Ottoman sultan Mahmoud II

After the collapse of the Mongol Empire, Central Asia and the Silk Road trade routes there were taken over by Tamerlane, the Samarkand-based conqueror. Tamerlane kept the passage open within his realm as far as Tabriz in Persia. After Tamerlane's death in 1405, his subject princes rose in revolt and the anarchy that ensured left Samarkand in ruins and closed the overland routes to China. Travelers had to take circuitous routes to avoid bandits, skirmishes and battles.

After 1405 the Silk Road between Europe and China was closed. The Ottoman Turks took control of the trade routes in the Middle East. Even news from China was in short supply. Within China, the emperors had closed their borders to foreigners.

By the 16th century with attention was focused on the New World and with ocean travel being considerably easier than overland travel, the Silk Road and Central Asia was well in decline. Many Silk Road towns were abandoned and became ghost towns. Some have been covered in sand. Other have disappeared and nobody knows they are. Nobody gave them much thought until European explorers arrived in the area in the 19th century. Now some are tourist attractions.

Changes in the Silk Trade and Industry in the 16th and 17th Centuries

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: ““By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the traditional overland trade began to be undercut by political disorders in Central Asia, the focus of European demand for silk shifted to suppliers other than China. A noteworthy example of state support for the silk industry was that of Safavid Persia, especially in the time of its most famous ruler, Shah Abbas I (1587-1629). He promoted the silk industry, the management of which was largely in the hands of Armenians whose commercial center had been moved by the Shah to a suburb of his capital Isfahan. The Dutch and English competed at the shah's court in the early seventeenth century for control of the Iranian silk exports. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

While hostilities between Safavid Iran and the Ottoman Empire often interrupted the silk trade and forced the Europeans to seek roundabout routes (even to the north, up the Volga River and through Muscovite Russia), eventually establishment of peaceful relations between the two empires ensured that the trade could continue along the historically important overland route to Aleppo and the Mediterranean as well as across Anatolia to the important port of Izmir (Smyrna). The Ottomans themselves developed a silk industry in western Anatolia around Bursa, which to this day is still a center of silk production. *\

“The refinement of mechanized weaving in the industries of the West ultimately would have an impact on production techniques in the East, since mechanized looms required that raw silk meet certain standards of uniformity and quality. Once the requirements of European importers could again be met by Chinese producers, Chinese exports to Europe revived. This process of adaptation by the producers to importers' demands is analogous to that which we see in the Chinese porcelain industry, when it began to produce the shapes and designs which were most sought in the markets of the West.” *\

Rise of the Silk Industry in Europe

Silk from Lyon, France

Silk dying and weaving developed in ancient Syria, Greece and Rome but the silk itself always came from the East. Silk production first made it way to the West in the A.D. 6th century when monks working as spies for Byzantine Emperor Justinian brought silkworm eggs from China to Constantinople in hollowed out canes. Bursa in present-day Turkey and Athens, Theves, Corinth and Argos in present-day Greece all became silk producing areas. Silk production spread to Italy and France and continued through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution but was devastated by a silkworm plague in 1854. Louis Pasteur discovered the cause and developed a treatment. The Italian industry recovered but the French industry never did. In recent years the silk industry has been hurt by the development of synthetic fibers.

Richard Kurin wrote: Trade in silks helped fuel the mercantile transformation of Western Europe. French King Charles VII, the dukes of Burgundy, and their successors participated vigorously through markets in Bruges, Amsterdam, Lyon, and other towns. The practice of emulating Asian silk styles was institutionalized in Lyon, France, with the development of imitative Chinese and Turkish motifs, chinoiserie and turqueserie respectively. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

The English developed their own silk industry and tried silk cultivation in Ireland, and even in the New World. Mulberry trees and silkworms went with settlers to Jamestown in the early 1600s. Silk cultivation was successful but only for a time; other attempts followed later in Georgia, among the 19th-century Harmonists in Pennsylvania, and even among the Shakers in Kentucky. Still, imported silks showed the long reach of an international trade.

“Silk styles and fashions were led, in Europe, by royalty, but soon extended to a wealthy merchant class, and were broadened further as a result of new manufacturing techniques. Silk production became industrialized in 1804 with the Jacquard loom. This loom relied upon punched cards to program the complex orchestration of threads into wonderful patterns; the cards later inspired the computer punch cards of the mid-20th century. Throughout the 19th century, chemists developed synthetic dyes. Designers, who could create one-of-a-kind items for the elite but also develop mass-produced lines of clothing, furnishings, and other silk products, set up shop in Paris.”

