CARAVANS AND TRANSPORTATION ALONG THE SILK ROAD

TRANSPORTATION ALONG THE SILK ROAD

right Chinese-produced Silk Road goods carried overland to Europe 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. After the 14th century, much of the silk from the East was shipped from a Genoan port on the Crimea to Europe.

According to UNESCO: “The process of travelling the Silk Roads developed along with the roads themselves. In the Middle Ages, caravans consisting of horses or camels were the standard means of transporting goods across land. Caravanserais, large guest houses or inns designed to welcome travelling merchants, played a vital role in facilitating the passage of people and goods along these routes. Found along the Silk Roads from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with local markets and buy local products, and to meet other merchant travellers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas.” [Source: UNESCO unesco.org/silkroad ~]

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 Atlas depts.washington.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 Travelers silk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life

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Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com; 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.

Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu

Animals and Trade on the Silk Road

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Animals are an essential part of the story of the Silk Road. While those such as sheep and goats provided many communities the essentials of daily life, horses and camels both supplied local needs and were keys to the development of international relations and trade. Even today in Mongolia and some areas of Kazakhstan, the rural economy may still be very intimately connected with the raising of horses and camels; their milk products and, even occasionally, their meat, are a part of the local diet. The distinct natural environments of much of Inner Asia encompassing vast steppe lands and major deserts made those animals essential for the movement of armies and trade. The animals' value to the neighboring sedentary societies, moreover, meant that they themselves were objects of trade. Given their importance, the horse and camel occupied a significant place in the literatures and representational art of many peoples along the Silk Road.” [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]

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Sand dunes in Xinjiang
The “relationship between the rulers of China and the nomads who controlled the supply of horses continued down through the centuries to shape important aspects of the trade across Asia. At times the substantial financial resources of the Chinese empire were strained to keep frontiers secure and the essential supply of horses flowing. Silk was a form of currency; tens of thousands of bolts of the precious substance would be sent annually to the nomadic rulers in exchange for horses, along with other commodities (such as grain) which the nomads sought. Clearly not all that silk was being used by the nomads but was being traded to those further west. For a time in the eighth and early ninth centuries, the rulers of the T'ang Dynasty were helpless to resist the exorbitant demands of the nomadic Uighurs, who had saved the dynasty from internal rebellion and exploited their monopoly as the main suppliers of horses. Beginning in the Song Dynasty (11th-12th centuries), tea became increasingly important in Chinese exports, and over time bureaucratic mechanisms were developed to regulate the tea and horse trade. Government efforts to control the horse-tea trade with those who ruled the areas north of the Tarim Basin (in the Xinjiang of today) continued down into the sixteenth century, when it was disrupted by political disorders. \*\

“Visual representations of the horse and camel may celebrate them as essential to the functions and status of royalty. Textiles woven by and for the nomads using the wool from their flocks often include images of these animals. One of the most famous examples is from a royal tomb in southern Siberia and dates back more than 2000 years. It is possible that the mounted riders on it were influenced by images such as those in the reliefs at Persepolis where the animals depicted were involved in royal processions and the presentation of tribute. The royal art of the Sasanians (3rd-7th century) in Persia includes elegant metal plates, among them ones showing the ruler hunting from camelback. A famous ewer fashioned in the Sogdian regions of Central Asia at the end of the Sasanian period shows a flying camel, the image of which may have inspired a later Chinese report of flying camels being found in the mountains of the Western Regions. \*\

Horses and the Silk Road

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “With the development of the light, spoked wheel in the second millennium B.C., horses came to be used to draw military chariots, remains of which have been found in tombs all across Eurasia. The use of horses as cavalry mounts probably spread eastward from Western Asia in the early part of the first millennium B.C. Natural conditions suitable for raising horses large and strong enough for military use were to be found in the steppes and mountain pastures of Northern and Central Inner Asia, but generally not in the regions best suited for intensive agriculture such as Central China. Marco Polo would note much later regarding the lush mountain pastures: "Here is the best pasturage in the world; for a lean beast grows fat here in ten days" (Latham tr.). Thus, well before the famous journey to the west of Zhang Qian (138-126 B.C.), sent by the Han emperor to negotiate an alliance against the nomadic Xiongnu, China had been importing horses from the northern nomads. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]


