayan caravan routes from India that passed through Karakoram Pass and Khunjerab Pass (on the modern Karakoram Highway) joined the Silk Road in Kashgar or Central Asia.
The two main routes that entered Central Asia from China were: 1) the northern route, which passed from western China into what is now Kazakhstan and went through or near what is now Alma Aty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Krygyzstan) and Tashkent (Uzbekistan); and 2) the southern route which left Kashgar and passed from western China in Central Asia through passes of the Tien Shan and Pamirs mountains that are now on China's borders with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
The main route likely passed from Kashgar through Irkeshtam Pass between Kashgar and the Fergana Valley in present-day Uzbekistan. Many Silk Road tours go from Kashgar over Torugart pass to Bishkek and then Tashkent and Samarkand because modern roads traverse this route. This route however is much longer and out of the way than the direct route from Kashgar to the Fergana Valley. Marco Polo used a route through the Pamirs between China and Afghanistan.
Samarkand was arguably the grandest city on the Silk Road. It was located at about the halfway point between China and the Mediterranean and situated where the routes from China converged into a single main route through Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East. Samarkand and other Central Asian, Silk Road cities such as Bukhara and Khiva were centers of art and scholarship, full of poets, astronomers, and master craftsmen.
Samarkand is said to have a history that goes back 6,000 years although 2,500 years is probably a more realistic figure. Alexander the Great captured it in 329 B.C. and reportedly exclaimed, "Everything I have heard about the beauty of Samarkand is true except it is even more beautiful than I could have imagined."
Over the years the city grew in size and was controlled at various times by Turks, Arabs, Persian Samanids, Karakhan and Seljuk Turks, Mongolian Karakitay and Khorezmshah. The Arabs called it the "City of Gems." By the 13th century Samarkand was a great city of 200,000 people nourished by an aqueduct that brought water to the arid steppe from far away mountains. It was famous for its craftsmen and products like saddles and copper and silver lamps.
Genghis Khan's attacked Samarkand. in 1220. According to one report, when his army appeared the ruling shah and 110,000 of his troops fled the city and the city noblemen opened the gates begging for mercy. Some soldiers who did not want to surrender took refuge in a mosque, where they thought they would be protected by Allah. The Mongols showed little mercy. They shot flaming arrows; hurled vessels of oil from catapults; tore down the city wall, destroyed the aqueduct, killed about 100,000 people and hauled 30,000 skilled craftsmen, including smiths, weavers, artisans, falconers, scribes and physicians, back to Mongolia.
Samarkand Under the Timurids
After the Mongol attack Samarkand remained a backwater until Tamerlane made it the capital of his new empire in 1370. At its height Tamerlane's empire stretched from Mongolia through Central Asia to Europe and Samarkand was the Athens of Central Asia and was known as the "garden of the blessed" and "the forth place."
Tamerlane patronized the arts, supported scholars and had many beautiful buildings constructed. He filled the city with booty and craftsmen brought back from his conquests. He once reportedly boasted, "Let he who doubts our power look upon our architecture."A Spanish nobleman who visited Samarkand in 1403 described communities of captive craftsmen, silk weavers, potters, glassworkers, armorers, silversmiths, "gathered from the cities of conquest."
Samarkand was further developed under Ulughbek, Tamerlane's grandson. He made Samarkand into great city of learning and brought in astronomers, mathematicians and scholars from all over the Muslim world. Ulughbek was a scholar and astronomer himself. He built a great observatory and many grand buildings. Many of the great buildings found in Samarkand today date back to Ulughbek not Tamerlane.
Samarkand went into a period of decline after the Uzbek Shavybanids came to power in the 16th century and they established their capital in Bukhara. By the 18th century Samarkand had been leveled by a series of earthquakes and was essentially a ghost town. Samarkand wasn't truly revived until the Russians arrived in the 1860s and connected it to the Trans-Caspian Railway.
