Marcus Aurelius equine statue

The first foreigners to arrive on the Chinese coast were probably Indians and Romans.The earliest recorded official contact between China and ancient Rome was in A.D. 166 when, according to a Chinese account, a Roman envoy, possibly sent by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, arrived in China. This is the only meeting between the great civilizations of Rome and China of which a record survives. The Romans referred to the people of the remote East as the Seres—the Silk People. The term may have referred to tribes in Central Asia not the Chinese. The Romans, by the way, thought silk came from trees.

Romans are believed by some to have made it as far east as the Gobi Desert around 2,000 years ago. The people in Zhelaizhai, a village in Gansu Province in western China near the Qilain mountains, insist they are descendants of Romans and say the curly hair, straight noes, and light-colored eyes that some of them have proves it.

The Romans that made it to China are said to have been soldiers under Crassus—a Roman leader who formed the First Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Pompey—who survived a battle against the Parthians in Syria and Iran and then made their way east, working as mercenaries for the Huns, until they were captured by Chinese troops during a Chinese attack on the Hun ruler Zhizhi in present-day Uzbekistan.

Evidence for this claim, first proffered by Oxford historian Homer Dubbs in the 1950s, includes: 1) the mention of “fish scale formations”—a formation of overlapping shields ?made only by Roman soldiers”— by Zhizhi’s army; 2) Roman-style palisades found in the wall in the town where Zhizhi lived; and 3) a city called Liqian in a historical record dated to A.D. 5. At that time Liqian was also the name used by Chinese for Rome. Only two other Chinese cities mentioned had the names of foreign places—Kucha and Wen-suit—and both were given the name of the foreigners that lived there.

Among the biggest promoters of the Roman connection are tourist officials in Zhelaizhai who have erected a statue of Roman next to ones of a Han Chinese and a Muslim Hui Chinese, and built a new museum with a skeleton said to be of a Roman, found in a 2000-year-old tomb, and charts that show Roman physiological features found among the local people. There is even a luxury hotel for tourists that have yet to arrive in great numbers.

Periplus of the Erythraen (=Red) Sea is a merchant handbook apparently written by an Egyptian Greek. The anonymous author traveled around A.D. 40-70. The book is about trade routes through the Red Sea and involving both East Africa and India. One of the most important sources for Roman Eastern trade, compiled after the discovery of how to use the monsoon winds to make the round trip to India. Includes extensive information on ports and products. |*|

Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci

Marco Polo, His Father and Uncle

Niccolò and Maffeo Polo — traveled 1260-1269, 1271-1295 — were the merchant father and uncle of Marco Polo. They traveled from the Crimea through the other territories of the Golden Horde to Bukhara and ultimately to the court of Qubilai Khan in North China. Qubilai sent them back to Europe on a mission to the Pope via the overland route; they arrived in Venice in 1269. When they departed again for China in 1271 via the Levant, Anatolia and Persia, they were accompanied by young Marco. Our knowledge of their travel is from Marco's book. |*|

Marco Polo. — traveled 1271-1295 — is the most famous of the Silk Road travelers. By his own account, worked for Kubilai Khan. He traveled overland through Persia across the Pamirs and south of the Taklamakan; his return was by sea from China around south Asia to Hormuz, whence he went overland to the Mediterranean. A Venetian, Marco dictated his account to a professional writer of romances while imprisoned by the Genoese on his return. It is important to remember he was not keeping a diary. Olschki calls it "not...a book of travel and adventure, but a treatise of empirical geography." Clearly some of the descriptions are formulaic, others not based on direct observation, and others reflecting the common stock of travel mythology. Many of his observations are precise and verifiable; others unique but likely accurate. Since his main associations seem to have been with the Mongol rulers of China and with the Muslim merchant community, often he is silent about "obvious" features of Chinese society. Polo's book became well known in Renaissance Europe and served as a stimulus to further travel and discovery. |*|