Han Dynasty horse

“The relations between the Xiongnu and China have traditionally been seen as marking the real start of the Silk Road, since it was in the second century B.C. that we can document large quantities of silk being sent on a regular basis to the nomads as a way of keeping them from invading China and also as a means of payment for the horses and camels needed by the Chinese armies. Zhang Qian's report about the Western Regions and the rebuff of initial Chinese overtures for allies prompted energetic measures by the Han to extend their power to the west. Not the least of the goals was to secure a supply of the "blood-sweating" "heavenly" horses of Fergana.” The Han Dynasty explorer Zhang Qian, wrote in the 2nd century B.C.: “The people [of Fergana]...have...many good horses. The horses sweat blood and come from the stock of the "heavenly horse." \*\

“The best known example to illustrate the importance of the horse in the history of Inner Asia is the Mongol Empire. From modest beginnings in some of the best pasturelands of the north, the Mongols came to control much of Eurasia, largely because they perfected the art of cavalry warfare. The indigenous Mongol horses, while not large, were hardy, and, as contemporary observers noted, could survive in winter conditions because of their ability to find food under the ice and snow covering the steppes. It is important to realize though that the reliance on the horse was also a limiting factor for the Mongols, since they could not sustain large armies where there was not sufficient pasturage. Even when they had conquered China and established the Yüan Dynasty, they had to continue to rely on the northern pastures to supply their needs within China proper. \*\

“The early Chinese experience of reliance on the nomads for horses was not unique: we can see analogous patterns in other parts of Eurasia. In the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, for example, Muscovite Russia traded extensively with the Nogais and other nomads in the southern steppes who provided on a regular basis tens of thousands of horses for the Muscovite armies. Horses were important commodities on the trade routes connecting Central Asia to northern India via Afghanistan, because, like central China, India was unsuited to raising quality horses for military purposes. The great Mughal rulers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appreciated this as did the British in the nineteenth century. William Moorcroft, who became famous as one of the rare Europeans to reach Bukhara in the early nineteenth century, justified his dangerous trip north from India by his effort to establish a reliable supply of cavalry mounts for the British Indian army.” \*\

Books and Sources on Horses: A) Barfield, Thomas J. The Nomadic Alternative (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993), esp. 58-64 (camels), 132-145 (horses), 148-168 (horse nomads and their relations with sedentary neighbors). B) Beckwith, Christopher I. "The Impact of the Horse and Silk Trade on the Economies of T'ang China and the Uighur Empire: On the Importance of International Commerce in the Early Middle Ages," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, XXXIV/2 (1991): 183-198. C) Creel, H.G. "The Role of the Horse in Chinese History," The American Historical Review, LXX/3 (1965): 647-672. D) Köçümkulïzï, Elmira, and Daniel C. Waugh. "Animals" (Traditional Cultures of Central Asia). E) Opie, James. Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings from the Near East and Central Asia (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1992, esp. Ch. 2 ("The Roots of Nomadic Art") and Ch. 3, "The Pazyryk Rug," pp. 24-33. F) Sinor, Denis. "Horse and pasture in Inner Asian history," Oriens Extremis, 19/1-2 (1972): 171-183. G) Rossabi, Morris. "The Tea and Horse Trade with Inner Asia during the Ming," Journal of Asian History, 4/2 (1970): 136-168.