Overland Route in Iran and the Middle East
From Samarkand the main Silk Road route heading west passed through Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Merv (Turkmenistan), Mashad (Iran), Hamadan (Iran) to Baghdad. From Baghdad some traders traveled to the Mediterranean port of Tyre via Palmyra while other went to the Black Sea port of Trabzon through western Iran or to Constantinople (Istanbul) via Turkey.
But even here there where all kinds of alternative routes such as 1) through Balkh and Herat in Afghanistan; 2) via the Caspian Sea to the Crimea, the Black Sea and the Volga; or 3) through Iran, connecting with Persian Gulf vessels in Basra (Iraq).
To give you some idea of how changeable, complicated and confusing the Silk Road was, Marco Polo went to hardly any of the places most commonly associated with the Silk Road in Central Asia and the Middle East and it took him 17 years to go from Italy to China and back.
Products of the Silk Road
8th century Sogdian silk Valuable commodities carried west on the Silk Road included silk and porcelain from China; pepper, batik, spices, perfumes, glass beads, gems and muslin from India; incense, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg from the East Indies, diamonds from Colcond; nuts, sesame seeds, glass and carpets from Persia; and coral and ivory from Siam. Other goods that made their way west included furs, ceramics, medicinal rhubarb, peaches, pomegranates, and gunpowder. In cold areas, flint and steel were among the most sought after products. .
The Chinese were not as interested in goods arriving from the West as Europe was in goods arriving from the East. Even so traders coming from the West brought fine tableware, wool, horses, jade, wine, cucumbers, and walnuts. Ivory, gold, tortoise shells, dugs and slaves and animals such as ostriches and giraffes came from Africa. Frankincense and myrrh were brought from Arabia. Mediterranean colored glass was treasured almost as much in some parts of the East as silk was in the West.
Silk and the Silk Road
Silk was prized as a trade item and was ideal for overland travel because it was easy to carry, took up little space, held up over time, weighed relatively little but was high in value. By weight silk was worth as much as gold and often used as a form of money and could be given as bribes and as tribute.
The silk carried on the Silk Road came in the form of rolls of raw silk, dyed rolls, cloth, tapestries, embroideries, carpets and clothes. Many Silk that left China was often in its raw form and it was turned into embroidered cloth and art work in cities such as Samarkand in Central Asia, Baghdad in the Middle East and Lhasa in Tibet.
In the Silk Road era, silk was used for book coverings, wall hangings, clothes, purses, slippers and boots. It was decorated with floral patters and images of birds and mythical beasts such as winged lions and dragons with elephantine snouts stitched with gold or silver thread. The origin of objects could be determined by examining figures, weaves and threads.
Silk Making, See Agriculture, Economics
Early History of Silk
silk worm production According to a Chinese legend, silk was discovered in 2460 B.C. by the 14-year-old Chinese Empress Xi Ling Shi who lived in a palace with a garden with many mulberry trees. One day she took a cocoon from one of the trees and accidently dropped it in hot water and found she could unwind the shimmering thread from the pliable cocoon. For hundreds of years after that only the Chinese royal family was allowed to wear silk. Xi Ling Shi is now honored as the goddess of silk.
The oldest concrete evidence silk weaving are impressions found on a bronze urn dated to 1330 B.C. The provincial museum in Hangzhou houses silk threads and embroidery knots that may be 4,500 years old. In 1982 brickyard workers stumbled across a ancient tomb from 300 B.C. with remarkably well preserved silk quilts and gowns. ¨
The secret of making silk remained in China for 2,000 years. Imperial law decreed death by torture to anyone who disclosed it. No one is sure when the secret first seeped out of China, but it is known to have reached Japan by way of Korea by the A.D. 4th century and said to have been brought there by four Chinese girls. It is also said that silk was brought to India by a Chinese princess who hid eggs and mulberry seeds in the lining of her headdress.
