According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “Beginning its existence from the 2nd century B.C. and till the end of 15th century of A.D. this network of roads starting from Chan’an (modern Xian) and spreading from East Asia to Mediterranean to West and Southwest and down to Indian subcontinent, was contributing and creating conditions for intercontinental trade. [Source: UNESCO]

“In its turnover there were cultural and material values of different nations and countries. Chinese silk was one of the most valuable goods, but also there were many other goods distributed by these roads: precious metals and stones, ceramics, perfumery, incense and spices, goods made of cotton and wool, glass, wine, amber, carpets and thoroughbred horses. This trade, connecting various civilizations, existed during centuries and was supported by system of caravanserais, commercial centers, trading towns and fortresses extending for more than 10 thousand kilometers, which probably makes the most long cultural route in the history of humanity.

“However, The Silk Road transported not only goods.The Silk Road transported Buddhism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Zoroastrism and Manichaeism. Scientific and technological achievements also spread by this route, for example such ones from China: paper, powder, magnetic compass and porcelain, whereas engineering achievements (particularly, bridge construction) and growing of cotton, cultivation of grape vine were spread from Central Asia, Middle East, Mediterranean and West. The exchange of medical knowledge and medicine also was happening. The same road went diplomatic missions, establishing international contacts.”

Silk Road in Kazakhstan

The northern spur of the Silk Road runs through part of southern Kazakhstan. The Silk Road is a network of routes linked Europe and Asia, passing through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan one of the main, the route went through the Tien Shan Mountains, Otrar, Taraz and Chimkent (Shykment). The Silk Road in Kazakhstan was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012.

Scientists have divided the Silk Road in Kazakhstan into four sections:According to a report submitted to UNESCO: 1) Semirechye, 2) The Syr Darya, 3) Saryarka and 4) Mangyshlak (Uralo-Prikaspiyskiy). Each of these parts is characterized by its natural- geographical conditions and historical development, including urban with clear influence on process of formation, development and stagnation of historical and cultural monuments, situated in these regions of Silk Road routes. These complicated processes of indissoluble connections of culture, natural, historical process, influence with communications show not only means of human adaptation to different kind of climate conditions, but also ways of mutual enrichment by exchange of human values and cultural traditions, which reflected in preserved cultural monuments which in present mark the important human communications. [Source: UNESCO]

The routes of the Silk Road were not static. Over the centuries different routes and branches opened up. Some routes died died out totally, and towns and trade stations that served them also died out. In the 6th-8th centuries the main line was Syria – Iran – Central Asia – Southern Kazakhstan – Talas valley – Chu valley – Issykkul kettle – Eastern Turkestan. A branch of this road lead to the places mentioned above from the Byzantine area through Derbent in Prikapispiyskiy steppe, and Mangyshlak, in Priaralye, in Southern Kazakhstan (in Sasanid Iran, after concluding trade-diplomatic union between the Western Turk Khanate and Byzantium). In 9th-12th century this route was used but there was less traffic. In the 13th-16th centuries activity picked up again when it was part of the Mongol Empire).

Tien Shan Corridor of the Silk Road

According to UNESCO: “The Tian-shan corridor is one section or corridor of this extensive overall Silk Roads network. Extending across a distance of around 5,000 kilometers, it encompassed a complex network of trade routes extending to some 8,700 kilometers that developed to link Chang’an in central China with the heartland of Central Asia between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD, when long distance trade in high value goods, particularly silk, started to expand between the Chinese and Roman Empires. It flourished between the 6th and 14th century AD and remained in use as a major trade route until the 16th century. [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The extremes of geography along the routes graphically illustrate the challenges of this long distance trade. Falling to 154 meters below sea level and rising to 7,400 meters above sea level, the routes touch great rivers, alpine lakes, crusty salt flats, vast deserts, snow-capped mountains and ‘fecund’ prairies. The climate varies from extreme drought to semi-humid; while vegetation covers temperate forests, temperate deserts, temperate steppes, alpine steppes and oases.

“Starting on the Loess plateau at Chang’an, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang Dynasties, the routes of the Tian-shan corridor passed westwards through the Hosi Corridor across the Qin and Qilian Mountains to the Yumen Pass of Dunhuang. From Loulan/Hami, they continued along the northern and southern flanks of the Tian-shan Mountain and then through passes to reach the Ili, Chuy and Talas valleys in the Zhetysu Region of Central Asia, linking two of the great power centres that drove the Silk Roads trade.

