INTRODUCTION (text from “The silk road – A very short introduction, James A. Millward. OUP, 2013.”) 

“Neither silk nor a road”


Traditionally, the term “silk road” is used to refer to a road, or roads, between East Asia and the Mediterranean, and spanning the center of the Eurasian continent, a region now known variously as Central Eurasia, Central Asia, Inner Asia, Transoxiana, and sometimes as the “stans” (Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan). We imagine strings of laden camels laboring over that road across grasslands, deserts, and mountain passes, stopping at oasis cities where bazaars overflow with silks and spices. Despite these vivid images, however, it is far from clear exactly what, or where, that “silk road” was.” (p3)


“It was a German traveller and geographer, Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (the uncle of Snoopy’s nemesis, the ‘Red Baron’ Manfred von Richthofen), who coined the term ‘Silk Road’. Actually, von Richthofen used the term both singular (Seidenstrasse) and plural (Seidenstrassen) in a lecture in 1877 and in his multivolume historical geography, China (1877-1912). For him, the term referred to routes along which Chinese silk moved from the Han Empire (206BC -220CE) to Central Asia and from which the Han learned something of western geography. Richthofen did not apply the ‘silk road’ concept to times after the Han period. However, he did discuss at length other routes in later periods and exchanges of goods other than silk, moreover, he argued for the great historical and cultural importance of what he called Hendelsverkehr, denoting commercial traffic or trade routes. Thus, although in different words, the father of the narrow ‘silk road’ conception was also interested in the general phenomenon of trans-Eurasian exchanges now encompassed by the shorthand we know as the silk road. (pp4-5)” 


Briefly put, the “silk road” was an artery which not only brought silk, but even more importantly, large horses, cotton, paper and gunpowder. Big horses were strategic for the armies of China against the Mongol tribes often attacking them. Besides the aforementioned items, there were many others which travelled along this route.  The route started in Xi’an or Chang’an  Even though Richthofen uses the term “silk road or silk roads” for the period referred to as the “Han Empire” i.e., 206BC till 220CE” the various routes were active at different times, some longer than others.  


In the 8th century, Xi’an/Chang’an was populated by a million people, and another million lived outside the city walls. The city was impressive with temples, imperial buildings, markets and bazars. Foreign dignitaries, merchants, scholars and artists came to this amazing international  centre of trade and culture.  (From amnh org – “A cosmopolitan capital”)


But the focus of our story here, is from Xi’an (Chang’an) to Venice and going through some focal points, ((Xi’an – Dunhuang – Samarkand – Bukhara – Persepolis – Isfahan – Yazd – Istanbul (for us Westerners the term Byzantium was used for a very long time, and Venice)) as the diverse “silk roads” are much too rich to cover in a very short form. Why short form? Given that we have a map, space is very limited, and too much information would only be confusing as we do not pretend to replace the amazing books and numerous articles that describe, analyse and recount the wonders of the “Silk Roads”.  Also, various historians cover different periods, and the various trade routes that we now label the “Silk Roads” were viable for a couple of thousand years, thus trying to cover such a period in a short form is impossible. 


THE SILK ROAD – Another angle (taken from Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads – A new history of the world”.)


Today, Jalalabad and Herat in Afghanistan, Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq or Homs and Aleppo in Syria seem synonymous with religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence. The present has washed away the past: gone are the days when the name of Kabul conjured up images of the gardens planted and tended by the great Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire in India. The Bagh-i-Waffa (“Garden of Fidelity”) included a pool surrounded by orange and pomegranate trees and a clover meadow – of which Babur was extremely proud. “This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take colour. Truly, that garden is admirably situated!” (Pp xvvi – xxvii) 


“In the same way, modern impressions about Iran have obscured the glories of its more distant history when its Persian predecessor was a byword for good taste in everything from the fruit served at dinner, to the stunning miniature portraits produced by its legendary artists, to the paper that scholars wrote on. A beautifully considered work written by a librarian from Iran around 1400, records in careful detail the advice of a book lover who shared his passion. Anyone thinking of writing, he counsels solemny, should be advised that the best paper for calligraphy is produced in Paper from elsewhere is “generally rough, blotches and is impermanent”. Bear in mind, he cautions, that is worth giving paper a slight tint before committing ink to it, “because the white is hard on the eyes and the master calligraphic specimens that have been observed have all been on tinted paper”.


“A road network that linked the coast of Asia Minor with Babylon, Susa and Persepolis enabled a distance of more than 1,600 miles to be covered in the course of a week, an achievement viewed with wonder by Herodotus, who noted that neither snow, rain, heat nor darkness could slow the speedy transmission of messages. Investment in agriculture and development of pioneering irrigation techniques to improve crop yields helped nurture the growth of cities by enabling increasingly large populations to be supported from surrounding fields – not only in the rich agricultural lands to either side of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but also in the valleys served by the mighty Oxus and Iaxartes rivers (now known as the Amy Darya and the Syr Darya), as well as the Nile delta after its capture by Persian armies in 525 BC. The Persian Empire was a land of plenty that connected the Mediterranean.


Persia presented itself as a beacon of stability and fairness, as a trilingual inscription hewn into a cliff face at Behistun demonstrates. Written in Perisan, Elamite and Akkadian, it records how Darius the Great, one of Persia’s most famous rulers, put down revolts and uprisings, drove back invasions from abroad and wronged neither the poor nor the powerful. Keep the country secure, the inscription commands, and look after the people righteously, for justice is the bedrock of the kingdom. Tolerance of minorities was legendary, with one Persian ruler referred to as the ‘Messiah’, and the one whom the ‘Lord, the God of Heaven’ has blessed, as a result of his policies that included the release of the Jews from their Babylonian exile.”


“Trade flourished in ancient Persia, providing revenues that allowed rulers to fund military expeditions targeting locations that brought yet more resources to the empire. It also enabled them to indulge notoriously extravagant tastes. Spectacular buildings were erected in the huge cities of Babylon, Persepolis, Pasargadae and Susa, where King Daraius built a magnificent palace using the highest quality ebony and silver from Egypt and cedar from Lebanon, fine gold from Bactria, lapis and cinnabar from Sogdiana, turquoise from Khwarezm and ivory from India. The Persians were famous for their love of pleasures and according to Herodotus, only had the heart of a new luxury to yearn to indulge it.” (pp 2-3)

You may examine the brief articles about each city by selecting the menu items below.  The cities listed on the menu are XI’AN, DUNHUANG, SAMARKAND, BUKHARA, ISFAHAN, YAZD, ALEPPO, BYZANTIUM and VENICE.  Start with XI’AN.


Oh dear! Can we make it to Venice......