Spices and the Silk Road
Spices were among the most valuable commodities carried on the Silk Road. Without refrigeration food spoiled easily and spices were important for masking the flavor of rancid or spoiled meat. Basil, mint, sage, rosemary and thyme cold be grown in family herb gardens in Europe along with medicinal plants. Among the the spices and seasonings that came from the East--affordable to merchants and burghers but not ordinary people--were pepper, cloves, mace and cumin. Ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and saffron--the most valuable of spices from the East--were worth more than their weight in gold.
Pepper, one of the spices that Columbus was looking for when he landed in the America in 1492, had been coming to Europe along the Silk Road at least since Roman times, when many Roman cookbook recipes called for pepper. In the A.D. first century, the satirist Persius wrote:
The greedy merchants, led by lucre, run
To the parch'd Indies and the rising sun
From thence hot Pepper and rich Drugs they bear,
Bart'ring for Spices their Italian ware...
During the Middle Ages, one medieval town sold 288 kinds of spices, many of whom had an unknown origin. Cinnamon, people were told, came from an exotic bird and cloves were netted in the Nile by Egyptians. Caravans that carried pepper were heavily armed.
Transportation Along the Silk Road
Silk Road goods carried overland were not loaded onto camels and carried from China to Europe. Goods made their way westward in a piecemeal way, with a lot trading and loading and unloading at the caravan stops along the way.
Different caravans carried goods during different sections, with traders coming from the west exchanging thing like gold, wool, horses or jade for silk coming from the east. The caravans stopped at fortresses and oases along the way, passing their loads from trader to trader, with each transaction increasing the price as the traders took their cut.
Few people traveled the Silk Road from one end to the other as Marco Polo did. Many were simple traders who took goods from one town or oases to the next and then returned home, or they were horsemen who earned an income from trading and transporting goods between settled towns.
Silk Road Camels
Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts.
Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 600 pounds, they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20 degrees F. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.
Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protection against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Male Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny.
The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn't get enough to eat as it loses the fat that keep the humps erect.
Silk Road Caravans
Until fairly recently caravans with Bactrian camels were widely used in mountainous areas to carry flour, forage, cotton, salt, charcoal and other goods. In the 1970s, Silk Road routes were still used to carry enormous blocks of salt and caravanserai offered accommodation for less than few cents a night. Trucks have largely replaced caravans. But camels, horses and donkeys are still widely used to move goods on trails that can not accommodate vehicles.
In a caravan, five to twelve camels are typically roped together head to tail. The caravan leader often rides and even sleeps on the first camel. A bell is tied to the last camel in the line. That way if the caravan leader dozes off and there is a sudden silence the leader is alerted that someone may be trying to steal the camel at the end of the line.
Winter Caravan Through the Pamirs
In 1971, the French explorers Sabrina and Roland Michaud accompanied a winter camel caravan that followed the same route that Marco Polo took through the Wakhan, a long valley between the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush that extends like a finger in northeast Afghanistan to China. [Source: Sabrina and Roland Michaud, National Geographic, April 1972]
The caravan was operated by Kyrgyz herdsmen who lived in the high valleys. It followed the frozen Wakhan River through the 140-mile-long Wakhan corridor from the Kyrgyz's home camp at MulkAli, about 20 miles from the Xinjiang (China) border, to Khanud, where sheep were traded for salt, sugar, tea and other goods. Goods were carried on the backs of Bactrian camels. Men rode on horses.
The round trip of 240 miles took about a month and took place in the middle of winter. When the caravan was ready to go the ropes and felt padding of the camels were checked. A supply of bread was taken to supply food for the entire journey. The Kyrgyz caravaneers traded one sheep for 160 pounds of wheat with the Wakhis at their destination. The Kyrgyz need the Walkis for food supplies. The Walkis need the Kyrgyz for sheep, tallow, milk products, wool, felt and meat. Sheep are not brought with the caravan, They are delivered later.
