by L. David Mark
"The Silk Road!"
What wonderful images these words create in my mind: Ancient cities of Samarkand & Bukhara; Marco Polo; caravans of camels and donkeys laden with silk brocade, saffron and sandalwood; the smell of food cooking in woks over an open fire! And these are just a few.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Silk Road, it was not a single trail, but rather a network of routes more than 4,000 miles long that, in ancient times, carried trade between the Orient and the Middle East and then on to European destinations.
Picture this, if you will: You leave the ancient city of Xian in central China, arriving at the Dunhuang Oasis -- "city of the sands" -- in what is now Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China's largest province, making up around one-sixth of that nation's land area. Situated at the eastern edge of the vast Taklamakan Desert (one of the world's largest), it is here in Dunhuang that the route splits into northern and southern trails. The Taklamakan Desert makes up not quite a third of the Tarim Basin, which is bounded on the north by the Tian Shan (or "Heavenly Mountains") and on the south by the Kunlun range and the Tibetan Plateau.
After skirting the Taklamakan Desert, either on its northern or southern side, you arrive at the westernmost Chinese city of Kashgar at the edge of the Tarim Basin. From there, you cross the Pamir Mountains, reaching the fertile Ferghana Valley southeast of the Aral Sea. Then on to Samarkand and Bukhara in the southern steppes of Central Asia. Next comes Erzurum in eastern Turkey and then on to cross the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers before you finally head to either Antioch or Tyre on the Mediterranean or Constantinople on the Black Sea. From there you go by ship to Rome and beyond to complete your picturesque journey along the legendary Silk Road.
Quite a trip, eh?
The Silk Road had its beginnings perhaps as early as 329 BC and lasted until sometime in the 15th century, reaching its heyday during a 153-year period from 1215 to 1368, an era marking the expansion of the Mongol Empire until its fragmentation.
Interestingly enough, "the Silk Road" -- a term that has become a metaphor for cultural exchange among people of diverse societies, distant places and different religions -- was not "coined" until 1877, some four centuries after its demise, by, of all people, a German geographer. But more about that later.
Overview of the Silk Road: Two versions (in the one on the left, Chang'an on the east is now Xian)
Right now, let me share my fascination with this ancient and fabulous trading route, a bridge between East and West, the Orient and the Occident.
But before we get started, it will be helpful for you to keep the following geographical landmarks in mind as you read on. Before I started this project, many of these names of Central Asia were unfamiliar to me -- & I'm assuming the same for you. So, roughly from west to east, try to remember:
Central Asia today (Russia is the yellow area in the north)
(Note: You can click on most maps to get a larger image)
(1) Parthia, an ancient kingdom/empire centered in what is now Iran.
(2) Bactria, an area east and north of Parthia roughly corresponding to modern-day Afghanistan.
(3) Sogdiana, an area north of Bactria that lies between the two rivers that feed into the Aral Sea from the southeast, one to the north end, the other to the south end.
(4) The Syr Darya (also called the Jaxartes), that northern river that rises some 1,374 miles to the east in the Tian Shan Mountains, flowing west through the Ferghana Valley before turning northwest to end in the north end of the Aral Sea.
(5) The Amu Darya (also called the Oxus), the southern of those two rivers and, at 1,500 miles, the longest in Central Asia, which goes from its source in the southern Pamir Mountains and the eastern Hindu Kush west to form much of the modern northern border of modern Afghanistan and then northwest to feed into the south end of the Aral Sea.
(6) The Ferghana Valley, a fertile diamond-shaped region east of Sogdiana. About 186 miles long and 43 miles wide at its widest part, it is bounded by the Pamir Mountains on the east. The Syr Darya River exits on the west through a narrow mountain pass before heading northwest to empty into the Aral Sea.
(7) The Pamir Mountains, among the world's highest & sometimes known as "the roof of the world," lie between the Ferghana Valley on the west and the Tarim Basin on the east.
(8) The Hindu Kush, a great mountain system of Central Asia extending some 500 miles southwest from the Pamir Mountains across northern Pakistan into central Afghanistan. The Kyber Pass, that entry into India from Central Asia, lies at their eastern end.
(9) The Tarim Basin, an area in western China making up a little more than half of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China's largest province.
(10) The Taklamaklan Desert, which runs through the middle of the Tarim Basin and is bounded on the north by the Tian Shan (or "Heavenly Mountains") and on the south by the Kunlun range.
(11) Kashgar, a Chinese city on the western edge of the Tarim Basin, which was known as the crossroads of Central Asia.
Central Asia as it was it 200 AD
The Beginnings -- Who Else But Alexander the Great?
Zhang Qian, commander of the guard at the Imperial palace gates of the Han Dynasty, a power in China from 206 BC to 220 AD, is credited with explorations that started the eastern end of the Silk Road. In 138 BC, the Western Han Emperor Wu was concerned about continuing incursions on his northwest frontier from Xiongnu nomadic tribes (keep the Xiongnu in mind, for we will see them once more in later centuries in this saga of the Silk Road).
Earlier raids by the Xiongnu, who were Huns of Turkish descent, had prompted the Chinese to build the Great Wall; but the raids continued. So the Emperor commissioned Zhang Qian, who had volunteered, to lead a group of 99 Han soldiers to make contact with and get an alliance with the Yuezhi, a tribe that had fought the Xiongnu in the past, but now had moved further west into Central Asia.
Unfortunately, as Zhang traveled west through Xiongnu territory, he was captured and enslaved for ten years. During this time he gained the trust of the Xiongnu Khan and married a Xiongnu wife, who bore him a son. In the course of time, he was permitted greater freedom and, watching for an opportunity, was able to escape with his wife and son and men.
As Zhang and his party passed through the Tarim Basin and reached the Ferghana Valley, where they thought the Yuezhi lived, they found that they had moved further west. As they moved west through the Ferghana Valley, they met prosperous and peaceful countries there that welcomed them. Zhang was surprised by the wealth of these lands, with their jade, grapes and wine (unknown in China at that time) and, particularly, their powerful and magnificent horses, which became known as "Heavenly Horses" or "Celestial Horses." He also found these countries were interested in Chinese goods, especially silk, which only the Chinese knew how to make.