European Explorers from the Marco Polo Era

Christian pilgrims in Constantinople

Andrew of Longjumeau — traveled 1245-1247, 1249-1251 — was a Dominican and papal envoy to the Mongols. He traveled from the Holy Land to vicinity of Tabriz (N. Iran) on his first trip. On the second, accompanied by several others including his brother William, went much farther (his route is not well documented) to the inner Asian dominions of the Mongols, where he arrived during the regency of Oghul Qaimish, the widow of Khan Güyüg. We know of his journeys from summaries in Matthew Paris's Chronica Majora. [Source: Silkroad Foundation |*|]

Ascelinus and Simon of San Quentin — traveled 1245-1248 — were Dominican envoys of the Pope to the Mongols. They went from the Levant into the southern Caucasus and returned (accompanied by Mongol envoys) via Tabriz, Mosul, Allepo, Antioch and Acre. There is information about the embassy in Matthew Paris's chronicle as well as in an account written by Simon of San Quentin, which has not been translated into English. |*|

Hayton I (also, Hethum, Haithon) and Kirakos Gandsaketsi — traveled 1254-1255. King of Little Armenia, Hayton traveled through the Caucasus and territories of Khan Batu to the Great Khan Möngke in Karakorum and then back via Samarkand, Bukhara and Tabriz. The account of his travels was written down by Kirakos, who accompanied Hayton. This account is not to be confused with a descriptive narrative of the Near East written by Hayton's nephew of the same name. |*|

John of Monte Corvino — traveled 1279-1328 — was Franciscan missionary. He was active in Armenia and Persia, and then in India and China. He left Tabriz for India in 1291 and arrived in Beijing probably after the death of Qubilai Khan in 1294. He was elevated to the rank of Archbishop in ca. 1307 and continued to head the Catholic mission there until his death. Although he did not write a travel narrative, several of his letters have been preserved. |*|

John of Marignolli — traveled 1339-1353 — was a Franciscan sent as papal legate to Yüan (Mongol) Emperor of China. He entered the lands of the Golden Horde via the Black Sea. His route probably ran through Urgench (S. of Aral Sea), via Hami (north of the Taklamakan) to Beijing and Shang-tu, where he was received in August 1342. After three years, headed home via ship to Hormuz and then overland to the Levant. Included his travel recollections in his chronicle of the history of Bohemia; his account was ignored until the nineteenth century. |*|

In 1997, a manuscript of Europe-to-China journey surfaced under the name City of Life that was reportedly written by a Jewish-Italian merchant named Jacob d'Ancona in 1272, four years before Marco Polo arrived in China. The manuscripts was largely dismissed as a fake. Some of the words in it, scholars claimed, were the equivalent of finding the words like Oldsmobile in the Dead Sea scrolls.

Missionaries Sent By Rome to Meet the Mongols

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Mongol Era brought about the first instances of direct contact between Europe and Mongol-ruled China. The Mongol attacks on Hungary and Poland in 1241 had alerted the Europeans to the power of the Mongols and so frightened them that, in 1245, the Pope in Rome called an Ecumenical Council to deliberate on a response to the Mongols. Two Franciscan missionaries were eventually dispatched to the East. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“The first, who left Europe in 1245, was John of Plano Carpini, and the second was William of Rubruck, who traveled through the Mongol domains during 1253-1255. Both sought to achieve a kind of rapprochement with the Mongols, attempting to deter them from further attacks and invasions on Europe, as well as seeking to convert them to Christianity.

“The Europeans had received information that the Mongols had a leader, named "Prester John," who had converted to Christianity. They also assumed that many of the Mongols already were Christians. In fact, some Mongol women, including Genghis Khan's own mother, had converted to a heretical form of Christianity known as Nestorian Christianity. The Nestorian sect had been banned from Europe from around the 5th Century C.E., but had first spread to West Asia and then reached all the way to East Asia. But the idea that the Mongols could be converted to Christianity was an illusion at best. Nonetheless, John of Plano Carpini and William of Rubruck were greeted cordially at the Mongol courts. Though they succeeded in neither their religious nor diplomatic missions, they were able to bring back the first accurate accounts of the Mongols.”

