The Silk Road: The Real Story

Ever since I studied medieval history in college (45 years ago), I’ve had a fascination with the Silk Road(s).  These were the routes that medieval travelers took between Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) and Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an, China).  Based on the things I had read, I had visions of large caravans crossing from one side of Asia to the other.

Map Illustrating Several of the Silk Routes Between East and West

Map Illustrating Several of the Silk Routes Between East and West

As part of my travels, I have visited two of the Silk Road oasis cities in western China:  Turfan and Dunhuang.  And on the western end of the route, I’ve traveled to Istanbul and ancient Armenian city of Ani (now in ruins).  But I haven’t made the trip from Turkey to western China, through central Asia.

My son and I were scheduled to travel to western China and visit the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar.  From there we were going to cross the Karakoram Mountains (on the famous Karakoram Highway) into northern Pakistan.  However, we were not able to make the trip because we were scheduled to leave 3 days after 9/11, and all of our airplane flights were cancelled.

Recently I read the book The Silk Road:  A New History by Valerie Hansen (not a relative).  In the book the author makes the case that the route was largely for a more localized travel rather than for long trading expeditions:

This book draws on many documents to show that the Silk Road trade was often local and small in scale.  Even the most ardent believer in a high-volume, frequent trade must concede that there is little empirical basis for the much-vaunted Silk Road trade.  One might interpret the scraps of evidence differently than this book does, but there is no denying that the debates concern scraps–not massive bodies–of evidence.

For me, this doesn’t distract from my interest in the route, it merely gives me a different perspective on how ideas, people, and merchandise moved between east and west during medieval times.  According to Professor Hansen:

Despite the limited trade, extensive cultural exchange between east and west–China and first South Asia, and later west Asia, especially Iran–did take place as various groups of people moved along the different land routes through Central Asia.  Refugees, artists, craftmen, missionaries, robbers, and envoys all made their way along these routes.  Sometimes they resorted to trade, but that was not their primary purpose.

One of the technologies that probably moved along the Silk Road was the qanat.  But I will leave for a separate post.

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One Response to The Silk Road: The Real Story

  1. After the Roman empire conquered Egypt in 30BCE, trade between China and Europe along the silk road boomed. Large numbers of ships sailed from Egypt to India every year to exchange goods on the lower Silk Road. Growth in the trade of silk on the Silk Road was driven by strong Roman demand supplied by the Parthians (a silk road intermediary). Roman demand for Chinese silk was so strong that the balance of trade was in the red and Rome’s coffers were running dry. The Roman senate responded by sulking and prohibiting the wearing of silk.

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