Silk Road History

At the beginning of the sixth century BCE, the trade route started in Babylon, from where it passed through Opis/Ctesiphon (Baghdad) and Ecbatana (Hamadan) and modern Saveh - the place where Marco Polo was to see the tombs of the three Magi who had visited Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever the historical value of the story of the Magi, they must have traveled along the Silk road.

From Saveh, the road continued to Rhagae (Tehran), the religious capital of ancient Media. Further to the east, it passed through Parthia and reached Hecatompylos (Sahr-e Qumes near Damghan) and Susia (Tus near Mashad). To the north, one saw the Elburz mountains, to the south, the desert. At Susia, the road forked. The southern branch went through the Arian capital Artacoana (Herat) to Kapisa (Kandahar) in Arachosia, and from there either to the southeast to the Lower Indus or to the northwest to Gandara (the valley of the Kabul) and the Punjab.

The northern branch went from Susia through the Karakum desert, passing along the oasis Margiana (Mary or Merv) and the Scythian tribes along the Amudar'ya, to Maracanda (Samarkand) in Sogdia or to Bactra (Balkh, near modern Mazar-e Sharif) and Drapsaca (Konduz). Here, lapislazuli could be found, a precious article that was much appreciated in Babylonia and Assyria. Other articles that were traded were the famous 'blood sweating' horses of the Ferghana valley, and hairy camels from the Gobi desert.

Almost no one traveled beyond Drapsaca, but a few continued upstream along the Amudar'ya. The most important towns along this road were modern Taloqan, Feyzabad, and Eshkashem. The traveler had now reached Wakshan, a small strip of land along the upper Amudar'ya, which is also called Ab-i-Panja. At the eastern end of this valley, he had to climb the Pamir mountains -the pass is 4,923 meters high- after which he reached a place named Stone Tower. It is probably identical to Taxkorgan and it seems to have been the place where westerners bartered their goods with the products from the Far East. Here, a second trade route joined the Silk road: across the Khunjerab pass, one could go to Kashmir and the capital of the Punjab, Taxila.

Another exchange point between westerners and Chinese was modern Kashi, an oasis in Xinjiang. It was reached by a more northerly branch of the Silk road.

Coin of Wu Di (©!!) When the Chinese traders went home, they first passed along the Desert Without Return (Taklamakan), obtained jade in Khotan, and reached the Jade Gate (Yumen), which is traditionally viewed as the western end of the Great Wall. From here, they continued to modern Lanzhou, from where they could go to Chang'an, the City of Eternal Peace, which may be regarded as the last station of the road. Chang'an was the capital of China under the rule of he emperors of the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Under the emperor Wu Di (141-87), the Silk road was really opened. This ruler had to campaign against the Hsiung-nu nomads in the north -they are the ancestors of the Huns- and c.130 he sent out his general Zang Qian to find allies and to buy the famous Iranian war horses from Nisaia. Although Zang Qian failed in his mission, he had visited Bactria and had found the way to the west.

Trade was made easier when the Chinese acquired Xinjiang (also called Chinese Turkestan) in 104-102 BCE. The caravans received some protection from the authorities for a substantial part of their route. Moreover, bridges and paved roads were constructed. Beyond the Jade Gate, the political situation was more complex: the Pamirs were dominated by sometimes aggressive mountain tribes and the empires of the Parthians and Seleucids were fighting a more or less permanent war. Nonetheless, the Chinese received horses and other valuable articles -myrrh, frankincense, ostrich eggs, glass, furs, aloe, gemstones- from the west; and the Parthians, Seleucids, Greeks and Romans acquired ceramics and bales of silk, which had been carried by donkeys, mules, horses, yaks and camels for almost thousands of kilometers. (An overview of road stations can be found in the Mansiones Parthicae by Isidore of Charax.) In the West, silk was considered more precious than gold and it remained very rare and expensive. To the best of our knowledge, the Roman emperor Heliogabalus (218-222) was the only Roman to wear a dress of pure silk. The westerners called the Chinese simply the Silk People (Seres); the capital of the Han dynasty, Chang'an, was known as Silk City.

