Italy and Spain were two final destinations of the long Silk Road which started in China and/or in Central Asia. Rome was a very important destination for Chinese silk, especially during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). However, it was the “Eastern Rome”, that is Constantinople, which was the gate to the Mediterranean world, especially after the 4th century AD. Constantinople, situated on the Bosporus, (35km in length approx.) linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, and both shores of the city straddling Europe and Asia.
Given its very strategic location, Constantinople (so named after emperor Constantine in 330 AD, who wanted to mark his conversion to Christianity by naming the city after himself, and rejecting the pagan gods of “Old Rome”), was the perfect link between East and West. Already in the 5th century, there were about 300 000 inhabitants, and by the 6th century approximately half a million. Such a number of inhabitants implied a constant supply of food/grain, hence it was logical for it to become a hub, where all sorts of luxury goods, besides food and were exchanged.
Emperor Justinian I initiated the construction of the famous Aghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in the 6th century. It is recorded that a delegation from Kievan Rus in the 10th century reported that on entering Aghia Sophia, they did not know whether they were in Heaven or on earth.
In the 1070’s, the Seljuk Turks had taken over most of Anatolia, and taken over the city. Soon after that, the Venetians, who were very active in the maritime trade between Venice, Constantinople and also the Holy land, (transporting Crusaders there for a fee) got a strangle-hold over trade. Relations between the city and Venice deteriorated over time, ending on the Fourth Crusade’s sack of the city in 1204. The Crusaders were awed by the wealth they found there, and Robert of Clari described it in dithyrambic terms thus: “It was so rich, and there were so many rich vessels of gold and silver and cloth and many rich jewels, that it was a fair marvel….
When the Ottoman Turks (Osmanly in Turkish, after the first leader called Osman) conquered Constantinople (renaming it Istanbul), the city again became the capital of a great empire and was central in East -West economic and cultural exchanges. The new Sultan, Mehmet II, rebuilt the city to make it a great trading centre and cultural hub. He had the Grand Bazaar built in the centre of the cit y. Islamic art and architecture were to be the city’s hallmarks, especially under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent. ( 1520 -1566). The Suleymaniye mosque was built under his reign from 1550 to 1557.
The city linked Europe, Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, the Caucasus, the Russian steppe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean Basin. It is difficult to imagine all the different goods that were traded. It was in effect an immense entrepôt, where Arab, Italian and Russian merchants did most of the trading.
Christian relics, silks, textiles, dried fruit, artwork, spices, glass and porcelain (imported from Northern Europe: caviar, fish, amber, ivory, textiles, fom Italy: wool, timber and tin).
A VERY SHORT READING LIST FOR THE SILK ROAD (AND BOOKS USED FOR THE WEBSITE) 11/12/2020
- “Lords of the Horizons – A History of the Ottoman Empire”, by Jason Goodwin. Vintage. 1998
- “The Silk Road – A New History”, by Valerie Hansen. OUP 2012
- “Introduction to Byzantium, 602 -1453”, by Jonathan Harris. Routledge. 2020
- “The Silk Road – A very short Introduction”, by James A. Millward. OUP. 2013
- SERKIS, Christiane. Des Fondateurs de Religions; de certaines langues antiques. Lausanne 2020 Article inédit.
- “Life Along the Silk Road”, by Susan Whitfield. UCal Press 2015
- “Silk Roads – Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes”, Edited by Susan Whitfield. Thames and Hudson. 2019