Friar John of Pian de Carpine

The first known European to travel from Europe to China on the Silk Road was John of Pian de Carpine (1180?-1252), a Franciscan friar and former companion of Saint Francis of Assisi, who was dispatched by Pope Innocent IV in 1245 to go to Mongolia with the mission of setting up diplomatic ties with the Mongols and converting the Great Guyuk Khan to Christianity. Carpine traveled to Asia 28 years before Marco Polo. His mission at the time was comparable to sending a man to the moon and bringing him back alive. [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Bactrian Roman-Greco coins
found in China
John Pian del Carpine (of Plano Carpini) and Benedict the Pole — traveled 1245-1247 — were Franciscan monks sent as envoys of Pope Innocent IV to the Mongol Khan. They traveled through the dominions of Khan Batu (ruler of the "Golden Horde") to the vicinity of Karakorum. Where he is discussing that which he actually saw, Friar John's account ("History of the Mongols"/Historia Mongalorum) is "the first direct authentic description of Asia" and one of the most perceptive and detailed accounts we have of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Considering his European Christian perspective, it is surprisingly unbiased. It became quite widely known in Europe through excerpts in an encyclopedia compiled by Vincent of Beauvais, the Speculum Historiale. |*|

Friar John attended Guyuk's enthronement and was granted an audience with the Great Khan. He delivered a message from the Pope in which the pope expressed his wish for Christians and Mongols to be friends but insisted that the Mongols must embrace Christianity and repent for murdering Christians in Hungary and Poland. The Great Khan was not moved. His reply delivered in a note carried back to Europe by Friar John read: "Come, Great Pope...and pay homage to us."

Friar John and his Polish companion, Friar Benedict, went first to the ruins of Kiev and then the Mongol summer camp at Sira Ordu, covering the final 3,000 miles to Karakorum in 106 days. The most difficult part of their journey was in the Altai mountains where, Friar John wrote: "I was ill to the point of death; but I had myself carried along in a cart in the intense cold through the deep snow, so as not to interfere with the affairs of Christendom." They also had a hard time in the Gobi Desert. The Mongols, he wrote, "told us that if we took into Mongolia the horses which we had, they would all die, for the snows were deep, and they did not know how to dig out the grass from under the snow like Mongol horses, nor could anything else be found (on the way) for them to eat, for the Tartars had neither straw nor hay nor fodder. So, on their advise, we decided to leave our horses there."

When the two Friars arrived in Karakoram, two thousand Mongol chiefs were there Guyuk Khan's enthronement. Friar John wrote: "They asked us if we wished to make any presents; but we had already used up nearly everything we had, so we had nothing to give them at all." Given up for dead, Friar John made it back to Europe two and half years after beginning his journey. Other friars followed in their footsteps in the following years but they too had little success in converting the Great Khan to Christianity.

William of Rubruck

William (Guillaume/Willem) of Rubruck (Ruysbroeck) — traveled 1253-1255 — was a Franciscan missionary from Flanders who traveled through the Black Sea and the territories of the Golden Horde to the court of the Great Khan Möngke at Karakorum. His account (Itinerarium) is "a mine of varied information about the Asiatic life of his times". It contains "the fullest and most authentic information on the Mongol Empire in its pre-Chinese phase". It is of interest for descriptions of encounters with Nestorian Christians, of Karakorum itself and the palace which is no longer extant, and much more. Although his experiences interested his contemporary Roger Bacon, Rubruck's account did not become widely known until it was translated and published late in the sixteenth century. |*|

Friar Oderic and Other Silk Road Explorers

One of the greatest European explorers in China after Marco Polo was Friar Odoric of Pordenone, a Franciscan monk from Italy who wore a hair shirt and walked barefoot when he traveled. After arriving in China by sea in 1321, Oderic was the first Westerner to give detailed accounts of cormorant fishing, the foot binding of women and the Chinese custom of letting one's fingernails grow long.