Eventually, Zhang reached the Yuezhi, who were now living west of the Ferghana Valley and southeast of the Aral Sea in an area known as Sogdiana. But his hopes of forming an alliance were dashed; the nomadic Yuezhi had settled down as farmers and were enjoying a life of peace. Nevertheless, Zhang remained there for a year with his family and followers before starting back for home.
But bad luck again pursued him on his return route, which once more took him through Xiongnu territory. He was recaptured and held for a year before again managing to escape with his wife, son and one companion, returning to the capital city Chang'an, China (now Xian), in 125 BC, 13 years after starting his expedition.
Although his travels had failed to produce the hoped-for military alliance against the Xiongnu tribes, it strengthened the Han resolve to eliminate this threat and, in 119 BC, a decisive Han victory at the Battle of Mobei forced the Xiongnu to move north of the Gobi desert. There they would remain for more than eleven centuries until, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, these nomadic tribes conquered much of the known world -- as far south as India and as far west as Eastern Europe -- founding the mighty Mongol Empire.
Bur Zhang's adventures also alerted the Han emperor to the opportunity for trade and wealth if contact could be made with the countries to the west. As the Xiongnu were defeated, the Han armies left strong garrisons behind to protect the western roads. After emissaries then made contact with Central Asian states -- as many as ten expeditions a year, some as far west as Syria -- the trade routes to these areas were soon filled with merchants carrying Chinese silk, metalwork and art and returning with jade, wine, horses and other luxury items.
But let's go back a bit and see just where Alexander the Great figures in the development of the Silk Road. As part of this Macedonian Greeks's conquest of most of the known world, he established some twenty or more cities, many named for himself. Most well known, of course, is the Alexandria in Egypt, where the ancient world's greatest library came into being. But, in 329 BC, he also founded the city of Alexandria Eschate (Alexandria the Furthest, now Khujand in Tajikistan) in the southwestern part of the Ferghana Valley, some 249 miles west of the Tarim Basin in Western China.
Alexander the Great's empire (the Ferghana Valley is that "finger" in the northeast, with Alexandria Eschate that "red dot" in the finger's southwest corner)
To protect his new city, situated on the southern bank of the Syr Darya River and settled by his retired veterans and wounded soldiers, Alexander built a 6-kilometer-long brick wall. The people in that region -- Alexander's most advanced base in central Asia -- became known as Dayuan and six years later, they came under control of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, one of the three established by Alexander's three main generals after his death in 323 BC. In 250 BC, Dayuan, along with Bactria to the south (present-day Afghanistan) and other areas, gained independence to become the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom.
Alexandria Eschate, which later becomes a major staging point on the northern Silk Road, also plays another important part in history. Eastern expeditions from that city are the first known connection between China and the West. The Greeks in Dayuan had expanded their control westward into Sogdiana as well as eastward into the Ferghana Valley. And, in either 220 or 200 BC, expeditions were sent further east as far as Kashgar at the western edge of the Tarim Basin in Chinese Turkestan. That city would go on for many centuries to become the greatest market on the Silk Road, a major trade route between two great cities: Constantinople, capital of the Roman Byzantine Empire, and Xian, China's capital for many years. Of this Dayuan expansion, the Greek geographer and historian Strabo (64 BC-AD 24) writes that "they extended their empire even as far as Seres (China) and the Phryni" (an ancient people of eastern Central Asia, probably located in the eastern part of the Tarim Basin).
This was historically crucial because, as the first major contact between the urbanized Indo-European culture and Chinese civilization, it opens the way to lay the foundation for the Silk Road, which would become a vital link for east-west trade in both materials and culture from the 1st century BC to the 15th century.
Things were relatively stable in this basically unstable region of Central Asian from the death of Alexander in 323 BC to around 180 BC. During this time, the Greek descendants of his soldiers -- plus other Greeks who had migrated to the area -- maintained control of Sogdiana, the Ferghana Valley and areas to the south in Bactria (now Afghanistan). Although the names changed over time -- ranging from the Seluecid Empire (323-250 BC) to the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250-125 BC) to the Indo-Greek Kingdom (175 BC-10 AD) -- it was still a Greek- dominated region and culture.
But over the next two centuries, the area then enters a greater state of flux. First the Yeuzhi, once again forced to move following a defeat by the Xiongnu, bypass the urban civilization of the Dayuan in 162 BC and settle in Sogdiana. This is the region southeast of the Aral Sea between the two rivers that flow into it, namely the Syr Darya on the north and the Amu Darya on the south. The latter, called the Oxus by the Greeks, currently serves as much of the northern border of Afghanistan. It was from this area in Sogdiana that the Yuezhi, under a different name, later play a part in enhancing the Silk Road.
Shortly after the Yeuzhi migration into Sogdiana, the Dayuan in the Ferghana Valley were overrun by nomadic Scythian tribes known as the Saka. These nomads had been retreating southward from southern Siberia for nearly two decades after having been earlier dislodged by the Yeuzhi (who, themselves, as noted, had been fleeing from the Xiongnu). The Saka were able to occupy the Dayuan because at that time its Greco-Bactrian ruler was deeply involved in a war to the south in India against Indo-Greeks and could not defend his northern provinces.
Thus, by around 130 BC, the Dayuan of the Ferghana Valley, a now independent Caucasian people under control of the Sakas, were one of three advanced civilizations in Central Asia, along with Parthia (present-day Iran) and Greco-Bactria (Afghanistan). Known for their large and powerful horses -- which became known as "Heavenly Horses" by the Chinese -- and, reportedly, for a love of wine, they were situated in an area that would play a key role along the Silk Road. And this brings us to the arrival in 127 BC of Zhang Qian, a fugitive still intent on carrying out his mission.
Nevertheless, as noted, things really didn't get moving along the Silk Road until well after Zhang Qian's travels (travels that earned him the Imperial title of "Great Traveler" the year before he died in 114 BC). It takes time to send out emissaries and make trade arrangements. And, mind you, it wasn't a case of a merchant taking his goods and moving all the way from one end of the Silk Road to the other. Very few traders went its entire length; rather, products moved like a bucket brigade from one middleman to another, each taking a little profit along the way.