Camels and the Silk Road

right Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Important as horses were, the camel was arguably of far greater significance in the history of the Silk Road. Domesticated as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C., by the first millennium B.C. camels were prominently depicted on Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian carved reliefs and figured in Biblical texts as indicators of wealth. Among the most famous depictions are those in the ruins of Persepolis, where both of the main camel species--the one-humped dromedary of Western Asia and the two-humped Bactrian of Eastern Asia--are represented in the processions of those bearing tribute to the Persian king. In China awareness of the value of the camel was heightened by the interactions between the Han and the Xiongnu toward the end of the first millennium B.C. when camels were listed among the animals taken captive on military campaigns or sent as diplomatic gifts or objects of trade in exchange for Chinese silk. Campaigns of the Chinese army to the north and west against the nomads invariably required support by large trains of camels to carry supplies. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, the success of Arab armies in rapidly carving out an empire in the Middle East was due to a considerable degree to their use of camels as cavalry mounts. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]

“The camel's great virtues include the ability to carry substantial loads--400-500 pounds--and their well-known capacity for surviving in arid conditions. The secret to the camel's ability to go for days without drinking is in its efficient conservation and processing of fluids (it does not store water in its hump[s], which in fact are largely fat). Camels can maintain their carrying capacity over long distances in dry conditions, eating scrub and thorn bushes. When they drink though, they may consume 25 gallons at a time; so caravan routes do have to include rivers or wells at regular intervals. The use of the camel as the dominant means of transporting goods over much of Inner Asia is in part a matter of economic efficiency--as Richard Bulliet has argued, camels are cost efficient compared to the use of carts requiring the maintenance of roads and the kind of support network that would be required for other transport animals. In some areas though down into modern times, camels continue to be used as draft animals, pulling plows and hitched to carts. \*\

Kuo P'u wrote in the A.D. 3rd century: The camel...manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has secret understanding of springs and sources; subtle indeed is its knowledge. Mei Yao-ch'en wrote in the A.D. 11th century:
Crying camels come out of the Western Regions,
Tail to muzzle linked, one after the other.
The posts of Han sqeep them away throught he clouds,
The men of Hu lead them over the snow.

Books and Sources on Camels: A) Barfield, Thomas J. The Nomadic Alternative (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1993), esp. 58-64 (camels), 132-145 (horses), 148-168 (horse nomads and their relations with sedentary neighbors). B) Bulliet, Richard W. The Camel and the Wheel (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1975). C) Knauer, Elfriede Regina. The Camel's Load in Life and Death: Iconography and Ideology of Chinese Pottery Figurines from Han to Tang and Their Relevance to Trade along the Silk Routes (Zürich: Akanthus, 1998). D) Köçümkulïzï, Elmira, and Daniel C. Waugh. "Animals" (Traditional Cultures of Central Asia). E) Opie, James. Tribal Rugs: Nomadic and Village Weavings from the Near East and Central Asia (London: Laurence King Publishing, 1992, esp. Ch. 2 ("The Roots of Nomadic Art") and Ch. 3, "The Pazyryk Rug," pp. 24-33. G) Potts, Daniel. "Bactrian Camels and Bactrian-Dromedary Hybrids," The Silk Road 3/1(2005). F) Roux, Jean-Paul. "Le Chameu en Asie Centrale: Son nom - son elevage - sa place dans la mythologie," Central Asiatic Journal, V (1959/60), 35-76. G) Schafer, Edward H. "The Camel in China down to the Mongol Dynasty," Sinologica, II (1970): 165-194; 263-290. H) The Silk Road (Video series produced by NHK and CCTV): Film 20, "The Road Vanishes into a Lake," contains sequence shot on a camel farm in Kazakhstan; Film 27, "The Caravans Move West," contains a caravan sequence in the Syrian desert.

Camels, Horses and the Arts of the Silk Road


Tang Fergana horse

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Given their importance in the lives of peoples across inner Asia, not surprisingly camels and horses figure in literature and the visual arts. A Japanese TV crew filming a series on the Silk Road in the 1980s was entertained by camel herders in the Syrian desert singing a love ballad about camels. Camels frequently appear in early Chinese poetry, often in a metaphorical sense. Arab poetry and the oral epics of Turkic peoples in Central Asia often celebrate the horse. Examples in the visual arts of China are numerous. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, grave goods often include these animals among the mingqi, the sculptural representations of those who were seen as providing for the deceased in the afterlife. The best known of the mingqi are those from the T'ang period, ceramics often decorated in multicolored glaze (sancai). While the figures themselves may be relatively small (the largest ones normally not exceeding between two and three feet in height) the images suggest animals with "attitude"--the horses have heroic proportions, and they and the camels often seem to be vocally challenging the world around them (perhaps here the "crying camels" of the poet quoted above). [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad \*\]

