12th February 2018
The Silk Road was one of the world’s most important trade routes, traversing deserts, mountains and plains from China to Constantinople with branches down to India, the Middle East and North Africa. More than just goods, the Silk Road transported religion, culture and ideas between east and west. In our A to Z we take a look at some of the key people, places and events in the history of the Silk Road.
Scientists studying the genetics of the apple found that the fruit originated in Kazakhstan, and spread throughout Eurasia via the Silk Road, either from travellers deliberately planning the seeds, or from apple cores being discarded along the route. The apples would have cross-pollinated with wild species to create the huge number of apple we know today.
Situated in an oasis, Bukhara was a major staging point on the Silk Road. By around 500BC it was already an important town, defended by a citadel that has stood in one form or another ever since. It became a centre not only for trade, particularly in the textiles the city was known for, but for culture, scholarship and religious studies. Today the old town is scattered with imposing minarets, impressive forts and beautiful mosques. Visit the beautiful blue-tiled Mir-i-Arab Madrassah, the spectacular Ark and Lab-i-Hauz, the stunning centrepiece of an architectural complex of 16th and 17th century buildings.
A caravanserai was a stop on the Silk Road, a sort of roadside inn, where caravans (groups of traders or other travellers) could stay. Here they could rest, eat and meet other Silk Road travellers, exchanging ideas and languages as well as goods. They were generally located every 20-30km along the Silk Road, a day’s travel for a caravan of camels.
No, not the 80s American soap, the Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China and spanned over four centuries, during which time emissaries made contact with various countries in Central Asia, helping to develop the Silk Road as a major international trade route.
One of the most valuable commodities traded on the eponymous Silk Road, the secrets of silk production were carefully guarded by the Chinese for thousands of years. Smuggling silkworm eggs or cocoons out of the empire was punishable by death, but in 550AD two Nestorian monks sneaked eggs out of China in their hollow bamboo staves and brought the secret to the Byzantine Empire.
Known as the ‘Garden of Uzbekistan’ the Fergana Valley lies in the eastern part of Uzbekistan and is shared with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Historically it was an important staging post on the Silk Road and would have been a welcome change of terrain for travellers after the harsh deserts further east.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Genghis Kahn brought peace to the Silk Road, bringing it under one political control and protecting the routes from raiders and aggressive tribes, allowing increased communication and trade between east and west. However he is also responsible for the almost complete destruction of many former great Silk Road towns, most famously Merv where 1,000,000 were said to have been killed.
The Fergana horses, or Heavenly Horses, originated in the Fergana Valley, and were one of China’s earliest imports, contributing to the opening up of the Silk Road between China and Central Asia. In 128 BC Chinese borders were being terrorised by the White Hun and one of the reasons that the Chinese were struggling to defend themselves was that while the Chinese had tough but stocky ponies, the Hun had the superior ‘Heavenly Horses’. The Chinese Emperor Han Wadi sent his emissary Zhang Qian to find the source of these horses, which he did in Central Asia. Along with jade and silk, the Fergana horses became one of the most important goods traded on the Silk Road.
Positioned on the crossroads of the north-south and east-west routes of the Silk Road, Isfahan was once one of the largest and most important cities in the world. The city is renowned for its beauty, with Iranians saying that ‘Isfahan is half the world’. Isfahan became one of the major cities on the Silk Road when the ruler of Iran, Safavid Shah Abbas I, re-routed the Silk Road through Isfahan to improve trade opportunities.
Jade was one of the most important commodities traded on the Silk Road. It was extremely highly prized by the Chinese both because its toughness made it the ideal material to use for tools, and for its aesthetic appeal. When supplies of jade began to run out in China, the Chinese looked to other sources in an area called Khotan on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, and trade routes began to be established.
Kashgar is China’s most westerly city and was a key trading point on the Silk Road, located where the northern and southern branches met. The Sunday Market was one of the most important places to trade goods on the Silk Road, and has been running for thousands of years. Today it is still one of the biggest and busiest markets in the world.
Lanzhou was another important city on the Silk Road, being the first major stop on the route going west which began in Xi’an and also strategically placed on a major crossing point of the Yellow River. Because of its location the city was an important hub for communications between China and Central Asia.