Odoric — traveled ca. 1316-1330 — traveled via Constantinople and the Black Sea to Persia, and then via the Indian Ocean to India in the early 1320s. From there he sailed around southeast Asia to the east coast of China and spent several years in Beijing. His claim to have returned via Tibet is dubious, although he apparently traveled overland, arriving back in Venice via the Black Sea and Constantinople. His lengthy travel account, which he dictated in 1330, became a "best seller," in part because of Odoric's indiscriminate mixture of tall tales with more authentic information. He occasionally notes aspects of Chinese culture that were ignored by Marco Polo, "with whose account he was certainly familiar" (de Rachewiltz). Important portions of his material were re-worked and given a further fictional gloss by the author of the very popular late medieval travel fable attributed to John Mandeville. |*|

After arriving in Canton from India Friar Odoric ventured eastward where he wrote he "came unto a city named Fuzo, which contains...great and fair cocks, and all their hens are as white as the very snow, having wool instead of feather, like unto sheep." Hangzhou he said had "many houses of ten or twelve stories" and "eleven thousand bridges...I marveled much how such an infinite number of persons could inhabit and live together."

Francesco Balducci Pegolotti and the Medieval Silk Road Guidebook

At one point there were so many Europeans going to Asia that there were guidebooks for the Silk Road written in European languages. In 1340, Florentine banker and merchant Francesco Balducci Pegolotti advised travelers in Central Asia: "In the first place you must let your beard grow and not shave. And at Tana you should furnish yourself with a dragoman. And you must not try to save money by taking a bad one instead of a good one. For the additional wages of a good one will not cost you as much as you will save by having him." Pegolotti also wrote: "And if the merchant likes to take a woman with him from Tana, he can do so; if he does not like to take one there is no obligation, only if he does take one he will be kept much more comfortable than if he does not take one."

Pegolotti — traveled 1340 — was was active in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, at which time he acquired first- and second-hand information on the Asian trade. While he himself never travelled further east, his account is of particular interest for its description of the relative security of trade routes through the territories of the Mongol Empire and the great variety of products available in commercial centers such as Constantinople by about 1340. His merchant handbook survived in a copy made in 1471. |*|

In regard to changing money the Florentine banker wrote: "Whatever silver the merchants may carry with them as far as Cathay the lord of Cathay will take from them and put into his treasury. And to merchants who thus bring silver they give their paper money in exchange...With this money you can readily buy silk and other merchandised that you desire to buy. And all the people in the country are bound to receive it."

By 1342 there was an archbishop in Beijing and the Christian clergy "had their subsistence from Emperor's table in their most honorable manner."

Middle Eastern Explorers and Travelers from the Marco Polo Era

Byzantine silk tapestry

Tamim ibn Bahr — traveled A.D. 821. According to Minorsky, "the only Muslim traveller who has left a record of his visit to the Uyghur capital on the Orkhon, i.e., to Khara-balghasun in the present-day Mongolia." The author likely was from Khorasan and was sent to the East in connection with political upheavals in Transoxiana. Only an abridged version of his narrative survives, known especially from Yaqut's geographical dictionary. |*|

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan — traveled A.D. 921-922 — was sent as ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph to the ruler of the Bulgars on the middle Volga River. The route went from Baghdad via the territories of the Samanid state and its capital Bukhara, through Khwarezm and north of the Caspian Sea. Although the account we have is not the original report, it has great value, since Ibn Fadlan "possessed extraordinary powers of observation." (Canard). The account is often best known for its rather lurid but valuable description of a Viking (Rus) funeral on the Volga; this served as the inspiration for a best-seller by the novelist Michael Crichton, Eaters of the Dead. |*|