“A recent study of the camel mingqi indicates that in the T'ang period the often detailed representation of their loads may represent not so much the reality of transport along the Silk Road but rather the transport of goods (including food) specific to beliefs of what the deceased would need in the afterlife. Some of these camels transport orchestras of musicians from the Western Regions; other mingqi frequently portray the non-Chinese musicians and dancers who were popular among the T'ang elite. Among the most interesting of the mingqi are sculptures of women playing polo, a game which was imported into China from the Middle East. The 8th-9th century graves at Astana on the Northern Silk Road contained a wide range of mounted figures--women riding astride, soldiers in their armor, and horsemen identifiable by their headgear and facial features as being from the local population. It is significant that the human attendants (grooms, caravaneers) of the animal figures among the mingqi usually are foreigners, not Chinese. Along with the animals, the Chinese imported the expert animal trainers; the caravans invariably were led by bearded westerners wearing conical hats. The use of foreign animal trainers in China during the Yüan (Mongol) period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is well documented in the written sources. \*\

“Apart from the well-known scuptures, the images of horse and camel in China also include paintings. Narrative scenes in the Buddhist murals of the caves in Western China often represent merchants and travelers in the first instance by virtue of their being accompanied by camel caravans. Among the paintings on paper found in the famous sealed library at Dunhuang are evocatively stylized images of camels (drawn with, to the modern eye, a sense of humor). The Chinese tradition of silk scroll painting includes many images of foreign ambassadors or rulers of China with their horses.’ \*\

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.

See Separate Article on SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com

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

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Bezeklik
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 on the Silk Road

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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.

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.

Caravanserai on the Silk Road

In the old days caravans stopped and picked up water and supplies at caravansaries, walled fortresses along major trading routes. Caravanserais (or khans) are buildings specially built to shelter men, goods and animals along ancient caravan routes, in particular along the former Silk Roads. They 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.

According to UNESCO: “Caravanserais, large guest houses or inns designed to welcome travelling merchants, played a vital role in facilitating the passage of people and goods along these routes. Found along the Silk Roads from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with local markets and buy local products, and to meet other merchant travellers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas. [Source: UNESCO unesco.org/silkroad ~]


Selim Caravanserai in Armenia


“As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserais became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserais that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, many of which still stand today. ~

“Caravanserais were ideally positioned within a day’s journey of each other, so as to prevent merchants (and more particularly, their precious cargos) from spending days or nights exposed to the dangers of the road. On average, this resulted in a caravanserai every 30 to 40 kilometers in well-maintained areas.” ~

Caravanserai History and Architecture

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.

According to UNESCO: “Linked to the rise of Islam and the growth of the land trade between the Orient and the West (then to its decline because of the opening of the ocean routes by the Portuguese), the construction of most of the caravanserais spanned a period of ten centuries (IX-XIX century), and covered a geographical area the centre of which is Central Asia. Many thousands were built, and together they form a major phenomenon in the history of that part of the world, from an economic, a social and a cultural point of view.” [Source: Pierre Lebigre, "Inventory of Caravanserais in Central Asia" Website on Caravanseraisunesco.org/culture ]

“They are also remarkable for their architecture, which is based on geometric and topologic rules. These rules use a limited number of elements defined by tradition. But they articulate, combine and multiply these elements so that within an overall unity, each one of these buildings possesses characteristics, which are specific to it. As such, they well illustrate the concept of a "common heritage and plural identity", which emerged during UNESCO’s studies of the Silk Roads, and which is particularly evident in Central Asia. Unfortunately, except for some of the really well known ones, usually considered as historical monuments, especially when situated inside towns such as khan Assad Pacha, Damascus – many have been completely demolished and those which remain are, for the most part, slowly disappearing. Nevertheless, a certain number are really worth restoring and some could be rehabilitated in today's world and used for different functions, such as those related to cultural tourism.