Interest in Silk and the Silk Road During 19th Century Orientalist Period

In the 19th century, during what was dubbed the Orientialist period, Asia became the subject of romantic allure and fascination by elites in Europe and America. Richard Kurin wrote: In the early 1800s, England's George IV built his Brighton palace in an Indo-Persian style, decorated it with Chinese furniture, and wore silk garments, thereby setting a trend, with his friend Beau Brummel, for men's formal fashion. Declared Empress of India in 1858, Queen Victoria was feted with grand celebrations and a diamond jubilee that included "Oriental" durbars or courtly convocations, replete with marching elephants and parades of Asian troops adorned in native dress. Parisians held costumed balls, dressed up as sultans and Asian royalty. Kashmiri and Chinese silk scarves were a big hit. Jewelers Cartier and Tiffany used Asian gemstones and imitated Asian decorative styles. Tiffany and Lalique were designing silk sashes, scarves, and other items. New silk textiles like chiffons and crepes were developed in France, and silk cultivation centers sent raw silk to design houses and production factories to meet demand. This demand extended to the United States, and raw silk was imported from Japan and dyed using the soft waters of the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey. Paterson became the U.S. headquarters of silk supply, design, and furnishing companies. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution ]

Lyon Atelier

“It was during this Orientalist period that the idea of the Silk Road as a way of connecting European and Asian culture, history, and art, was articulated by Baron von Richthofen. In 1786 William Jones had found the links between Sanskrit and Latin, devising the idea of an Indo-European family of languages. Throughout the 19th century, European philologists were working on the relationships between European and Asian languages, positing such "families" as Uralic and Altaic. European scholars found common roots in religions and symbols spanning Eurasia and relating Hinduism and Buddhism to ancient Greco-Roman mythology, and with Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Archaeologists had begun to find links between widely dispersed civilizations of Egypt, the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Iran, India, and Central Asia. Cultural diffusion, particularly strong in German and later English social science, became an explanatory model for the similarities found in widely separated societies, and an alternative to cultural evolutionary theories. These connections across cultures, history, and geography still intrigue us today. Consider, for example, the names of a number of stringed instruments with the root tar ("string" in Persian), from the tar itself to the dotar, dutar, lotar, setar, sitar, qitar, guitarra, and the guitar.

“Silk became both a component and a symbol of this cultural diffusion. It was seen as a valuable index of civilization with regard to religious ritual, kingship, artistic production, and commercial activity. Silk stood for the higher things in life. It was a valuable, traded commodity, as well as a historical medium of exchange. Silk both epitomized and played a major role in the early development of what we now characterize as a global economic and cultural system. Europeans of the 19th century saw this new globalism not just as an interesting historical occurrence, but also as something that resonated with the growing distribution of silk use and manufacturing of the time.

Legacy of the Silk Roads

According to UNESCO: ““In the nineteenth century, a new type of traveller ventured onto the Silk Roads: archaeologists and geographers, enthusiastic explorers looking for adventure. Coming from France, England, Germany, Russia and Japan, these researchers traversed the Taklamakan desert in western China, in what is now Xinjiang, to explore ancient sites along the Silk Roads, leading to many archaeological discoveries, numerous academic studies, and most of all, a renewed interest in the history of these routes.

“Today, many historic buildings and monuments still stand, marking the passage of the Silk Roads through caravanserais, ports and cities. However, the long-standing and ongoing legacy of this remarkable network is reflected in the many distinct but interconnected cultures, languages, customs and religions that have developed over millennia along these routes. The passage of merchants and travellers of many different nationalities resulted not only in commercial exchange but in a continuous and widespread process of cultural interaction. As such, from their early, exploratory origins, the Silk Roads developed to become a driving force in the formation of diverse societies across Eurasia and far beyond. [Source: UNESCO unesco.org/silkroad ~]

