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A Brief History of the Silk Route

by Martha Hales

published

The mother of silk

According to legend, it all began over 4,000 years ago when Empress Lei Tsu - wife of the Yellow Emperor - was enjoying her cup of tea under a mulberry tree. A silk moth’s cocoon fell from the tree into her teacup, and when she fished it out she noticed that the cocoon was separating into many fine threads. She made it her mission to work out how to harness the potential of these ready made threads, and when she succeeded, she inadvertently changed the world.

Silk moth cocoons

A tentative journey

The secrets of silk production were closely guarded by the Chinese for some centuries, and it wasn’t until 138 BC that the Han emperors decided that the soft and durable fabric was going to have to be put to work as a commodity for trade. They sent an officer, Zhang Qian, westwards with the hope of using silk as a tool for leverage in forming an alliance with the Yuezhi people against the Xiongnu, who were a big headache for the Chinese rulers of the time.

The mission backfired and the emissary officer was imprisoned for over a decade, yet upon his escape he didn’t run straight for home. He pushed on further into the Western Regions, exploring parts of Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and in doing so began the process of breaking down barriers between nations and peoples. When he eventually returned home, Zhang Qian brought news of these far off and foreign lands, and told of something he had seen which he knew would be of great interest to the emperor. In a distant valley known as Ferghana, located in the east of modern day Uzbekistan, he had seen strikingly large and powerful looking horses, potentially a great asset to the Chinese for agricultural and military purposes. China was no stranger to horses, but the native species were very petite and not bestowed with stamina. Even more encouragingly, Zhang Qian’s travels revealed that desire for Chinese silk beyond national borders was intense to say the least.

Central Asian wild horses

The early days of the Silk Route

This discovery captured the attention of the ruling powers, who began to realise the potential of silk. When the trade of silk for Ferghana horses was established, the foundations for the Silk Route were laid, and in subsequent centuries the fine silken threads would come to be one of the most desirable products in the world, spreading ever westwards via a complex network of trade routes which would eventually come to link China with Europe.

Silks, China

The Romans in particular went over-the-top with their desire for silk fabric. It became a status symbol; a luxury only available to the wealthy. Its arrival and swift dominance of the Roman glitterati made waves, and the flimsy, ethereal fabric took on immodest connotations. When commenting on Roman ladies’ silk clothing, writer of the time Seneca stated ‘When they wear them, they cannot swear with good conscience that they are not naked.’ Silk was seen as an indulgence, almost an invitation for eroticism, which no doubt elevated its status still further.

Silks on a Roman woman, Pompeii

Even though commerce and movement were intense along the Silk Route network for more than a millennia, the popular name for this mercantile corridor was not coined until 1877, when Ferdinand Von Richthofen, a German geographer who travelled widely, invented the term. Indeed it was silk that paved the way for the cross-continental trade spanning many centuries from around 100 BC to the Middle Ages. But in its wake followed many other important commodities, making their way from the east, slowly but surely towards the west.

Silk road between China and India

Treasures from the East

Without the ingenuity of the Chinese seeking new markets, as well as the willing participation of many intermediary traders along the way, innovative inventions such as gunpowder, paper and even musical instruments would have arrived in the West far later. The transfer of goods along the Silk Route was far from mono-directional, indeed there were also desirable products and processes which travelled gradually from west to east, notably glass, gold, silver and wool.

traditional chinese silk weaving

So from that first deal exchanging silk for statuesque horses, the origins of the Silk Route were forged. Long distance trade and commercial travel were not unheard of before this groundbreaking deal was struck in the first century BC, but what was new about it was the ambition. The realisation by the Chinese that beyond natural barriers and national borders lay not just feared opponents, but opportunity. The understanding that items of value could be supplied not just for domestic use but also serve their producers well when sent to distant markets was relatively new. In this exciting time for international cooperation and exploration, many existing trade routes were extended, linking up with routes that had been established by the Persians as they expanded their empire.

Mingyue Pavilion, Crescent Lake Oasis, China

The exchange of cultures

It was rare for merchants to travel the entire length of the Silk Route; instead each section would have its ‘regulars’ who would ply their own stretch shuttling goods back and forth, like a relay. Distances covered by individual caravans were still impressive, and the terrain was no picnic either. Mountain passes, deserts and bandits were all obstacles to be overcome, and many perished on their journeys.

Camel trekking the silk route

Despite all the risks, the trade routes flourished, seeing a more or less constant flow of trade for the 1,500 years after that first deal was struck. As well as being a conduit for precious commodities and treasures, the routes linked nations and races, facilitating a secondary exchange on a more intangible level. Ideas, science, philosophies and religions seeped inevitably through the network of trade routes, allowing a widespread dissemination of cultures never before seen.

The legacy of the melding of Silk Road cultures and the overlaying of various philosophies and faiths is obvious even today. At the eastern extreme of the Silk Route, widely recognised as Xian, the blending of ideas and cultures results in a town where you can feel the influence of lands further to the west quite overtly. Local food tends towards Persian flavours, and minarets of mosques are abundant.