Inside the Selim Caravanserai


Modern Caravans

The following descriptions come from articles on modern caravans in the Sahara. The information they yield offers some insights into what it must have been like to travel on a Silk Road camel caravan. Most caravans have been replaced by trucks and other forms of transportation. Some still exist in the Himalayas and other mountainous areas where yaks and sheep are used as pack animals.

A typical camel caravan needs at least two camels per person — one to carry the person and one to carry supplies — in addition to the camels carrying whatever goods are being transported. Camels carry things like blankets, food, salt, millet and bales of hay for the camels and camel drivers, in addition to more valuable trading goods. Goods are loaded on cargo racks which are tied on around blankets on the camel's back. [Source: John Hare, National Geographic, December 2002]

In the old days caravans stopped and picked up water and supplies at caravansaries, walled fortresses along major trading routes (See Above). No working caravansaries exist today as the bandits and marauding horsemen that made them necessary no long are a threat. At night caravans stop and make a camp. Describing the beginning of a caravan, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "The madouga, or caravan boss, raises his staff, jerks the rope halter of the lead camel, and, to shouts and the clanging of pans and bowls, the half-mile-long train grudgingly lurches forward." Some caravan leaders started the day by reciting of the end of the first chapter of the Koran: "Guide us on the straight path, the path of those you have blessed...not those who have gone astray."

Describing a camel journey in southern Arabia in 1946, Wilfred Thesiger wrote: "We left Shisur...in the chill of dawn; the sun was resting on the desert's rim, a red ball without heat. We walked as usual till it grew warm, the camels striding in front of us, a moving mass of legs and necks. Then one by one, as the inclination took us, we climbed up their shoulders and settled in our seats for the long hours which lay ahead...The Arabs sang, 'the full throated roaring of the tribes'; the shuffling camels quickened their pace, thrusting forward across level ground." [Source: Eyewitness to History, edited by John Carey, Avon, 1987]

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Caravan Daily Life

The main objective is to keep the caravan going. If you stop it can take hours to sort out the mess. Simply unloading and loading a camel can be a time consuming task. During the day the wind often blows so strongly that caravaneers (camel leaders) have cover their faces and it is impossible to have a conversation with the other people on the caravan.

The caravaneer’s most difficult job is loading the camels, which kick, snarl and make vicious noises when they are being loaded. It takes a lot of time to tie the ropes around the camel and its pack and getting the load balanced is important. Camels that are poorly loaded howl and complain until the job is done right.

When it is very hot, caravans sometimes stop around 11:00pm, the camels are unloaded and hobbled quickly, with the caravaneers dozing and sleeping on mats near small fires. Tying ropes and doing other chores can sometimes be difficult in the morning because it is so cold.

Caravans usually make a fire at night to stay warm in the cold desert. Food includes grain or pasta that is carried by the camels and made into stews or soups with items — such as dates, goat cheese, cabbage, onions and peppers — that are purchased along the way in oasis villages. Leftovers from dinner are eaten for breakfast. Dates are munched for lunch and snacks while the caravan is moving.

Caravan Navigation

Caravans are led by guides who are as skilled in talking and negotiating higher fees as they are in navigating. There are largely self taught or instructed by relatives or other caravan guides and insist they known every dune. Some guides are very good. Some suck and get lost.

Skilled guides generally don't use maps or even compasses. They look upon global position devices with disgust. Instead they rely primarily on their knowledge of the desert, landmarks, wind directions, sun positions and the stars.

Sometimes guides are aiming to reach something as small as difficult-to-find knee-high well. Winds are a big help because they blow relatively consistently based on the time of year and the time of day. Ripples in the sand are regularly checked and a course is plotted by taking the appropriate angle across the ripples.

Caravans sometimes go at night following the North Star, early-evening stars knows as “La Ouaza, or the Intermediaries," which point south, or some other stellar landmark. Guides generally only know a few constellations but claim they can see stars during the day. The problem with traveling at night is that sometimes landmarks seen in the day are missed, and it can also be very cold. Today some people use global positioning devices satellite phones and smart phone apps.