When the Han dynasty collapsed in the third century, the trade between east and west was reduced to a minimum. According to the Byzantine historian Procopius (c.500-c.570), two Christian monks discovered the secret of the silk production. The emperor Justinian (527-565) immediately dispatched secret agents to steal silkworm eggs and to bribe silk experts. They were successful, and from this time onward, silk was also produced in the Mediterranean.

This was not the end of the Silk Route, however, because the West remained interested in buying gums and spices. When the T'ang (618-907) dynasty restabilized China, the long-distance trade route was reanimated. It became a road to spread Christianity as well: in 635, Nestorian missionaries from Ctesiphon reached China. As we have already seen, its most famous traveler was Marco Polo, whose story is invaluable.


Silk Road Guidebooks

Wijnand van Riel. De Zijderoude: Turkmenistan, Oezbekistan, Tadzjikistan, Kirgizie, Kazachstan. - Netherlands, Amsterdam : Dominicus thema, 2000. - 340 pages (In Dutch).

This colourful edition devoted to the Great Silk Road, namely - to its part which passes Central Asia, was published by the Dutch publishing house "Dominicus". In the book, the author Wijnand van Riel reflects his impressions of travelling over Central Asia Countries - Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadjikistan and Kazakhstan.

From early childhood he was interested in fairy tales as "Thousand and one night" and books about famous travelers, as Marco Polo and, certainly dreamed of seeing the countries which were described in the books. After studying a course on economic anthropology, he worked in the Middle East and in Central Asia during many years and thus realized his childhood-dreams. Wijnand van Riel used his observations, experience, scientific knowledge, legends, and stories both in his publications and books. He became the author of the publications about Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

In the book Wijnand van Riel warmly represents five independent states of Central Asia with their centuries-old history, customs, traditions and unique architectural monuments. He writes with a great admire about the ancient cities as Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva and Merv. Inviting to travel along the Central Asian Countries, the author emphasizes that these territories were the major crossroads on a Great Silk Road during many centuries, constituting "a Golden Part" of it. Set of monuments of material and spiritual culture of the last centuries have been preserved here to our time and the land is inhabited by hospitable people.

Judy Bonavia. The Silk Road From Xi'an to Kashgar. Revised by William Lindesay and Wu Qi. - Hong Kong : Odyssey Publications Ltd., 1999. - 338 pages (In English).

As the author of the guidebook writes, the trading with silk and other exotic goods on the Great Silk Road had been interfaced in ancient times with an extreme difficulties and dangers. Traversing the Silk Road has never been easy. In most cases, camel caravans had overcome severe places like arid sands and snow-covered mountains. The road had begun from the ancient city Chang'an (Xi'an) and was prolonged to the West along the corridor Hexi, directing to The Great Wall, then, to the North or South - to Kashgar, along the desert Takla Makan. From this road, the routes to India, Iran and the great Middle-East Countries were prolonged.

These routes do not embody only the history of Silk Road for the traveler, but also a large number of bright architectural monuments, unique nooks of nature and people living in these countries, which were situated on the routes of the ancient trade road.

Dominic Streatfeild James. Silk Route by rail. - U.K., London : Trailblazer Publications, 1997. - 256 pages (In English).

This guidebook tells about travelling along The Great Silk Road by railway. The gradual disintegration of the USSR and opening up of the CIS have now created new travel opportunities for the development of tourism on the Silk Road. Further, completion of rail link from Almaty in Kazakhstan to Urumqi in China has, for the first time ever, made the journey from Central Asia into China accessible to the average traveler. This means that Marco Polo successors can not only trek their way across China but can also cross the border and continue west to visit some of the most famous cities of the ancient world of Central Asia and some regions of CIS.

Today, tourists of different countries have an opportunity to travel along the great deserts of Asia, to follow the route of Venetian traveler Marco Polo, to see the ancient cities of the East and Great Silk Road Countries. Today travelling between Moscow and Beijing will not take years or decades - railways and highways were constructed in the sites of caravan route.

