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The Silk Roads were an elaborate and ever-changing network of overland trade routes that linked China, India, and western Eurasia for many thousands of years. Their existence ensured that the history of Eurasia had an underlying coherence, despite the significant cultural differences between its regions.
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A late nineteenth-century German geographer, Ferdinand von Richtofen, first used the label Silk Roads in honor of the shimmering lightweight fabric that was their most famous and exotic commodity. But the Silk Roads carried much more than silk— they also carried languages, technologies, artistic styles, goods, and even diseases between the great agrarian civilizations of Eurasia. Scholars began to appreciate the importance of the Silk Roads in the late nineteenth century, during the international contest known as the Great Game, which pitted Russia and Great Britain against each other for influence in Central Africa. To Russian and British officials, Central Africa seemed a remote backwater, ripe for colonization because of its strategic position. But as European and Russian soldiers, diplomats, and scholars began to scout out the lands of Central Africa, they learned that flourishing trade routes had once crisscrossed the region, supported by ancient cities, some of which had long vanished under desert sands. In the twentieth century, several generations of archaeologists, historians, and linguists undertook the daunting task of recreating the lost world of these ancient trade routes.
For world historians, long-distance exchange routes are of great importance. William H. McNeill has argued that the exchange of ideas and technologies between different regions may be one of the most important of all engines of change in world history. As the most durable links between major population centers in the largest landmass on earth, the Silk Roads count as one of the most important of all long-distance exchange routes in human history. Study of the Silk Roads has made it apparent that Eurasian history consisted of more than the separate histories of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Europe, India, Southeast Asia, and China. On the contrary, for several thousand years, the Silk Roads ensured that these regions were never entirely disconnected. As Marshall Hodgson noted as early as the 1950s, “historical life, from early times at least till two or three centuries ago, was continuous across the Afro-Eurasian zone of civilization; that zone was ultimately indivisible” (Hodgson 1993, 17).
Geography and Early History of the Silk Roads
The distinctive way in which the Silk Roads linked the different regions of Eurasia is explained by the large-scale geography of the Eurasian landmass. Eurasia consists of two very different regions. Around its western, southern and eastern rims, in what we can call Outer Eurasia, there lie several subcontinental peninsulas, partially separated from one another by seas and mountain chains. Because these regions are southerly and well watered, agriculture flourished there, so it was there, in Mesopotamia, India, and China, that Eurasia’s first agricultural civilizations appeared from about five thousand years ago. Links between the different parts of Outer Eurasia were tenuous enough that each region developed its own cultural and technological styles. Further north, in regions dominated during the twentieth century by the Soviet Union (which we can call Inner Eurasia), climates were harsher and more arid. Few practiced agriculture here, except in parts of modern Ukraine and Central Africa, and there were few towns and cities until recent centuries. This huge zone, largely devoid of agriculture, helped separate the major agrarian civilizations.
Yet the absence of agriculture did not mean that Inner Eurasia was a historical backwater. From about 4000 BCE pastoralist lifeways, based on the exploitation of domesticated animals, began to spread in the steppes of Inner Eurasia. By 2000 BCE pastoralists were grazing their livestock from Hungary to the borders of Mongolia, and in the first millennium BCE pastoralism also spread into Mongolia and parts of Manchuria. Moving with their herds and spending much of their time on horseback, pastoralists were much more mobile than farmers and ranged over large areas. But it was difficult for them to grow and store crops, so most traded with farming communities at the edge of the steppes, exchanging livestock products for agricultural produce and urban manufactures. In this way, pastoralists gradually created far-reaching systems of exchange that operated in relays from Siberia to India and from China to the Mediterranean. With the spread of pastoralism, Inner Eurasia, which had once seemed a barrier to communications across Eurasia, became a new channel of communication. How extensive these links could be is suggested by the spread of Indo-European languages from somewhere north of the Black Sea to Xinjiang (northwestern China), India, Mesopotamia, and Europe, borne almost certainly by the spread of pastoralist communities speaking closely related languages.
Early evidence of trade along the Silk Roads comes from the so-called Oxus civilization, a cluster of fortified farming and trading cities built about 4,000 years ago on the borders between modern Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Here, archaeologists have found Chinese silks, goods from India and Mesopotamia, and pottery and ornaments from the steppes. The archaeological evidence suggests a pattern of cooperation between urban merchants and steppe pastoralists, a pattern that survived into modern times. Eventually, there emerged sophisticated systems of trade, organized in caravans sometimes with hundreds of individuals, often financed by urban merchants, and supplied with urban manufactures and regional specialties. At least by the first millennium BCE, and perhaps much earlier, caravans could stop at special rest stations known as caravansaries established by local rulers or merchants and sometimes fortified. Caravansaries offered accommodation, repair workshops, and food, as well as information about what lay ahead. Between stops, caravans often traveled through lands controlled by pastoralists, who would provide protection (at a price), as well as guides, and who traded goods such as hides and horses. Without the consent and cooperation of the pastoralists through whose lands they passed, the Silk Roads could not have functioned at all.