To put things in perspective, while the Han Empire controlled much of China at this time -- and Rome was just beginning to expand outside Italy -- both went on to become great powers. And although Zhang's contacts led to the beginnings of trade along the Silk Road, again things didn't really pick up until the start of the 1st century AD thanks to -- guess who? -- the Yeuzhi! Only this time they are not known by their Chinese name (Yeuzhi), but their Asian one: Kushan.
This sets the stage for the rise of the powerful Kushan empire, which at its height loosely oversaw a territory that extended from the Aral Sea southeast through present-day Uzbekistan and as far east as the Tamir Basin plus Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir along with Nepal and most of northern India! Who were these Kushans?
Well, as I mentioned, it turns out they were none other than the Yeuzhi, by another name. Around the beginning of the 1st century, a loose confederation of five Yeuzhi tribes then living in Sogdiana, southeast of the Aral Sea, united under the banner of one of those tribes, the Kushana. Now under one leader, the Kushans first moved east to conquer the Sakas in Dayuan and push them south into Bactria and then even further south into present-day Pakistan. After occupying the Ferghana Valley and then pushing even further east to Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, the Kushan Empire (60-375 AD) expanded rapidly south through Bactria and then across the northern part of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as Benares on the Ganges River in northeastern India, ending up ruling a huge territory encompassing virtually all of northern India.
With two capitals, Peshawar (in northern Pakistan) in the summer and Mathura (in India, about 115 miles southeast of New Delhi) in the winter, the Kushan Empire linked the seagoing trade of the Indian Ocean with the commerce of the Silk Road through the long-civilized Indus Valley. At the height of the dynasty, from around 127-140 AD, the Kushans oversaw a huge territory. The loose unity and comparative peace in such a vast expanse encouraged long-distance trade, brought Chinese silks to Rome, and created strings of flourishing urban centers.
By 225, when the Kushan Empire was still enjoying a high point of splendor and prosperity, it had been totally assimilated by Indian culture. But that same year, after the death of its ruler, it split into eastern and western halves, after which things quickly went downhill. The western half (Afghanistan, western Pakistan & areas to the north) was soon conquered by the Persian Sassanid Empire (224-651), which had supplanted Parthia. This Persian Empire at its largest dominion included Central Asia between the Caspian and Aral Seas & areas to the east plus Afghanistan, western Pakistan, Iran, Iraq & other territories in the Middle East. A century and a half later, the eastern half of the Kushan Empire, based in the Punjab in India, was subjugated around 375 by the Indian Gupta Empire (370-550), which ruled during the so-called "golden age" of India.
Early Trade -- Silk to Rome; plus Ups and Downs
After Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BC, trade with the Far East blossomed on an unprecedented scale. A Chinese envoy visited the first Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar during his reign from 27 BC to 14 AD. Evidence of the importation of Chinese silk cloth into Rome is found in the writing of Seneca the Younger (ca. 4-65), when in a letter to the Senate during the last year of his life he decries the wearing of ". . . materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency . . . so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body."
Trade goods going to China included dates, saffron powder and pistachios from Persia; frankincense, aloes & myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt; and other expensive and desirable items from other areas in the West. In exchange, Chinese caravans sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer ware and porcelain. Other west-to-east trade included birds such as peacocks as well as grapes and the art of wine-making. From China in return -- in addition to silk, the main commodity -- came roses, oranges and pears.
Rome's first encounter with silk reportedly came in 53 BC when the Roman legions of Marcus Licinius Crassus -- the "richest man in Rome" -- suffered a horrendous defeat by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae (on the southeastern border of modern Turkey). Legend has it that the Roman soldiers were so startled by the wonderfully bright silken banners of their enemies that they fled in terror. Following the battle, Crassus was taken prisoner by the Parthian general, who, noting that the richest man in Rome had still attacked Parthia for no other reason than to loot its wealth, had him executed by forcing him to swallow molten gold.
Besides silk, paper and other goods, the world's oldest transcontinental highway also served to spread religion, most notably Buddhism, which moved from its origins in India throughout Central Asia and into China. Perhaps as early as sometime in the 2nd century BC, Buddhist beliefs were transmitted along the Silk Road. Another report puts 84 BC as the date Buddhism is introduced into the oasis city of Khotan, located southeast of Kashgar in the Tamir Basin on the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert (which means "desert of no return" in the local Uighur language).
But the most famous story of Buddhist introduction into China comes in 71 AD when envoys sent by the Han Emperor Ming three years earlier returned to China with Buddhist writing from India, accompanied by two Buddhist monks. According to legend, the Han Emperor Ming earlier had a dream of a tall golden figure floating in a halo of light. He questioned his advisors and one of them said, "In the West there is a god called Buddha. His body is 12 feet high and is the color of true gold." The Emperor, curious to discover the meaning of his dream, then had sent those envoys to northwestern India to inquire about the Buddha's doctrine.
Within a few years after their return, a Buddhist community was established in China that, from then on, grew continuously. The monks introduced the sacred books, texts and, most importantly, fine examples of Buddhist art, never before seen in China. In 148 AD, a Parthian missionary arrived in China, setting up a Buddhist temple and beginning the long work of translating Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language.
The decline of Buddhism along the Silk Road, starting in the 7th century, was due to the collapse of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) combined with the invasion of Arabs from the West. Since Islam condemned iconography, most of the Buddhist statues and wall-paintings in the area were damaged or destroyed. Buddhist temples and stupas were abandoned and buried beneath the sands. By the 15th century, almost the entire Central Asia basin had been converted to Islam.
After 432, Christianity made a brief appearance on the Silk Road. Around this time, the Roman Catholic Church had banned the Nestorian sect of Christianity, so the Nestorian believers fled eastward, first to Mesopotamia and Persia, and then further east to Central Asia and beyond, where they found refuge under the tolerant Mongol tribes living there. In 638, the first Nestorian church was founded in Xian and evidence of Nestorian Christian writings can be found in cave temples at Dunhuang in the eastern Tarim Basin.