Rabban Bar Sauma and Markos — traveled 1275-1279: 1287-1288. were Önggüd (Turkic) Nestorian monks who traveled from Tai-tu, Kubilai Khan's northern capital, to the Middle East, via the southern branch of the Silk Road (through Khotan and Kashgar). Although on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which they never reached), they seem to have had official sponsorship from the Khan. Once in the Mongol Ilkhanid realms, they became involved in Nestorian church politics, and Markos eventually was elected head of the church as Patriarch Mar Yaballaha III. Bar Sauma was sent to the West as an emissary of the Ilkhanid ruler Arghun in 1287, with the goal of concluding an alliance against the Mamluks. Bar Sauma's writings were preserved in an abridged translation into Syriac, from which there are several translations into modern languages. As Rossabi notes, "His narrative remains the only one of its era to provide an East Asian perspective on European ways and rites," even though it is somewhat disappointing in detail about life in the places through which he traveled. Like their contemporary, Marco Polo, the travelers are not mentioned in any Chinese sources. |*|

Ibn Battuta — traveled 1325-1354 — was a native of Tangier (Morocco). Shams al-Din Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/9 or 1377) is famous for spending the years between 1325 and 1354, when he returned home, traveling across North Africa and through much of Eurasia, all the way to China. His initial goal was to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj); his interest in Muslim holy men and places dominates portions of his text. While he may have kept notes, the account as we have it is "a work of literature, part autobiography and part descriptive compendium" (Dunn). It was dictated to Ibn Djuzayy between 1354 and 1357. Some sections clearly do not contain eye-witness material; chronology is often confused. There are critical views of the value of his material on Iran and questions about how much he saw in China. Among the most valuable sections are his descriptions of Anatolia, the territories and customs of the Golden Horde, and Southern India. |*|

Babur — traveled 1490s-1530 was the great-great-great-grandson of Timur (Tamerlane), Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) wrote a stunning memoir of his early life and struggles in Central Asia and Afghanistan before finally settling in northern India and founding the Mughal Empire. His Baburnama offers a highly educated Central Asian Muslim's observations of the world in which he moved. There is much on the political and military struggles of his time but also extensive descriptive sections on the physical and human geography, the flora and fauna, nomads in their pastures and urban environments enriched by the architecture, music and Persian and Turkic literature patronized by the Timurids. His most recent translator declares, "said to 'rank with the Confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton,' Babur's memoirs are the first and until relatively recent times, the only — true autobiography in Islamic literature." |*|

Europeans and Trade In China After Marco Polo

The Portugese were the first Europeans to land in China. In 1513, about 20 years after the Portuguese arrived in India and Columbus sailed to the New World, the Portuguese explorer Jorge Alvares arrived in China. The Portuguese set up a trade monopoly in China in 1557 that operated through the strictly controlled colony of Macau. They also traded at the twice-yearly fairs in Canton. Since the Chinese were forbidden from trading with Japan, the Portuguese served as middlemen, trading pepper from Malacca, silks form China and silver from Japan.

British, Dutch and Spanish traders arrived in China after the Portuguese but most of their attempts to set up trading partnerships with Qing dynasty were met with rejection. In 1760 Canton was opened to foreign traders under the Canton system, which was controlled by a guild known as the Cohong.

Early European arrivals in China were fascinated by chopsticks, printing, the high numbers of people, the collection of night soil, and the songs of caged nightingales that "melt themselves into music." The discovery of large deposits of silver in the New World in the 16th century lead to waves of high inflation in Ming era China.

In 1636, King Charles I authorized a small fleet of four ships, under the command of Captain John Weddell, to sail to China and establish trade relations. At Canton the expedition got into a firefight with a Chinese fort. Other battles occurred after that. The British blamed the failure in part on their inability to communicate. Later tea became an important trade item between China and England. The first tea arrived in London from China in 1652.