Camels as Caravan Animals

Until the invention of airplanes and motor vehicles camels were the only means of crossing the vast deserts of Africa and Asia. Ironically camels can not cross barren deserts without the help of men. They need men to load grass for them to eat in places with no food and they need them to bring water up with buckets from wells.

Camels were known as the "ships of the desert" because they we used primarily in desert areas were no ships could be used. The Koran reads: "on them, as well as in ships, ye ride." Sea travel was much more efficient for long journeys than caravans. A large merchant sailing ship could carry as much as 6,000 camels.

Camels are the preferred caravan animal in dry climates. For some one-way caravans camels are bought at the beginning and sold at the end. Camels on sand dunes find it easier to wind along the ridge tops than go up and down over the dunes. Camel ticks bite and crawl on the caraveneers.

Camels on a Caravan

Caravans move at about the speed of a walking man. They typically move two or three miles an hour for nine hours a day from dawn until mid afternoon. Moving at that rate they can cover 1,000 miles in five to eight weeks. Describing a camel on a sand dune, John Hare wrote in National Geographic: “Although the camels sank hock deep in the loose, powdery sand, they struggled on, snaking around, up and over the dunes, grunting when the uphill going was difficult and surging forward on the downhill slopes."

In the desert and on caravans camels are usually tethered head to tail in a line. Otherwise they tend to become disorderly and head any direction they want. They have to be kept going at the same pace. If not their tethers might break and then there would be a big mess. If they sense water or danger ahead they tend to close formation. Caravan camels are seldom ridden, they are used primarily as pack animals.

At oases the camels can eat palm fronds. Around wells they can feed on tamarisk and acacia trees. In barren areas they can feed on rough grasses and shrubs. Their riders can win their camel's hearts by sharing some of their dates with them.

Along the caravan route where there is no vegetation camels are fed fed grass carried by the caravan, which the caraveeners sometimes sleep on at night.. Calculating how much grass to carry is important. If you carry too much the camels are unnecessarily burdened. If you don't bring enough they go hungry. Although camels can go a long time without drinking if they work hard they need food to keep them going. When they haven't eaten and their stomachs are empty their breath gives off a horrible smell.

Camel Health on a Caravan

If camels start to stumble it a sign that are dangerously sick or exhausted. In some places if a camel becomes sick or exhausted it is bled. If their feet are swollen or cracked sometimes boots are made for them from sheepskin or inner tube rubber. Caravaneers often rise before dawn and cauterize wounds on the camels caused by chaffing from the cargo racks.

If a camel can no longer go on it is abandoned. You can't risk the other animals or the people. John Hare wrote in National Geographic: “At about 4 p.m. I am forced to abandon the exhausted camel which is being dragged along by its rope at the tail end of the other camels in the caravan. I hate doing it, but I know now there is no alternative. So we release the poor creature that has served us so well, to an inevitable end."

Many desert tribes don't like to kill animals by shooting them or slitting their throats so they simply let them go. Some caravan routes are lined with the bones of thousands of camels.

If a calf is born in the middle of a long journey, the caravan can not stop while it gains enough strength to walk for a long distance. The calf is placed in a hammock and tied onto a large camel, who is also carrying a large load, with the mother trailing behind. The calf is not placed with her mother because if she can't see her offspring she goes into a panic and starts heading in the direction of the place she last saw her calf.

End of Caravans

Large long-distance caravans had mostly disappeared by the 19th century but regional ones are still in use in harsh regions where other means of transportation are scarce.

Most caravans have been replaced by diesel trucks, jeeps and cargo planes. But in soft sand that causes vehicles to bog down nothing beats a camel. Speaking in defense of camels, one caravan leader told National Geographic, "The trucks are expensive to buy and maintain while camels are inexpensive to keep...If you are not rich there is only one answer: camels."

Most of the great Saharan oasis languish as ghost towns, market towns or military outposts. There used be hundreds, if not thousands of guides. Now there are only dozens and many get more business from tourist firms than merchants and traders.

Image Sources: caravan, Frank and D. Brownestone, Silk Road Foundation; camel, Shanghai Museum; places CNTO; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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