And then there were those "Heavenly Horses," so coveted by the Chinese that they fought two wars over them, losing the first but winning the second! Obviously they were valuable animals: 2nd century Chinese chronicles mention a price of 40 bolts of silk for every "blood- sweating" Heavenly Horse brought back from the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. But so many were imported that the Dayuan rulers closed their borders to such trade with China.
Thereafter, Emperor Wu -- the same one who had sent Zhang Qian west some three decades earlier -- now sent a group of envoys to get some more horses, offering a thousand pieces of gold and a "golden horse" in exchange for some of them. However, the king of Ferghana, in a fit of pique and what obviously turned out to be a major mistake, smashed the golden horse and murdered the Han envoys during their return. Emperor Wu was obviously distraught and frustrated with his unsuccessful diplomatic efforts to obtain more of these horses that were stronger and faster than any in China -- horses that could possibly render Chinese armies invincible. So he then launched a military expedition of some 30,000 or more soldiers west to the Ferghana Valley to take the animals by force.
Unfortunately for the Chinese, less than half of their force was able to make it across the Taklamakan Desert and, upon their arrival in the Ferghana Valley, they were soundly defeated by the Dayuan. But Emperor Wu was determined. An even greater expedition of some 60,000 was planned. To get soldiers, he emptied the jails of criminals; he sent water engineers to divert the rivers of Ferghana; he organized relief supply trains of dried boiled rice for the journey. He left nothing to chance; and this time he was successful!
The capital of Ferghana was besieged. The inhabitants then killed their king and promised Emperor Wu's general a pick of the Heavenly Horses if he would lift the siege. The Chinese chose a few dozen bigger breeding animals plus 3,000 medium to smaller horses, with the promise of two more of the Heavenly Horses to be sent annually. The Han army also brought back alfalfa seeds, previously unknown in China, to supply the horses with forage. Alfalfa then became an important crop in China.
Although they got the horses, the trip back was not good. Only half of the original army had made it to the Ferghana Valley to carry out the siege. And on the way back across the Taklamakan Desert, two-thirds of the 3,000 horses as well as the same proportion of soldiers perished. Presumably, those few dozen Heavenly Horses received "extra care" & survived the harrowing journey because they became the favored breed in China.
A note here about this Han Emperor Wu, who has now shown up twice in this narrative, and who, it turns out, was a pretty impressive guy. His reign of 54 years and 20 days (141-87 BC) -- from the time he was 15 years old until his death at the age of 69 -- is a Chinese record that would not be broken for more than 1,800 years. A man of great talent and bold vision, he ruled during one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history. As a military campaigner, he led China through its greatest expansion, more than doubling its size with most of those added territories remaining today as a part of China proper. Now known to Chinese as "Han Wu the Great," he was the most successful emperor of the Han Dynasty and one of the greatest in all of Chinese history. While establishing an autocratic and centralized state, Emperor Wu adopted the principles of Confucianism as the state philosophy and code of ethics for his empire and started a school to teach future administrators the Confucian classics. These reforms would have an enduring effect throughout the existence of imperial China and an enormous influence on neighboring civilizations. And his civil service system worked so well that it lasted in China until 1912! Finally, one of the most notable accomplishments during Wu's long reign was his development of the Silk Road and the accompanying expansion of trade along that corridor.
The journey over the Silk Road was difficult and treacherous, with trade caravans crossing huge deserts as well as difficult mountain passes and steep valleys. How difficult? The Chinese Buddhist monk Faxian, traveling the Silk Rod near the end of the 4th century, gives us an idea: "The only road signs are the skeletons of the dead. Whevever they lie, there lies the road to India."
The main traders along the Silk Road were Indians and Bactrians from the Indian Kushan Empire during antiquity; Sogdians in Central Asia from the 5th to the 8th centuries; and then Arabs and Persians. A contributing factor to the success of the Silk Road and the flow of trade along its routes was the plant life in much of the area. Just as waterways provide easy means for distant transport, broad stretches of grasslands -- all the way from western China to the Middle East and deep into the heart of Europe -- provide fertile passage for grazing, plus water and fuel for caravans. These overland routes allowed passage that avoided trespassing on agricultural lands. This presented ideal conditions for caravans and merchants -- as well as armies -- to travel immense distances without arousing the hostility of more settled peoples.
Trade along the Silk Road declined in the early 3rd century AD with the fall of the Han Empire in China in 220. It rose again in the 7th century with the advent of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), reaching a high point in the 8th century. Another downturn occurred in the 10th century when the Tang Dynasty was ousted. Things went downhill further until the advent of the Mongol Empire (1206-1368), during which the Silk Road reached its heyday.
Beginning in the Central Asian steppes, The Mongol Empire emerged after the unification of Mongol and Turkic tribes -- remember those Xiongnu who had been pushed north of the Gobi Desert? -- under the leadership of Genghis Khan (1162-1227), who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The Empire grew rapidly under his leadership and that of his descendants, who sent invasions in every direction. By the middle of the 13th century, they governed most of the area through which the Silk Road passed.
Under the Mongols, commerce was promoted: Merchants were given tax exemptions and were allowed to use the relay stations of the Imperial post. If caravans were attacked by bandits, losses were made up from the Imperial treasury. So the Silk Road reached its zenith during the Mongol reign as they also eliminated tollgates and corruption, making trade both easier and safer. The largest contiguous empire in the history of the world, Mongol rule eventually stretched from Eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, covering Siberia in the north and extending southward into Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East. At its greatest extent, the Mongol Empire spanned 6,000 miles, covered 12.7 million square miles (some 22 percent of the earth's total land surface) and held sway over a population of 100 million.
This vast transcontinental empire, which connected the East with the West, would eventually function as a cultural "clearing house" for the Old World. Under the Mongols, new technologies, various commodities and ideologies were disseminated and exchanged across Eurasia; these exchanges ranged from cartography to printing, from agriculture to astronomy. Goods, along with technologies, religion, philosophy and even disease -- bubonic plague or the "Black Death" in the 14th century -- traveled along the Silk road.