“The series of Buddhist pagodas and large, elaborate cave temples extending from Kucha (now Kuqa County) in the west to Luoyong in the east, record the eastward transmission of Buddhism from India via Karakorum, and demonstrate an evolution in the design of stupas as local ideas were absorbed. Their elaboration reflects the sponsorship of local authorities and the central Chinese imperial government as well as donations of wealthy merchants, and the influence of monks that travelled the routes, many of whose journeys were documented from 2nd century B.C. onwards. Other religious buildings reflect the co-existence of many religions (as well as many ethnic groups) along the corridor including Zoroastrianism, the main religion of the Sogdians of Zhetysu region, Manichaeism in the Chuy and Talas valleys and in Qocho city and Luoyong, Nestorian Christianity also in Qocho city, around Xinjiang and in Chang’an, and Islam in Burana.

“The massive scale of the trading activities fostered large, prosperous and thriving towns and cities that also reflect the interface between settled and nomadic communities in a variety of ways: the mutual inter-dependence of nomads and farmers and different peoples such as between Turks and Sogdians in the Zhetysu region; the transformation of nomadic communities to settled communities in the Tian-shan mountains, resulting in highly distinctive construction and planning such as semi-underground buildings; and in the Hosi corridor the planned agricultural expansion of the 1,000 mile corridor after the 1st century B.C. as an agricultural garrison and its transformation to settled agricultural communities. Diverse and large scale water management systems were essential to facilitate the growth of towns, trading settlements, forts, and caravanserai and the agriculture necessary to support them, such as the extensive Karez underground water channels of the extremely arid Turpan basin, many still in use, that supplied water to Qocho city, and were supplemented by deep wells inside Yar city; the grand scale of the network of open canals and ditches along the Hosi corridor that drew river water to the settlements, 90 kilometers of which survive around Suoyang city; and in the Zhetsyu region, river water distribution through canals and pipes and collection in reservoirs.

Silk Road Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tien Shan Corridor was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014; According to UNESCO: This property is a 5,000 kilometers section of the extensive Silk Roads network, stretching from Chang’an/Luoyang, the central capital of China in the Han and Tang dynasties, to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia. It took shape between the 2nd century B.C. and 1st century AD and remained in use until the 16th century, linking multiple civilizations and facilitating far-reaching exchanges of activities in trade, religious beliefs, scientific knowledge, technological innovation, cultural practices and the arts. The thirty-three components included in the routes network include capital cities and palace complexes of various empires and Khan kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of The Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings.[Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

“The Silk Roads were an interconnected web of routes linking the ancient societies of Asia, the Subcontinent, Central Asia, Western Asia and the Near East, and contributed to the development of many of the world's great civilizations. They represent one of the world’s preeminent long-distance communication networks stretching as the crow flies to around 7,500 kilometers but extending to in excess of 35,000 kilometers along specific routes. While some of these routes had been in use for millennia, by the 2nd century B.C. the volume of exchange had increased substantially, as had the long distance trade between east and west in high value goods, and the political, social and cultural impacts of these movements had far-reaching consequences upon all the societies that encountered them.

“The routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods: notably China, who supplied Central Asia, the Subcontinent, West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk. Many of the high value trade goods were transported over vast distances – by pack animals and river craft – and probably by a string of different merchants. As well as conduits for goods and people, the routes allowed the exceptional flow of ideas, beliefs and technological innovations such as those related to architecture and town planning that shaped the urban spaces and peoples’ lives in many fundamental ways.

“Thirty-three sites along the corridor include capital cities palace complexes of various empires and Khan Kingdoms, trading settlements, Buddhist cave temples, ancient paths, posthouses, passes, beacon towers, sections of the Great Wall, fortifications, tombs and religious buildings. The formal system of posthouses and beacon towers provided by the Chinese Empire facilitated trade, as did the system of forts, caravanserai and way stations operated by states in the Zhetysu region. In and around Chang’an, a succession of palaces reflect the power centre of the Chinese Empire over 1,200 years; while the cities of the Chuy valley are witness to the power centre of the Zhetysu region from the 9th to the 14th centuries and their organisation of the long distance trade.” [Source: UNESCO, World Heritage Site, 2014]

Semirechye Section of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan

The Silk Road Semirechye section is located in the historical and geographical region known as Zhetysu (Semirechye). A diversity of ecosystem zones ate found here: wormwood-steppe, cereal-steppe, motely grass-steppe, forest or meadow and high-altitude. The general route is from Shasha (Tashkent) to Turbat, then to Ispidzhab (Sairam, Saryam, “White city” or “Al-medinat al-Baida”), then east to Taraz, then to Dzhamukat, then to Kulan (Chinese Tszjuj-lan’), then east to the cities Mirki and Aspara after which it lead to Issukkul kettle. From Issykkul kettle the route went through Santash pass and Karkary river valley run through the Ili valley and right bank of Ili river to Usek and Khorgos, then to Almalyk. It was possible to reach Ili valley another way from Kulan: 1) from Aspara to the towns of middle and lower reaches of the Chu river, to the north slope of the Chuili mountains and down to the north Pribalkhashye; or 2) through Chu Valley and towns on the north slopes of Karatau.

