The Silk Road Write Up

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, Kirgizstan, 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.