But all was not "peaches & cream" through the Mongol rule; local wars seemed to break out sporadically between different factions and rulers, especially during the last quarter of the 13th century. These conflicts, of course, disrupted trade and travel along the Silk Road.
The last great nomad ruler who presided over -- and promoted -- the course of the Silk Road was Tamerlane (1336-1405), who conquered a vast territory from 1370 to 1405. The name Tamerlane comes from the Turkish Timur or Temur-i-link, Temur the lame, a name given because of a slight limp caused by an arrow wound received in his twenties while stealing sheep. Tamerlane was a complex individual; although illiterate, he spoke two or three languages. He also played chess, appreciated porcelain, loved buildings and liked to be read history at mealtimes. Although a nomad who lived in a tent and liked to be on the move, he carried around a portable bath.
A clever politician and expert tactician/general, Tamerlane was primarily a conqueror. In his lifetime he conquered more than anyone else except for Alexander, causing more death and destruction than even Genghis Khan. In 1370, consolidating his forces, he established his capital in Samarkand. Although both were nomad rulers, unlike his predecessor Genghis Khan, Tamerlane's original realm encompassed both settled and nomad populations. His genius lay in allowing merchants and townspeople to flourish in peace while letting the nomads do what they did best: Wage war and pillage and loot in foreign areas.
In the end, Tamerlane ruled over an empire that today would extend from southeastern Turkey into Syria, Iraq, Kuwait and Iran; through Central Asia encompassing part of Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; into Pakistan and northwestern India; and even approaching Kashgar in western China. Tamerlane's campaigns sometimes caused large and permanent demographic changes. For example, northern Iraq was predominantly Assyrian Christian until attacked, looted, plundered and destroyed by Tamerlane. All the churches there were destroyed and any survivors were forcefully converted to Islam by the sword.
His conquests, starting with eastern Persia in 1385, were characterized by exceptional brutality. For example, although he initially treated a large central Persian city with relative mercy when it surrendered without resistance, after it later revolted by killing Tamerlane's tax collectors and some of his soldiers, he ordered its complete massacre, killing a reported 70,000 citizens. An eye-witness counted more than 28 towers, each constructed of about 1,500 heads!
Rather than a nomad people in arms, Tamerlane's army was a composite force of horse, foot and artillery. Made up of a huge conglomeration of different peoples -- nomad and settled, Muslims and Christians, Turks, Tajiks, Arabs, Georgians and Indians -- its centerpiece was a heavy cavalry of armored knights. Following his campaign in India in 1398, he even acquired an elephant corps. As with other famous invaders of India -- including Cyrus the Great of Persia, who allowed captive Jews in Babyon to return to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem in 539 BC; Alexander the Great in 326 BC; Genghis Khan in 1221; and Babur, Tamerlane's great-great grandson and founder of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in 1526 -- Tamerlane entered the subcontinent through the Khyber Pass in modern-day northern Pakistan.
His campaigns in India were marked by systematic slaughter and other atrocities on a truly massive scale, inflicted mainly on the region's Hindu population. Before the battle for Delhi and its later sacking, Tamerlane executed 100,000 captives, mostly Hindus. His accounting of that sack of Delhi reads in part as follows:
" . . . . my army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering, and making prisoners. All that day the sack was general. The following day . . . . all passed in the same way, and the spoil was so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children. There was no man who took less than twenty. The other booty was immense in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver . . . . and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. . . . Although I was desirous of sparing them I could not succeed, for it was the will of Allah that this calamity should fall upon the city." Reportedly, it was more than a century before Delhi recovered.
Where Tamerlane went, death and destruction followed and the carnage was brutal. In 1401, he reached and sacked Aleppo on the Mediterranean Sea, erecting a pyramid of some 20,000 skulls. He then captured Damascus and massacured that city's inhabitants, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand.
The litany of death seemed endless: Invasions of Christian Armenia and Georgia resulted in the complete depopulation of many districts; some 60,000 of the remaining people were captured and enslaved. After the capture of Baghdad in 1401, 20,000 of its citizens were massacred. Tamerlane had ordered that every soldier should return to show him at least two severed human heads -- and many warriors were so scared that they killed prisoners captured earlier in the campaign just to ensure they had heads to present to Tamerlane. His conquests reportedly caused the deaths of up to 17 million people, making Hitler with his 6 million Jews look like a piker!
Contrast this almost unspeakable cruelty and carnage, death and destruction, with Tamerlane's love of buildings, gardens and "objets d 'art." He became widely known as a patron of the arts, and much of the architecture he commissioned still stands in Samarkand. He was known to bring the most talented artisans from the lands he conquered back to Samarkand, often giving them a wide range of artistic freedom. It has been been said of him that he loved art so much that he could not help stealing it! Thus, foreign buildings, such as the famed Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, were sketched by Imperial artists even as they went up in flames. The beautiful Byzantine gates in the Ottoman Empire's capital were carried back to Samarkand, where they remain on display today.
Tamerlane also had a high degree of interest in trade. Throughout his reign, while he planned his military campaigns, he also carryied out a conscious design to reactivate the Silk Road and make it a monopoly link between Europe and China. This was to be achieved, of course, by war: First against the Mongols then ruling Central Asia, the Ukraine and much of Russia (the so-called "Golden Horde"); next against the states of western Persia and the Middle East; and finally against India, Egypt and China.
Tamerlane's last campaign, in retrospect a very ill-fated one, began in the winter of 1405 when he launched an invasion of China. Too weak to walk, the aging Tamerlane had to be carried in a litter. Faced with one of the bitterest winters on record -- his troops are said to have had to dig through five feet of ice to reach drinking water -- Tamerlane died enroute to China on February 17, 1405, at the age of 69 in a town on the Syr Darya River. His body was carried back and buried in Samarkand. With his death, his "empire" suffered the same fate as those realms of so many other conquerors: It quickly fell apart as his successors squabbled and warred with each other.