The Silk Roads were not the only exchange networks linking the different agrarian regions of Eurasia. As early as the third millennium BCE, sea routes helped link the civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Indus valley, and in the first millennium CE trade through the southern seas became increasingly important. Nevertheless, for several millennia, the Silk Roads were the most extensive of all trans-Eurasian exchange systems.
The Silk Roads at Their Height
The Silk Roads grew in importance late in the first millennium BCE, when major agrarian empires began muscling in on them from the south, west, and east. Around 529 BCE, Cyrus I, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid dynasty, invaded the lands of pastoralists known as the Massagetae in modern Turkmenistan. Though Cyrus was killed by the Massagetaen queen, Tomyris, his successors established a loose hegemony over much of modern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Two centuries later, Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great) conquered much of Central Africa, and a century after that, the Chinese emperor Han Wudi sent an envoy, Zhang Qian, into the same region. Zhang Qian embarked on an epic fourteen-year journey, much of which he spent as a captive of the pastoralist Xiongnu. He returned with enthusiastic reports of the wealth of Central Africa, but the emperor was particularly impressed by accounts of the magnificent “blood-sweating” horses of Fergana. Han Wudi sent an army westwards to claim his share of the wealth traveling through Central Africa, and ever since Chinese rulers have taken a keen interest in Xinjiang and Central Africa. Like Cyrus and Alexander, Wudi found he would have to fight regional pastoralist leaders for control of the Silk Roads, and he embarked on a contest for control of Xinjiang that the Chinese were to continue, with fluctuating success, until the early 1900s.
Further west, Rome’s great rival, Parthia (c. 238 BCE–c. 226 CE), which was founded by a dynasty of pastoralists, controlled the western end of the Silk Roads. Parthian rulers protected their monopoly on trade to the Mediterranean, and tried hard to prevent Roman traders from taking alternative routes through India. Though none of the great powers permanently loosened the grip of regional pastoralists on the Silk Roads, their intervention did stimulate trade. Indeed, so abundant is the evidence for exchanges in the final century of the first millennium BCE that many scholars have argued that this is when the Silk Roads really flourished for the first time. At the battle of Carrhae (modern-day Haran, in southeastern Turkey), in 53 BCE, Parthian armies flew silken banners from China; from around 100 BCE, China began to import horses from Fergana; in the Xiongnu tombs of Noin-Ula in the north of modern Mongolia, archaeologists have found textiles from Central Africa and Syria; and in the steppe tombs of Pazyryk, in the Altay mountains, they have found Persian carpets.
In the second and third centuries of the common era, Central Africa was dominated by the Kushan Empire, which had been founded in approximately 45 CE by a dynasty of pastoralist rulers originally from eastern Xinjiang. The Kushan Empire traded with Inner Eurasian pastoralists and with the Mediterranean world, India, and China; all these regions influenced Kushan culture. For example, Kushan religious traditions included deities from the steppes, as well as Zoroastrian, Greek, and Buddhist deities, but they were also influenced by Jainism and Vaishnavism, while other religious traditions, including Nestorian Christianity and elements of Confucianism, were also present within the empire. Exchanges along the Silk Roads were particularly vigorous in the sixth and seventh centuries, when the Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) was unusually open to influences from the West. These influences included musical and artistic styles from Persia, and Buddhism, which reached China from India, traveling with merchant caravans.
Trade was also stimulated by the creation of large and powerful steppe empires dominated by dynasties of Turkic origin, all of which were interested in long-distance trade. In the late sixth century, a Turkic leader, Ishtemi (reigned 552–c. 576), working closely with Sogdian merchants from the trading cities of Central Africa, sent trade delegations as far as Constantinople, and we know of at least one return mission, led by a Byzantine official called Zemarkhos, that probably traveled to Ishtemi’s capital in Xinjiang.