Explorer Marco Polo travelled along what became known as the Silk Road with his father and uncle, along an ancient caravan route through Iraq, Iran and Turkmenistan and across the Gobi Desert to China. On arrival in China, Marco impressed Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan, who appointed him to the Mongol Government. He remained in China for 17 years, and his descriptions of the trade networks and culture of China were vitally important and inspired a new generation of explorers.
Scientists have carried out research which seems to show that the Silk Road routes may have been carved out by nomads moving herds of livestock thousands of years ago. The scientists used mathematical modelling to recreate the nomads’ movements and found that these matched the geography of the Silk Road, showing that the route most likely developed as a series of shorter exchanges along herding routes, necessitated by finding suitable grazing land. The nomads would likely have built stone landmarks which would have provided directions to those from further afield venturing into the mountains.
Located in the Fergana Valley, Osh is the second largest city in Kyrgyzstan, and its outdoor market was a major trading post on the Silk Road. Now renamed the Great Silk Road Bazaar in recognition of this, it is still the largest and busiest outdoor market in Central Asia.
While the Silk Road enabled the exchange of goods, culture, language and religion, it also allowed for the spread of less desirable elements, notably the bubonic plague. Research has shown that the plague may have actually originated in Asia, with Silk Road travellers bringing with them the fleas that carried the disease which caused a pandemic in Europe and further afield.
It has been estimated that around AD1200, Merv was the biggest city in the world, and it was known as the ‘Queen of Cities’. Important on the Silk Road, it was an oasis city which provided welcome relief to traders travelling through the Karakum Desert. However all that changed in 1221 AD when the city was destroyed by Genghis Khan’s Mongols, and the city never recovered its former glory.
The Silk Road was actually a network of routes stretching east to west, with branches reaching as far south as India. The two most well-known routes are the northern route and the southern route, which followed various roads through China and Central Asia, depending on the goods traded and the political climate.
Samarkand is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Central Asia, and was a key location on the Silk Road. It’s known for being a centre for Islamic scholarly study and for its stunning Islamic architecture, in particular the famous Registan. The city was inhabited by the Sogdians, a people who were renowned for their trading skills, before the city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 329BC and then destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1220. In the 1370s, Tamerlane, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, made Samarkand his capital and it began to be restored to its former glory.
One of the most remote and inhospitable areas anywhere, Taklamakan means ‘go in but don’t come out’ and it was a formidable obstacle for Silk Road travellers to cross. It is also the largest sand only desert in the world.
The Uyghur people have a long history in western China, and are believed to be descended from the Sogdian traders who were part of an ancient Iranian civilisation. Unlike the nomadic tribes of Central Asia, the Uyghur people were based in and around the towns of the Silk Road such as Kashgar, resulting in a rich mix of cultural and religious traditions.
Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India around the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first person to link Europe and Asia by sea. Travelling by sea rather than the old routes overland through Europe and Central Asia was much safer and less time-consuming, meaning that trading along the Silk Road began to decline.
The Terracotta Army, or Terracotta Warriors, were one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. Discovered in 1974, they were uncovered by an unsuspecting farmer who was digging a well. Dating from approximately the late third century BCE, the warriors were part of the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang’s, mausoleum. Archaeologists claimed in 2016 that the warriors could have been influenced by Greek sculpture, which if true would prove that there was close contact between east and west even before The Silk Road was established.
Historically, Xi’an, once known as Chang’an, was the starting point of the Silk Road and was the place where the first emperor of China established his capital. The city grew prosperous with the trade from the Silk Road, but its importance decreased with the end of the Han dynasty.
A yurt (or ger in Mongolia) has been the home of choice for the nomadic peoples of Central Asia since before the Silk Road. Because there are very few trees found on the Central Asian steppe, nomads would have traded with merchants on the Silk Road for wood to build their yurts. Many Central Asian people today still live in these traditional tents, and a stay in a yurt or ger is a must on a visit to Kyrgyzstan or Mongolia.
As well as goods, ideas were also traded along the Silk Road, with travellers of different religions mixing in caravanserais and market towns. Zoroastrianism was the official religion of Persia from 600BC until 650AD, and spread from Persia along the Silk Road to East Asia. The world’s oldest monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism was once one of the most powerful religions in the world but is now one of the smallest.