San Marocs in Venice

Another legacy has been the international exchange of artistic styles and motifs. Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Given such a complex history of silk production and trade, it is not surprising that determining directions of "influence" on artistic taste in silk fabrics can be quite difficult. One example is the widespread depiction of animals in medallions or roundels, a feature that probably traces its origins to ancient Persia. Fabrics with such designs were produced in Central Asia and the Middle East in the early centuries of the first millennium CE. They became popular in China especially in the T'ang period, when there was a substantial interest in exotica imported from the West. Some of the most striking examples of textiles with such "middle eastern" designs are preserved in the famous imperial treasure house in Japan, the Shosoin. Both in China and on the far western end of the Silk Road, such designs then were incorporated into locally woven fabrics and continued to be produced for several centuries. Often the cloths preserved in the cathedral treasuries of the West contain such striking imagery of lions, peacocks, and hunting scenes. Churchmen seem to have cared little about the fact that imported silk might also bear Arabic inscriptions with Islamic invocations. Silk then was a medium for cultural and artistic exchange which transcended political and religious barriers. Where the weavers themselves moved freely across cultural borders, indeed we may never be able to determine for sure the origins of the pieces of silk which embody the romance and history of the Silk Road.” [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/silkroad *]

Central Asia and the Silk Road Today

Richard Kurin wrote: “In formulating the idea of the Silk Road, Richthofen saw Central Asia as not only the land bridge between distant civilizations, but as a source of cultural creativity in its own right. He also saw it as disputed territory, a region that had served as the crossroads of political and military influence. Indeed, control over the Silk Road, particularly its Central Asian link, was serious business for 18th- century colonial powers playing the "Great Game." Both the Russians and the British vied for control over Afghanistan at the limit of their territorial aspirations. Rudyard Kipling, the English colonial writer, set the fictional tale of Kim against this backdrop, with the hero traveling one of the historical trade routes along what is now the Afghan-Pakistan frontier and partaking of what we might today call a multicultural adventure. [Source: “The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures” by Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian institution]

“Though eclipsed in trade volume by sea routes for several centuries, Central Asia has in recent times and particularly after September 11 resumed its historical importance. Its geopolitical significance has grown as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union, the need to achieve stable political states in light of competing interests, and the need to find an appropriate role for religion, particularly Islam, in civic life. Most recently, the entry of the United States in Central Asia, fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, using bases in Uzbekistan and Pakistan, and being drawn into disputes over sovereignty in Kashmir, democracy in Iran, rights for ethnic minorities in western China, and freedom in Kazakhstan, mark a new development in the contemporary jockeying for political influence and control.

Merv in Turkmenistan

“The nations of the region are trying to build their own post-Soviet and contemporary economies. They are struggling to develop local markets, industries, and infrastructures, while at the same time participating in an increasingly globalized world economy. Some local entrepreneurs seek to rebuild economies based upon a traditional repertoire of deeply ingrained Silk Road commercial skills. Among emerging markets are those for recently discovered oil in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and western China. Pipelines are being planned and constructed, constituting new pathways for moving a valuable commodity across the region to the rest of the world.

“New social institutions are being built — universities, hospitals, and financial systems. Some leaders like the Aga Khan are encouraging a contemporary renaissance of traditional knowledge, architecture, and artistry embedded in Central Asian history that will allow local citizens the opportunity to flourish. Famed and beautiful Uzbek ikat weavings are returning to the world marketplace. Designers from the region are creating their own distinctive fashions. Ancient musics performed by contemporary artists are making their way onto world stages. Historical sites are being restored.

“Given the needs in the region, the work to build politically stable nations that are economically healthy, socially secure, and culturally confident is of immense scope, and the prognosis far from certain. But it does seem clear that people in the region stand the best chance of bettering their lives and those of their children by reclaiming their place in a transnational, transcultural flow of goods and ideas exemplified by the historical Silk Road. It is better to connect to the peoples and cultures around them and to participate in the commerce of nations than to withdraw from such interchange. By reclaiming the heritage of the Silk Road, the region may, once again, play an important role in the cultural and economic life of the global community.

Revival of the Silk Road and Tourism

The Silk Road is what draws many tourists to Central Asia. In the late 1990s, the foreign ministers of a dozen Asian countries signed an agreement to restore the Silk Road — this time as a three-lane highway. In Turkey and Iran these highways already exist. New section have been and are being built in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. There are also train lines that follow much of the Silk Road and linking them together — as well as establishing a new Maritime Silk Road — has been become a major foreign policy objective of China.

Yo Yo Ma put together a collection of music inspired by the Silk Road with a group called the Silk Road Ensemble, composed of musicians from the Silk Road countries. Ma has put a lot of energy into composing original pieces, commissioning new works inspired by music of the Silk Road and releasing court music and folk music from the countries on the Silk Road. The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan (Smithsonian Folkways) is a series of CDs that resulted from the project.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University /+/ ; 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 \=/; 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 September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.