Ma Huan — traveled 1413-1415, 1421-1422, 1431-1433 — was a Muslim interpreter who accompanied the famous Ming admiral Ch'eng Ho (Zheng He) on his fourth, sixth and seventh expeditions to the Indian Ocean. His Ying-yai sheng-lan (Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores) (published in 1451) contains valuable information on geography, products and trade in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. On the first two voyages, he went as far as Hormuz; on the third he apparently reached Mecca. |*|

Ghiyathuddin Naqqash — traveled 1419-1422: — was an artist representing Prince Mirza Baysunghur, son of Timurid ruler Shahrukh, in embassy sent by latter to Beijing in 1419. Describes travel via route north of Tarim Basin (through Turfan, Jiayuguan, Suzhou to Beijing and back via Kashgar to Herat), various aspects of culture along way, including Buddhism, and reception at Ming court. |*|

Later Explorers

Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo and Alfonso Paez — traveled 1403-1406 — were ambassadors of Spanish King Henry III of Castile and Leon to Timur (Tamerlane). A third envoy, Gómez de Salazar, died en route. Traveled through the Mediterranean to Constantinople, into the Black Sea to Trebizond and then overland via Tabriz to Balkh, Kesh (Shahr-i Sabs) and Samarkand. On return journey, they passed through Bukhara. Clavijo's account, written soon after his return in 1406, is a very important source for travel on the western part of the Silk Road. Its description of Tamerlane's Samarkand is one of the fullest available and includes substantial detail on economic life, trade with India and China, and Timurid buildings. [Source: Silkroad Foundation |*|]

Pero Tafur — traveled 1435-1439 — was a native and notable of Cordoba, born ca. 1410, Tafur traveled from Spain to the Eastern Mediterranean and back. While not a merchant, he was very interested in commercial affairs and well connected with the trading networks. He was in Egypt, the Black Sea region and in the sad remains of the dying Constantinople; while he thought about going to India, the closest he came was a conversation with the famous traveler Nicolo di Conti, whom he met on the latter's return journey from South Asia. |*|

Giosofat Barbaro — traveled 1436-1452, 1473-1479 — was a merchant who spent a decade and a half in the Venetian colony of Tana at the mouth of the Don River and then in the 1470s traveled as an ambassador to Persia. In his "Journey to Tana" he describes the regions adjoining the Black Sea as well as distant Muscovy, which he never visited; his "Journey to Persia" follows closely his official report on his mission. The latter, at least, incorporates information from other travelers and presumably was influened by the author's having seen the Persian travels of Contrarini. |*|

Afanasii Nikitin — traveled 1466-1472 — was a merchant from the Russian city of Tver on the upper Volga River who traveled through Persia to India and spent more than 18 months there. He died just before reaching home. The largest part of his travel account describes India; the account is of some interest for his advice to fellow Christian merchants to leave their faith at home and profess Islam if they wished to prosper on the Silk Road. There is a 1958 Russian film based on his journey; a Soviet oceanographic expedition named a newly discovered undersea mount off the southern coast of India for Nikitin. |*|

Ambrogio Contarini — traveled 1474-1477 — was a Venetian ambassador to Persia, who traveled through Central Europe, Ukraine, the Crimea and the Caucasus. In Persia he spent time in Tabriz and Isfahan, and returned home via Muscovy and Poland. Although he traveled rapidly, he was a good observer. Apart from what he relates about conditions in the Caucasus and Persia under Uzun Hasan, his narrative is of considerable interest for its material on Moscow in the important reign of Grand Prince Ivan III. |*|