Travelling along the routes of the Great Silk Road gives an opportunity to see the unique sights and The Oriental exotic of the countries, which lay in its main line. And among them, the Central Asian Countries, - in Uzbekistan you will surely visit a walled city of Khiva in Khorezm, the city which has a big number of prominent monuments of ancient architecture, and the history of which is connected with the history of Great Silk Road. Then, a traveler heads to ancient Bukhara with many of its beautiful palaces, minarets and mausoleums. 47 meter Kalyan minaret dominates silhouette of the city. In a couple hours of driving you will see the Blue Domes of Samarkand which was the capital of the huge empire of Amir Temur (Tamerlan) and was famous for its beauty in the world. There are also beautiful monuments in Shakhrisabs, which was the home town of Amir Temur.

The guidebook has a big range of information on extensive history sections on China, the CIS and The Silk Route. Comprehensive guides and plans to 16 cities along the route: Moscow, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, Almaty, Urumqi, Kashgar, Turfan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou, Tianshui, Xi'an, Luoyang and Benjing. Includes maps in Russian, Chinese and English languages and colourful photographs. There are some recommendations on how to arrange your trip independently or with a group, and how to get tickets.

Peter Neville-Hadley. China. The Silk Routes. - U.K., London: Gadogans Books, 1997. - 544 pages (In English).

As describes the author, this indispensable guide to Western China and beyond takes you by bus, train, jeep and even donkey cart down busy highways and unpaved back roads rarely visited by tourists.
Your route will lie through the desert fringes and over high passes. You will see the sights of China - ancient temples, palaces, parks and exotic bazaars which are in existence from the ancient times of Silk Route. Along the ancient trade roads you will head from Beijing and Xi'an in the east and Islamabad, Bishkek and Almaty in the west, and other Central Asian Countries. The guidebook helps you to make your own way along the tangle of old routes.

Silk Road Maps

Silk Road History and Unesco

UNESCO Stakeholders Consultation Workshop on the Silk Road World Heritage nomination

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre has been working together with the Government of China on a methodological approach for the preparation of a nomination for the cultural properties along the Silk Road to the World Heritage List. Although the network passed through China, Central/Western and South Asia and beyond, China is the only country that has placed its Silk Road section on the national ‘Tentative List' for World Heritage nomination.

In August 2003 and July 2004, UNESCO sent expert missions, sponsored by the Netherlands Funds-in-Trust at the World Heritage Centre, to the Chinese section of the Silk Road in order to research and improve understanding of ‘Cultural Routes' as a possible candidate for inscription on the World Heritage List. The missions also sought to develop a systematic approach towards the identification and nomination of the Chinese section of the Silk Road, and in particular the Oasis Route which, together with the Steppe Route and the Maritime Route, is one of three intercultural routes along the Silk Road that will tell the story of the Chinese Silk Road in a comprehensive manner.

An impressive number of monuments and sites are to be found along the Oasis Route, which extends over some 4,450 km from Xi'an in Shaanxi Province to Kashgar in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Almost the entire original road, however, has disappeared, assuming that it ever existed, as much of it consisted of no more than tracks through the desert, and has been replaced by a four-lane highway. Some uncertainty remains about the best way to proceed and the missions sought to co-operate in the development of an approach and methodology for the identification and nomination of a serial and linear Cultural Route.

The UNESCO missions to China concluded that a cultural route could be defined in terms of space (the route ran through sites, monuments, constructions, buildings, ways, and areas of influence); time (the beginning and end of its use, its frequency, intensity and variations) and cultural criteria (impact of spiritual and/or material exchanges; impact on human memory or experience, impact of the volume and nature of the exchanges). The mission recommended the establishment of a Silk Road Nomination Task Force management body to co-ordinate studies and preparation of the World Heritage nomination.

As a regional follow-up to the Silk Road nomination of the Chinese section, ideas and concepts have been shared with neighbouring countries, particularly those in Central Asia, that pursue connection of their most significant properties to the Silk Road to achieve further development of this nomination of serial properties.

During a Sub-regional Workshop for follow-up of the Periodic Reporting Exercise held in Almaty, Kazakhstan in November 2005, representatives from the Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) adopted an Action Plan for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in Central Asia in which the serial nomination of the Silk Road was given the highest priority. The participants agreed to further develop and consolidate this initiative at the UNESCO Consultation Workshop to be held in Turpan, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the People's Republic of China.

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