But nothing lasts forever. Drastic changes came to the Silk Road in the 15th and 16th centuries. Chief among them was the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire, even though it had been briefly revived by Tamerlane, only to fall apart once more. The Han people of southern China ousted the Yuan Dynasty in 1368, replacing it with the isolationist Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644). Central Asia had devolved into a number of independent states. And, in the West, the Turkish Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, spelling the end of the Byzantine Roman Empire and effectively cutting off trade at the western end of the Silk Road. Finally, development of sea trading routes by the Portuguese and others in the early 16th century provided a cheaper alternative to overland commerce.
With all these changes, the Silk Road ceased to exist as a vital and important bridge between East and West.
Marco Polo: That Larger Than Life Traveler from Venice
In 1271, a merchant from the Venetian Republic named Marco Polo -- everyone has heard of him, if only at the swimming pool! -- set out on what turned out to be a 24-year-long trip over the Silk Road to China and back to deliver a letter from Pope Gregory X to Kublai Khan (1214- 1294) the Mongol ruler of China. This trip was in response to a letter the Khan had sent back with Niccolo and Maffeo Polo, Marco's father and uncle, in 1269.
What led up to that famous trip? Well, in 1260, the same year Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongol Empire, the Venetian traders Niccolo and Maffeo Polo had sailed to Sudak, a Crimean port. From there they went to a city named Surai on the Volga River, where they plied their trade for a year. Ready to return home to Venice, they found their route back blocked by a civil war, so they detoured to the east, arriving at Bukhara in present-day Uzbekistan, where they were stranded for three years.
The Venetian merchants finally found a way out with the arrival of a Mongol ambassador who, after meeting them, persuaded them to come to China to visit the Great Mongol Khan, who had never seen any Westerners or "Latins" and wanted to meet some. So the Polos, in the company of the ambassador, left Bukhara, one of the early centers of Persian civilization and for many years part of the Persian Empire, and traveled through Samarkand and Kashgar before crossing the Gobi Desert, finally reaching the Mongol capital of Beijing in 1266. This impressive city was built in 1264 by Kublai Khan as his capital after the Mongols took over China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1264-1368).
Upon meeting the Polo brothers, Kublai Khan, who ruled the mighty Mongol Empire from 1260 to 1294, was curious, asking them endless questions about their world, the Pope and the Roman Church. The Polo brothers responded forthrightly & the Khan was pleased with their answers. A year later he sent them home with a letter to Pope Clement IV asking him to send back one-hundred learned men to teach his people about Christianity and Western science. He also asked for oil from the lamp at the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
As he sent them off, he presented the Polos with a VIP golden passport that authorized travelers to receive "such horses, lodging, food and guides as they required" throughout the Mongol Empire -- which was huge at this time, stretching from the Pacific Ocean through Central Asia, into the Caucasus and eastern Turkey and the Middle East as well as Central Europe. Pretty neat! Nonetheless, it took the Polo brothers three years to return home, arriving in Venice in April 1269 to greet Marco, now around 15 years old.
This set the stage for Marco Polo's famed trip, which began two years later, when the now 17-year-old son and his father and uncle left Venice and set off on what was to become a 24-year-long journey, including a 17-year stay in China! The start of the trip had been delayed due to the death of Pope Clement VI while the Polos waited for the election of his successor and a response to the Khan's letter.
At the end of 1271, after the new Pope furnished them with letters and valuable gifts (including the holy oil), the Polos set out, accompanied by two friars (who hastily turned back when the party reached a war zone). But the Polos pressed on, making a wide sweep to the north, but still in Mongol territory. (Presumably they had kept that valuable golden passport and made good use of it. A note here: That "passport" was a foot long, three inches wide and inscribed with the words "By the strength of the eternal Heaven, holy be the Khan's name. Let him that pays him not reverence be killed.") When they reached the Tarim Basin -- known as China's own "Wild West" -- the Polos took the southern route, finally reaching Kublai Khan's capital city some three and a half years after leaving Venice.
Marco, a gifted linguist and master of four languages, soon became a favorite of the Khan, who appointed him to several high posts. He served at the Khan's court and was sent on a number of special missions in China, Burma and India. Impressed by the sumptuous marble palace, he said its dining hall was large enough to easily handle six thousand people. Although now ruler of the greatest empire in the history of the world, Kublai Khan had not forgotten "his roots." Thus he had steppe grass sown on his courtyard at the Imperial palace to remind him of the Mongol homeland of his youth.
Another palace was constructed entirely of cane supported by 200 silk cords, which could be taken to pieces and transported easily when the Emperor moved. There too, the Khan kept a stud of 10,000 speckless white horses, whose milk was reserved for his family and for "a tribe that had won a victory for Genghis Khan." Two other things -- new to him -- that Marco found most interesting were paper currency and the Imperial Mongol post, or "Yam."
The latter involved the efficient Mongol mail system, which consisted of three main grades of dispatch. Lowest priority messages were carried by foot-runners, who had relay-stations three miles apart. Each messenger wore a special belt hung with small bells to announce his approach and ensure that his relief was out on the road and ready for a smooth takeover so that a message could cover the distance of a normal ten-day journey in just 24 hours. At each station a log was kept on the flow of messages and all the routes were patrolled by inspectors. The next most important messages were sent by an ancient version of America's pony express with letters carried on horseback, with relay-stages of 25 miles. But the really important messages of the Mongol Empire were carried by non-stop dispatch-riders; supplied with fresh horses along the way, they could travel 250 or 300 miles in a day.
Kublai Khan appointed Marco Polo an official of the Privy Council in 1277 and for three years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou, a city on the Grand Canal, northeast of Nanking. Meanwhile his father and uncle took part in the assault on a town for which they designed and constructed siege engines.
The Polos stayed in Khan's court for 17 years, where they acquired great wealth in jewels and gold. But they were concerned that they might not be able to get their fortune out of the country if the Khan -- now in his seventies -- died. The Khan denied their requests to leave several times but finally, in 1291, after receiving a request for a potential bride from Arghun Khan, his great-nephew, then ruler of Persia, he agreed to let them return if they escorted Kokochin, a Mongol princess, to marry the Persian ruler.