Anthony Jenkinson — traveled 1557-1560, 1561-1564, 1566-1567, 1571-1572 — represented the English Muscovy Company and was accompanied by Richard and Robert Johnson. They traveled via the White Sea and Moscow, down the Volga River and across the Caspian Sea to Bukhara and then back by the same route in 1557-60. In 1561-1564, via the same route to the Caspian, he went to Persia to try negotiating trade agreements; spent the winter in Kazvin discussing the spice trade with Indian merchants. Jenkinson's subsequent trips did not take him beyond Moscow. Beginning in 1546, well prior to his Russia service, Jenkinson had traveled widely in the Mediterranean and the Levant. |*|

John Newbery — traveled 1579, 1580-1582, 1583-1584 — was a London merchant, Newbery undertook three trips. The first went only as far as the Levant. The second took him from the Levant through Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf and Hormuz and then back through central Persia, the southern fringe of the Caucasus, Anatolia, and Eastern Europe. On the third he was accompanied by Ralph Fitch (see separate entry), John Eldred (who stopped short of the Persian Gulf), William Leeds and James Story all the way to the Mughal court in India. Newbery died on the route home. He was the first Englishman to visit several of these regions. Unfortunately, he never wrote much about his travels — notes on the first and especially the second trip were apparently worked into a narrative by Purchas in the 17th century; the third trip is known from some letters, Fitch's account, and Linschoten. |*|

Ralph Fitch — traveled 1583-1591 — was an English merchant (d. 1611) who traveled with John Newbery (s. v.) via the Levant and Mesopotamia to India, through northern India and on as far as Malacca (in Malaysia) before returning home via the Persian Gulf, to discover in London that he was presumed dead and his property had been divided among his heirs. He later returned to Aleppo. He apparently did not keep a diary; in writing down his account, in part with the encouragement of Hakluyt, he drew upon the travel account by the Italian Cesare Federici. The Indian section of Fitch's account is "disappointingly meagre and haphazard"; clearly he must have known a lot more than made its way into writing. Since, unlike Newbery, he survived to tell the tale, he often is given the greater prominence of the two. |*|

Benedict Goës — traveled 1602-1607. In 1594 the Portuguese Jesuit Benedict Goës joined a mission to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, where he was chosen by the Jesuit leadership (partly because of his knowledge of Persian) to travel on an exploratory mission to China via Kashgar. He died before reaching Beijing; what survived of his notes and letters and some oral accounts were later (1615) combined by the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci into his travel journal. Despite some inconsistencies and problems in dating, the account is a unique record by a European of travel on the overland trade routes in inner Asia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. One is struck by the route itself — heading northwest into Afghanistan before going north across the Hindu Kush to the headwaters of the Amu Darya, then east to Sarikol and on to Yarkand and Kashgar before skirting the Taklamakan on the north. The account details human and natural threats to travel and other aspects of the inner Asian trade, and provides some valuable information on the political divisions of the time. |*|

Richard Steele and John Crowther — traveled 1615-1616 — were agents for the British East India Company, traveled from Agra, the Mughal capital in N. India, overland via Kandahar to the Safavid capital Isfahan. Their account highlights the continuing importance of the overland trade routes, in part as a way of avoiding the Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean ports. There is interesting information on the role of the Afghan nomads along the route and an emphasis on the relative safety of travel in the period of Mughal and Safavid strength and stability. Steele then returned to England by traveling overland to the Mediterranean and taking a boat via Marseilles; Crowther returned to India. |*|

Jean Baptiste Tavernier (1605-?98) — traveled 1629-1675 — was a French merchant/jeweler who probably knew the overland trade routes through Persia better than any other European in the seventeenth century. He traversed parts of the Silk Road in the the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia and Mughal India on six journeys and witnessed the building of Versailles, Isfahan, and the Taj Mahal, traded in diamonds and pearls, was awarded "Oriental" silk robes of honor by the Shah of Iran and a barony by Louis XIV (for the sale of what later became the Hope Diamond). His interactions with the merchant communities (notably the Armenians in Persia) gave him an insider's perspective. His account reflects the editing of a professional writer but is precise and detailed. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