In the Ili valley, the Silk Road went though small towns, located in place occupied by present-day Kastek, Kaskelen and Almaty and reached Talkhiza (Talgar) town. In Talkhiza the Silk Road forked to the south and north. Through Issyk, Turgen, Chilik, the south road lead to Ili pass – through Khorgos to Almalyk. The North road from Talkhiza went along the Talgar river to Ili pass, which is now located in the Kapchagay reservoir. After Ili the road lead to Chingeldy, then through Altyn-Emel pass and then down to Koksu valley and reached Iki-Oguz (Equius), located at the place of present-day Kirovskoye village. From Iki-Oguz the road led to Kayalyk (Koylak) – capital of Karluk dzhabgu. Further on the road went to Tentek valley, passing Alakol lake, and then went through Dzhungar gates and came to Shikho valley.

Ili valley connected to the Central Kazakhstan by the road, which went along the north slopes of the Chuili mountains, then along Chu in its lower reaches and then – to the banks of Sarysu. One more important path was from the north Ili line in Chingildy region and through Koktal and Boyauly passes – in Pribalkhashye, then – along Ortasu channel (Ili river), where there are residues of Karamergen, Aktam and Agashayak towns, to Balkhash shore, then on Uzun-Aral peninsula, which almost connect south and north shores of the lake, leaving strait in width more than 8 kilometers. Here in the cape, there were found rests of the town, the biggest part of which was floud. Probably the caravans passed wade the strait and went to outfall of Tokrau river and then along its banks went to Ulutau foothills.

Syr Darya, Saryarka and Mangyshlak Sections of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan

The Syr Darya part is marked by well preserved rest stops: a chain oases and towns through present steppe, desert an semi-desert area, following when ever possible to big water arteries like the Chu, Syr Darya, Arys and Bugun Rivers. Traveling in a westward direction from Ispidzhab the caravan road went to Arsubaniket on the Arys river, then to Otrar (Farab), and then down The Syr Darya- in Priaralye. On The Syr Darya part the biggest towns were Otrar (Farab) in the Otrar oasis, Yassy (Turkestan), Shavgar, Sauran, Sygnak and the towns of Dzhetyasar oasis, Dzhent, Dzhankent and Khuvara. From the Dzhankent oasis the road went to northeastern, following the banks of Beleuty river to Kounrada, Karasakpay region.

The Saryarka Section of the Silk Road in Kazakhstan was in vast territory of the “Great Steppe” of the Central Kazakhstan — Desht-I Kipchak — and incorporating and passing through many small rivers, the Ulytau foothills and the banks of Ishim, Nura, Sarysu and Irtysh Rivers. 1) The main Sarysu path went through Central Kazakhstan: from Otrar through Shavgar and Turgay pass to Aksumbe, then to the lower Sarysu and up along the river to Ulytau, and from there to Ishim along the Irtysh River. 2) A shorter path went through Suzak to the Lower reaches of the Chu, and from there through Betpak-Dala desert to the Dzhezkazgan region. 3) Another road “Khanzhol” has been used until the present time: it was from Taraz down along the Talas River through the Muyunkum and Betpak-Dala desert area to the banks of the Atasu river. According to information from the medieval chroniclers Tamim ibn Bakhra and al-Idrisi, there was a trade path to Kimaks in Irtysh from Taraz through Adakhkes and Dekh Nujikes towns. 4) The Ili valley connected with the Central Kazakhstan by the road which went along the north slopes of Chu-Ilii mountains, then along Chu river in its lower reaches to the Sarysu banks, and also the northern Ili route, described above. 5) From the northern Ili road, which led to Djungar gates, there was a route around Alakol Lake and from western side of the lake through Tarbagatay to the Irtysh River –– to the land of Kimaks, a state state with the Bandzhar, Khanaush, Astur, Sisan and “capital” of Khakan. Following the Ishim river, the roads lead to Bozok town then lead to the north and west.

The Mangyshlak (Uralo-Prikaspiyskiy) section of the Silk Road is located on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea, an area of deserts and semi-deserts, differentiated by wide diversity of climatic and natural conditions. The population in this area was a conglomerate of nomadic and cattle-breeding tribes, who controlled trade roads, adjusted to the system of wells, springs, small and rivers. It was possible to reach lower Ural and Volga Rivers from Urgench, following the road of Ustyurt caravanserais. On this part of the road there Kyzylkala town was located. Passing through the territories of Southern and Northern Priaralye the trade arteries led to the towns on Ural (Zhaiyk) river: Saraichik and Zhaiyk. From there the caravans traveling in westward direction moved on to Europe, Crimea and Caucasus. Caravans also used the “Zhaiyk road” to the Esatern Priuralye, Ural and Povolzhye.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Kazakhstan Tourism website, Kazakhstan government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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