The three Polos left the next year from southern China in a fleet of fourteen junks that sailed to Singapore, then north to Sumatra and around the southern tip of India, finally crossing the Arabian Sea to the port of Hormuz on the southern coast of present-day Iran. The two-year voyage was a perilous one: Of the six-hundred passengers, only eighteen (including the three Polos and the princess) survived. Unfortunately, Arghun died before the Princess Kokochin arrived, so she instead married his son, Ghazan (a good tradeoff? -- reportedly plain, he was obviously younger!).
After an overland trip to the Black Sea, the Polos finally sailed back to Venice via Constantinople, arriving in the winter of 1295, some 24 years after they had left! Upon their return, they found that Venice was at war with Genoa, its major Italian rival for sea trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Three years later, in 1298, while Marco was commanding a galley in the war, he was captured and spent a year in a Genoese prison. One of his fellow prisoners was a writer of romances. To pass the time, Marco dictated his adventures along the Silk Road and in China and the Orient.
A year later, the war ended, bringing the release of Marco and his fellow prisoner, who promptly published a book known at the time as "The Description of the World" or "The Travels of Marco Polo." The book became one of the most popular in medieval Europe and its impact on the contemporary Europe was incalculable. Those some dubbed it "Il Milione" ("The Million Lies"), the book's publication captured the imagination of most Europeans, sparking tremendous interest in and trade with the Far East.
Here is a sample from the book where Marco describes his transit of the Gobi Desert: "When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason -- falling asleep or anything else -- he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this. Sometimes in the night, travelers hear a noise like the clatter of a great company of riders away from the road; if they believe that these are some of their own company and head for the noise, they find themselves in deep trouble when daylight comes and they realize their mistake. There were some who, in crossing the desert, have seen a host of men coming towards them and, suspecting that they were robbers, returning, they have gone hopelessly astray . . . . Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason, bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path."
On a personal note, Marco Polo was married in 1300 at the age of 46, a year after being released from captivity. He later fathered three daughters, Fantina, Bellela and Moreta. He died in January 1324 at the age of 70, supposedly uttering the words "I have only told the half of what I saw!" on his deathbed.
The "Other" Famous Silk Road Traveler
At about the same time that Marco Polo had set out on his journey from west to east, there was another Silk Road traveler -- though far less well-known, nevertheless important -- who made his trip in the opposite direction. The account of this little-known Nestorian monk and Mongol envoy provides a counterpoint to his Venetian contemporary. There were certain other differences between the two ventures: The Venetian went on business, while the Chinese monk's trek was originally a religious mission that evolved into a diplomatic venture.
Fired by a zeal to visit Nestorian monuments in the Middle East and Jerusalem, sometime before 1278, a Turkic- Mongol monk named Rabban Bar Sauma and his student Markos (later to become patriarch and leader of the Nestorian church centered in Baghdad) set out on an arduous pilgrimage. Rabban (or "master") Bar Sauma (1220-1294) had become a monk in the Nestorian Christian faith sometime between the age of twenty and twenty-five in Beijing.
You might ask, "Who were the Nestorians?" Well, they were a sect named after their founder, a Persian priest named Nestorius (386-451) who became Bishop of Constantinople and taught that Christ had two separate identities, one human and one divine. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared this a heresy and the shunned Nestorians began moving eastward, first to Mesopotamia and Persia, and then further east when these lands were conquered by the Muslims in the middle of the 7th century. They found refuge under the Mongols, who were tolerant of all religions.
After traversing Central Asia, Bar Sauma and Markos arrived in Baghdad where they met the Catholicos, head of the Nestorian church there, who asked them to go back to China as his messengers. The Catholicos made Markos a bishop, designating him as a sort of archbishop of northern China. But continued fighting in areas to the eastern prevented them from departing and, while they were waiting to do so, the Catholicos died. The upshot of all this was that a convocation of Nestorian bishops then chose Markos as the new Catholicos.
The two men then traveled northeast to have the selection confirmed by Abaqa Khan, the Mongol ruler of Persia. By the time they arrived, Abaqa had died and his son, Arghun Khan, had succeeded him as governor of Persia. Arghun, a devout Buddhist (although pro-Christian), also was the son of a Christian princess and, like most Turco-Mongols, showed great tolerance for all faiths, even allowing Muslims to be judged under Koranic law. Notwithstanding his tolerance, Arghun (who ruled from 1284 to 1291) was interested in forming a strategic Franco-Mongol alliance with Christian Europeans against their common enemy, the Muslim Mamluks of Egypt.
(Interestingly enough, as a side note it was this same Arghun. who following the 1286 death of his favorite wife, Bulughan, had requested a new bride from his great-uncle Kublai Khan. On her deathbed, Bulughan had asked that her place be filled only by a lady of her own Mongol tribe. Ambassadors were then despatched to the Great Khan's court to seek such a bride. Arriving in 1291, their request was courteously received by the Khan, and the choice fell on the lady Kokochin, a maiden of seventeen. Because the overland road from Beijing to Tabriz in Persia was not only of great length for such a tender charge, but also was threatened by war, the envoys wanted to return by sea. But like most Tartars, they were strangers to all forms of navigation. So, much taken with the Polos in the Khan's court at the time, and eager to profit by the Polos' experience at sea -- especially since Marco had just then returned from a mission to India -- they begged the Khan as a favor to send the three Venetians with them in their sea voyage back to Persia. Kublai Khan reluctantly consented, and thus Marco, his father and uncle were able to leave China!)
Meanwhile, pursuing his desire for a Franco-Mongol alliance, Arghun asked Markos, the new Catholicos, to select an ambassador to carry his message to the West; Markos, in turn, picked his old friend and teacher, Bar Sauma. Thus, in 1287, the 67-year-old Bar Sauma left Baghdad, traveling overland through Armenia to the Black Sea, with letters from Arghan Khan to the Byzantine Eemperor, the Pope and the kings of France and England. He was accompanied by a large retinue of assistants and loaded with presents for the Western kings, enough to burden thirty riding animals. Arriving at the southern coast of the Black Sea, Bar Sauma went by boat through Constantinople and on to Rome. His course took his party past the island of Sicily, where he witnessed and recorded observations of the great eruption of Mount Etna on June 18, 1287.