Adam Olearius — traveled 1633-35, 1635-39, 1643 — was a secretary to Embassy of Holstein and (in 1643) Ambassador from Holstein. First and third missions were to Moscow; second went through Moscovy to Persia, where he spent a year and the conduct of one of its members did a great deal to discredit the enterprise. Well-educated at the University of Leipzig, Olearius compiled one of the most widely read and detailed accounts of Muscovy and Persia, seen through the lens of his Protestant upbringing and learned European perspective. It was published first in 1647; the revised German edition of 1656 became the standard one and drew upon a wide range of other sources. It was translated into several languages and frequently re-published. |*|

John Chardin — traveled 1664-1667, 1671-1677 — was a French Hugenot jeweler, Chardin spent significant time in the Caucasus and Persia and traveled to India. His is one of the major European accounts of Safavid Persia, whose value is enhanced by his good knowledge of Persian. Persecution of Protestants in France forced him to flee to England, where he was recognized as an expert on the Middle East. |*|

Hovhannes Joughayetsi — traveled 1682-1693 — was an Armenian merchant who traveled and traded between New Julfa (the Armenian suburb of Isfahan), Northern India and Tibet. He spent five years in Lhasa. His commercial ledger is a unique source of information on products, prices, trading conditions, and the Armenian commercial network on the seventeeth-century routes involving the Safavid and Mughal empires.

Aurel Stein and 20th Century Explorers of the Silk Road

20080217-david_neel wason.jpg
Explorer David Neel
Western China was caught up in the Great Game. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, western China and Afghanistan were more important in the Great Game than other Central Asian states because they formed the buffer zone between the Russian Empire and the British-Indian Empire. See Uzbekistan.

In the 1920s, Sven Hedin's Sino-Swedish excavations in Xinjiang and Manchuria unearthed 10,000 strips with writing, Han documents on silk, wall paintings from Turpan and pottery and bronzes.

The most prominent of the Western explorers of the remote parts of China was Sir Aurel Stein (1863-1943), an explorer, linguist and archaeologist who made four expeditions to Central Asia in the early 20th century. Stein was Jewish and born in Hungary. He pioneered the study of the Silk Road and looted Buddhist art from caves in the western Chinese desert. Accompanied by his dog Dash, he carted away a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist, Chinese, Tibetan and Central Asia art and texts in a number of languages from the ancient city of Dunhuang and gave them to the British Museum.

In the late 1920s, Stein trekked over 18,000-foot Karakoram Pass three times and traced the Silk Road through Chinese Turkestan and followed routes on which Buddhism spread to China from India. Stein discovered the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas near Dunhuang in northwest China and carted away 24 cases of artifacts, including silk painting, embroideries, sculptures and 1,000 early manuscripts written in Tangut, Sanskrit and Turkish, which included the world's oldest book, The Diamond Sutra.

Inspired by his “patron saint” Xuanzang, , the 7th century Chinese Buddhist monk, Stein followed the Silk Road described by Xuanzang in his travels from Chang’an (Xian) to India. During his expeditions Stein documented and photographed the ancient locations he visited and found many Silk Road treasures. Among those he took with him were ancient tablets, relics and frescoes. His most important discovery was 40,000 scrolls including the world’s oldest printed text the Diamond Sutra found at Dunhuang in Gansu, western China.

When news got out about Stein's discoveries it set in motion and age of discovery and looting. During the first quarter of the 20th century, archaeologists from Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Japan and other nations competed for shares of Silk Road treasure. These archaeological exploits even got tangled up in what has been termed the Great Game where Great Britain and Russia competed for political influence in Central Asia and Western China. Christian missionaries also made their way out to Xinjiang. Among the most famous were Francesca French and Mildred Cable who wrote the book “The Gobi Desert”.

Image Sources: wikipedia; Brooklyn College; University of Washington; Silk Road Foundation; Wikimedia Commons

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.

Last updated June 2022

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