Mosque in Xian, China

Many of the Uzbek Silk Route cities are known for their warm welcomes, a trait borne of centuries catering to weary merchants and their caravans in need of a place to rest, trade and restock for a few days before moving on. Bukhara, in its heyday as a stopover on the Silk Route, reportedly had around 60 caravanserais, and the main appeal of each was the language spoken by its proprietors. The historic talent of welcoming strangers and attending to their needs has clearly endured, and indeed it is still common for Uzbeks to be proficient in several languages.

Influential people of the Silk Route

As well as Lei Tsu and Zhang Qian, there are many influential characters, peoples and rulers connected to the story of the Silk Route.

Before the final links in the chain of the east to west trade conduit were inaugurated, Alexander the Great played an important part in establishing trading cities along with connections and routes through Persia, Egypt and northern India, which became precursors of the Silk Route proper, and allowed the first contact between Europe and China to take place in Kashgar.

Alexander the Great

Ban Chao and Gan Ying, among others, were sent by their rulers to achieve certain military objectives in China’s interests, and even though these expert generals had power as their ultimate goal, they were also skilled negotiators and used their diplomatic talents to smooth the road for many who followed, whether by gaining allies or easing political pressures. They also proved to be very valuable assets in terms of fact finding, sending updated reports of trade status and related issues from far flung places back to China. They, and many others, helped to ensure peace was maintained.

Although most people have never heard of the Sogdians, they once held strong sway in Central Asia, and as the ‘middle men’ of Silk Route trade, exerted huge influence over the central trade network and indeed the commercial and economic hubs of the Silk Route. Their domain centred on the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, both pivotal points on the route, and both holding great importance for a thousand years. These are the cities which first spring to mind upon mention of the Silk Route, and with good reason. They were the true melting pot cities at the crossroads between east and west. The very place where the great cultures of Persia, India and China met and mingled with the local Sogdian heritage.

Bukara

But the Sogdians’ secret weapon was trade and travel; they made it their business to spread themselves across Asia wherever there was money to be made, setting up scattered satellite communities which allowed them also to funnel wealth and information back home to Samarkand, elevating its status still further. Due to their entrepreneurial nous and mercantile skills, the Sogdians became the fixers and facilitators of trade, and due to their omnipresence the Sogdian language became the lingua franca of the whole Silk Route, while the dissemination of Zoroastrianism east from Samarkand can be attributed to them too. Although the empire of Sogdiana has largely been forgotten, its influence lives on.

Samarkand on the Silk Road

No history of the Silk Route would be complete without mention of one of its most famous travellers - Marco Polo. His now legendary journey from Venice to the heart of the Chinese elite began in 1271. From Venice he travelled east with his father, crossing Armenia and Georgia - where he later reported the hot springs to be the best anywhere - on the way to the port of Hormuz, Iran. He was evidently very impressed by the air of commerce he found at the port, declaring: ‘Merchants come thither from India with spices and precious stones, pearls, cloths of silk and gold, elephants’ teeth, and many other wares … In fact ‘tis a city of immense trade.’ The intention was to complete the journey by sea from Hormuz, but Marco Polo was disappointed in the quality of ships available and decided the risk was too great to take to the ocean.

Marco Polo

So instead they completed their journey overland, through what is now Iran to Afghanistan and on into China. The Polos were such a hit with the Chinese court of Kublai Khan that they ended up staying for many years, and when they eventually returned to their home city of Venice 24 years after they left, it seems that they had all but lost the ability to speak in their mother tongue, and nobody recognised them. When Marco Polo wound up stuck in jail in Genoa some years later, he used his leisure time constructively, recounting tales of his incredible adventures to Rustichello di Pisa, who wrote down the stories and turned them into the book which would immortalise Marco Polo and his fantastic stories from his lifetime of travel. Through the centuries there has been a certain level of speculation about the authenticity of some of Marco Polo’s tales from afar. On his deathbed, Marco Polo said ‘I did not write half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.’

One great personality from Silk Route history that cannot be missed out is Timur, or Tamerlane. Along with Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, he was one of the major conquerors of the region, and made his sweeping conquests in the 14th century. Pitiless and courageous, Timur desired as much territory and as many allies as he could muster in a lifetime. He would play a merciless trick wherever he went, promising the inhabitants of cities under siege that not a drop of blood would be spilled if only they would surrender to his army. When the army was allowed to enter the city, the inhabitants would then be buried alive.

He was held in high regard by many across Eurasia, and his reputation preceded him. Arabshah describes him as having a brave and powerful character, and a strong constitution: ‘He loved bold and valiant soldiers, by whose aid he opened the locks of terror, tore men to pieces like lions, and overturned mountains. He was faultless in strategy, constant in fortune, firm of purpose and truthful in business.’

Timur’s interest in trade led to his most ambitious plan. He had a vision to unify and monetise the Silk Route for his own gain, monopolising the central land route, which would pit him directly against many nations and peoples, causing war and upheaval to reach his goals. Ultimately the Silk Route was never monopolised by Timur. But his fearless, merciless attitude still resonates today, and in Uzbekistan and wider Central Asia he is revered as a hero.

Make it happen

If you are keen to discover the mysteries of the Silk Route for yourself, you are looking in the right place. TravelLocal’s on-the-ground experts are ready to create a bespoke itinerary for you, whether you are planning to visit the Central Asian Silk Road, the Chinese Silk Road, or indeed a combination of the two. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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