Arriving in Rome, he found the Pope had died, so he instead engaged in negotiations with the Cardinals, and visited St. Peter's Basilica. From Rome, he traveled north through Tuscany, spending the winter of 1287-88 in Genoa, a famous banking center. Next was a month in Paris where he met with the King of France and then later with King Edward I of England in southern France, which was then in English hands. On his return to Rome, he was cordially received by the newly elected Pope Nicholas IV, who gave him communion on Palm Sunday in 1288, a concrete sign that the eight centuries of hostility between Rome and the Nestorians had come to an end.
In 1288, Bar Sauma returned to the Mongol realm, bearing letters of response from Pope Nicholas IV, King Edward I of England and King Philip IV the Fair of France. But unfortunately for Arghun's hopes of an Franco-Mongol alliance, the letters, although positive, contained mostly vague promises. Basically, the timing of Bar Sauma's fruitless quest was all wrong.
Around 1265, European attitudes toward the Mongols had begun to change from viewing them as enemies to seeing them as potential allies against the Muslims. Although the Mongols had capitalized on this, Arghun even promising that if Jerusalem were conquered, he would turn it over to the Europeans and have himself baptized, these efforts now fell on mostly deaf ears.
Thus, had Bar Sauma come to Europe with Arghun's message even a century or so before, he might have gotten exactly what he wanted. But by now the Crusades (1095-1291), an effort to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims, were drawing to a close. The Egyptian Mamluks had successfully recaptured all of Palestine and Syria from the Crusaders and, after the fall of the port of Acre on the Mediterranean coast in 1291, the remaining Crusaders in the Holy Land were forced to flee to the island of Cyprus.
The idea of a Franco-Mongol alliance against the Muslims was not as strange as it might seem on the surface: With its court containing many influential Nestorian Christians, the Mongols were sympathetic to Christianity. On the other side, the Europeans were open to the idea of assistance coming from the East, due in part to the long-running story of the legendary Prester John, an Eastern king in a magical kingdom who many believed would arrive at some point to miraculously help with the Crusades in the Holy Land.
Who was this "Prester John" of myth? In the mid-12th century, a mysterious letter began to circulate around Europe. It told of a magical kingdom in the East that was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. Supposedly written by a king known as Prester John, there were more than one-hundred different versions published during the following centuries. Most often, the letters were addressed to Emanuel I, the Byzantine Emperor of Rome, though other versions were also addressed to the Pope or the king of France.
The letters all said that Prester John ruled a huge Christian kingdom in the East, comprising the "three Indias." They described a peaceful kingdom, with rivers filled with gold, which was also the home of the Fountain of Youth (the first recorded mention of such a fountain) and the Gates of Alexander (another legend concerning a barrier built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus to keep out the uncivilized barbarians of the north, typically associated with Gog and Magog).
According to the legend -- which varied with the telling -- Prester John was a descendent of the Magi and a possessor of great wealth who ruled a kingdom where "honey flows in our land and milk everywhere abounds." The legends of Prester John ("Prester" is a corrupted form of the word Presbyter or Priest) were extremely popular, capturing the imagination of Europeans; his so-called "letters" were translated into numerous languages and widely circulated. Though its immediate genesis is unclear, the legend of this fabled king drew strongly on the stories of Saint Thomas the Apostle's proselytizing in India, recorded especially in a 3rd-century work known as the Acts of Thomas. This text established an image of "India" as a place of exotic wonders and offered the earliest description of Saint Thomas establishing a Christian sect there (the Saint Thomas Christians).
Not a static thing, the legend of Prester John changed over time. For instance, in 1221, the Bishop of Acre returned from the disastrous Fifth Crusade with good news: King David of India, the son or grandson of Prester John, had already conquered Persia, then under Saracen control, and was moving towards Baghdad as well. The Bishop was correct in thinking that a great king had conquered Persia; however "King David," as it turned out, was no benevolent Nestorian monarch nor even a Christian, but the Tartar warlord Genghis Khan. Yet in other stories, Genghis Khan waged successful war against his strongest enemy, one Prester John!
In retrospect, of course, all these stories were a complete hoax. But at the time, it must have seemed very believable. And so this persistent myth lasted for centuries, even shifting the location of Prester John's realm from India or Central Asia to Abyssinia or Ethiopia in Africa!
But, wherever they looked, nobody ever found Prester John or his magical kingdom.
After Bar Sauma delivered his glowing but eventually less-than-positive messages from the Pope and the European monarchs, he returned to Baghdad, where he wrote down an account of his travels, which were published in English in 1928 as "The Monks of Kublai Khan." The narrative is unique for its observations of medieval Europe during the end of the Crusades through the eyes of an observant outsider from a culture thousands of miles away. In contrast to the "Travels of Marco Polo," these writings give a reverse viewpoint of the East looking to the West.
Finally: How the Silk Road Got Its Name
In 1877, the German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven trips to China between 1868 and 1872, published a book, "China: The Result of My Travels and the Studies Based Thereon." In it, he first coined the term "Silk Road" (Seidenstrafe in German) to describe this ancient trade passage that linked the Orient and the Occident. Starting in Xian in central China, it connected Xinjiang in western China with Europe via Samarkand and Bukhara, ancient Sogdian cities that were part of the Persian Empire. Today, both are in Uzbekistan, north of Afghanistan.
The Baron's other claim to fame is that he was the uncle of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War I flying ace best known as the "Red Baron."
What Did It All Mean?
Trade on the Silk Road -- both in goods and ideas -- was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome. Promoting the exchange of Western and Oriental cultures, in many respects this international passageway helped lay the foundations of the modern world.
But mostly, to a romantic like me, it conjures up thoughts of ancient caravans of donkeys and camels; dust, dirt & dung (memories of a trip to India!); and, above all, a sense of antiquity, mystery and intrigue!