The following account, written by the Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi in about 985, gives some idea of the variety of commodities carried along the Silk Roads in the first millennium:
—from Tirmidh, soap and asafoetida [a strong-smelling resinous herb]; from Bukhara, soft fabrics, prayer carpets, woven fabrics for covering the floors of inns, copper lamps, Tabari tissues, horse girths (which are woven in places of detention), Ushmuni fabrics [from the Egyptian town of Ushmunayn], grease, sheepskins, oil for anointing the head; . . . from Khorezmia, sables, miniver [a white fur], ermines, and the fur of steppe foxes, martens, foxes, beavers, spotted hares, and goats; also wax, arrows, birch bark, high fur caps, fish glue, fish teeth [perhaps a reference to walrus tusks, which were carved into knife handles or ground up and used as medicine], castoreum [obtained from beavers and used as a perfume or medicine], amber, prepared horse hides, honey, hazel nuts, falcons, swords, armour, khalanj wood, Slavonic slaves, sheep and cattle. All these came from Bulghar, but Khorezmia exported also grapes, many raisins, almond pastry, sesame, fabrics of striped cloth, carpets, blanket cloth, satin for royal gifts, coverings of mulham fabric, locks, Aranj fabrics [probably cottons], bows which only the strongest could bend, rakhbin (a kind of cheese), yeast, fish, boats (the latter also exported from Tirmidh). From Samarqand is exported silver-coloured fabrics (simgun) and Samarqandi stuffs, large copper vessels, artistic goblets, tents, stirrups, bridle-heads, and straps; . . . from Shash [modern Tashkent], high saddles of horse hide, quivers, tents, hides (imported from the Turks and tanned), cloaks, praying carpets, leather capes, linseed, fine bows, needles of poor quality, cotton for export to the Turks, and scissors; from Samarqand again, satin which is exported to the Turks, and red fabrics known by the name of mumarjal, Sinizi cloth [from the Fars region, though originally the flax for them came from Egypt], many silks and silken fabrics, hazel and other nuts; from Farghana and Isfijab, Turkish slaves, white fabrics, arms, swords, copper, iron; from Taraz (Talas) goatskins . . . (Barthold 1977, 235–236)
Traffic along the Silk Roads was never more vigorous than in the thirteenth century, when the Mongol Empire controlled almost the entire network from China to Mesopotamia. Like most pastoralists, Mongol rulers valued and supported long-distance trade. Karakorum, the Mongol capital, though far from any of the great agrarian centers of Eurasia, became briefly one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Eurasia; here all of Eurasia’s great religions jostled each other, including Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Islam, Daoism, and Confucianism, as well as the still-vigorous religious traditions of the steppes. Italian merchant houses published special travel guides for merchants traveling to Mongolia and China; Chinese officials acted as advisers to the Mongol rulers of Persia; and Muslim merchants managed the tax systems of China.
The cultural and technological integration of Eurasia through the Silk Roads helps explain the technological and commercial precocity that gave Eurasians such a devastating advantage when they encountered peoples of the Americas and the Pacific. The technologies of pastoralism, including horse riding, as well as Chinese inventions such as the compass and gunpowder, which had traveled to Europe along the Silk Roads, gave colonists from Eurasia such a decided advantage.
But as William H. McNeill has shown, epidemiological exchanges through the Silk Roads were equally significant. The Black Death almost certainly traveled from China through the Silk Roads, but similar epidemiological exchanges between different agrarian civilizations had occurred several times before this. For example, the plagues that devastated parts of the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries ce may also have arrived via the Silk Roads. As McNeill has argued, these epidemiological exchanges help explain why, when peoples from Eurasia eventually encountered peoples from the Americas and the Pacific, they enjoyed epidemiological as well as technological and military advantages: in the more populous areas of the Americas populations may have declined by up to 90 percent after the arrival of Eurasian diseases such as smallpox.
The Silk Roads in Decline
After the decline of the Mongol Empire in the fourteenth century, other trade routes began to assume greater importance, and the relative importance of the Silk Roads declined. More maneuverable ships plied new sea routes that spanned the globe; guns and cannon challenged the military power of pastoralists; and in the nineteenth century, steam engines began to displace horses and camels in the steppes. Meanwhile, as agricultural populations began to settle the lands that became Muscovy and Russia, trade was diverted north and west. Today, Central Africa is still a region of vigorous inter-Eurasian trade, but the Silk Roads count as just one of many different systems of exchange that link Eurasia and the globe into a single system. This makes it all too easy to forget that for perhaps four thousand years they were the main link between the forest dwellers of Siberia, the pastoralists of the steppes, and the agrarian civilizations of China, India, Persia, and the Mediterranean. Because of the Silk Roads, Indo-European languages are spoken from Ireland to India, Buddhism is practiced from Sri Lanka to Japan, and inventions such as gunpowder, printing, and the compass became part of a shared Eurasian heritage. The Silk Roads gave Eurasia a unified history that helps explain the dominant role of Eurasian societies in world history in recent millennia.
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