The caravan existed because the Kyrgyz herdsmen could rely on milk from their animals for sustenance in the summer but in the winter they survive on bread and tea and had to trade to obtain these goods. In the past the Kyrgyz had traded with caravans that came up from Kashgar in China. But that route was closed down in the 1950s by the Chinese. After that the Kyrgyz started heading westward
Traveling on the Winter Caravan Through the Pamirs
Temperatures in the Pamirs often drop below -12 degrees F. The cameelers wore hats with floppy earflaps and protected their hands with extra-long sleeves. On icy trails sand was often placed on the ice to help the animals get a better grip. At night the camels and cameleers slept in stone shelters, often infested with rats and full of smoke. When the caravan stoped the camels wer prevented from lying down for two hours so they wouldn't get cold from snow melted by their hot bodies.
On frozen rivers it was possible to hear water rushing underneath ice that was three feet thick. Sometimes the caravans leaders placed their ears to the ice to listen for weak spots. If they could hear the loud sound of rushing water then they knew the ice was too thin. Sometimes animals broke through and drowned or froze to death. Special care was taken with the heavily loaded camels. When the ice was slippery they walked in mincing steps.
The Kyrgyz caravan traversed one high mountain pass. Describing a particularly treacherous stretch on the trail, Sabrina Michaud wrote, "On a narrow ledge over a dizzying precipice, my horse slipped and fell on its forelegs. I pull on the reins and the animals struggles to its feet. Fear dampens my body as we climb onwards...Ahead a camel slips and collapse on the path; it kneels and tries to crawl...Risking their own lives, men unload the animal so that it can stand up, then load it again, and move on."
Stops and Caravanserai on the Silk Road
Between towns and oases people on long caravans often slept in yurts or under the stars. Caravanserais, stopping places for caravans, sprang up along the routes, offering lodging, stables and food. They were not all that different from guesthouses used by backpackers today except that people were allowed to stay for free. Owners made their money from charging fees for animals and selling meals and supplies.
In the larger towns, the larger caravans stayed for a while, resting and fattening up their animals, purchasing new animals, relaxing and selling or trading goods. To meet their needs were banks, exchange houses, trading firms, markets, brothels and places where one could smoke hashish and opium. Some of these caravan stops became rich cities such like Samarkand and Bukhara.
Caravanserai had rooms for caravan members, fodder and resting places for animals and warehouses for storing goods. They were often in small fortresses with guards to protect the caravans from bandits.
A typical caravanserai was a set of buildings surrounding an open courtyard, where the animals were kept. The animals were tied to wooden stakes. The rates for a stopover and fodder depended on the animal. Caravanserai owners often supplemented their incomes by gathering manure and selling it for fuel and fertilizer. The price for manure was set according to the animal that produced it and how much straw and grass was mixed in. Cow and donkey manure was regarded as high quality because it burned the hottest and kept mosquitos away.
Traders and travelers had problems with local food and foreign languages like modern travelers. They also had to deal with rules prohibiting certain native costumes and get permits to enter city gates, which explained their wants and needs and showed they presented no threat.
Silk Road and the Spread of Ideas and Religion
The Silk Road was a conduit for ideas, technology and culture as well as trade. Innovations introduced to Europe from China included playing cards, porcelain, art motifs, styles of furniture, paper money, printing and gunpowder. The Silk Road also facilitated the transmission from one to culture to another of music and dance, language, written scripts, and artistic and craft styles.
Beginning in the A.D. 2nd century the Silk Road became a pathway for the flow of Buddhism from India to China and back again. In the 8th century it was the route in which Islam was introduced to Central Asia and western China from the Middle East. Zoroastrianism, Manichaesm, Nestroain Christianity, Judaism, shamanism, Confucianism and Taoism were also spread on the Silk Road.
Image Sources: 1) Map, Hofstra University; 2) Turpan, CNTO; 3) Merchant, wikipedia; 4) Sogdian Silk, Silk Road Foundation; 5) Silk production, Silk Road Foundation; 6) caravan, Frank and D. Brownestone, Silk Road Foundation; 7) camel, Shanghai Museum; 8) Buddhist monk, Silk Road Foundation
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2010