The Silk Road in History

Story posted: Friday, 20. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / SILK ROAD




The Silk Road in History




In recent years the end of the Cold War, together with the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the newly acquired independence of the various Central Asian Republics (sometimes referred to collectively as ‘the Stans’) and the opening up of China, have all combined to make the Heart of Asia more accessible to the ordinary traveller than at any time in the past. As a consequence, the term ‘Silk Road’ has also taken on a new meaning. No longer a purely historical reference to the great overland trade route of antiquity, it is now increasingly applied to a re-established highway stretching right across Asia, linking East and West via a series of harsh deserts and spectacular mountains, while passing through ancient cities bearing names redolent with age, remoteness and mystery.


Viewed from a Western perspective, these fabled settlements seem to acquire an increased patina of romance the further east they lie. Thus Istanbul yields to Antakya – the ancient Antioch – to be surpassed in turn by such magical place-names as Palmyra Balkh, Bukhara, Kashgar, Khotan, Dunhuang and Xi’an. This aura of the mystic Orient is perhaps best epitomised in the celebrated verse of the English poet James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915):


Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells

When shadows pass gigantic on the sand

And softly through the silence beat the bells,

Along the golden road to Samarkand.


 Interestingly, the same, semi-mystic quality is attached to the Silk Road when viewed from an Eastern perspective, though with a caution borne of two millennia of closer contact with the realities of Central Asia. Chang’an – today’s Xi’an – the ancient capital of the Tang Dynasty, has long been a familiar name for Chinese to conjure with, but Jiayuguan, the ‘Last Pass Under Heaven’, traditionally marked the western limits of civilisation. Beyond lay the rich jade fields of Khotan, the prized Heavenly Horses of Ferghana and – at the very edges of the western world – fabled Daqin, the ancient Chinese name for Rome. But in between lay boundless deserts and insurmountable peaks inhabited only by bandits and demons. Thus, for one anonymous Ming Chinese poet, not the romantic – and frankly misleading – Orientalism of Fletcher, but something altogether more realistic:


Looking west, we see the long, long road – Only the brave cross the Martial Barrier.

Who is not afraid of the vast desert?

Should not the scorching heat of heaven make him frightened?


Yet today the restored Silk Road exercises an increasingly irresistible appeal on travellers from both East and West while, truth to tell, the actual journey becomes easier and more comfortable year by year. A desert journey from, say, Kashgar to Urumqi, which as recently as 1940 took forty days to complete in an unsprung, camel-drawn cart, can now be accomplished in an air-conditioned sleeper bus in under fifteen hours. Moreover, as such visits bring new wealth, and national pride long suppressed begins to burgeon, many ancient Silk Road sights and cities are gradually, even rapidly, being restored to their former glory.


Which begs the question, what exactly was the Silk Road, and where does its name come from? History tells us that the phrase was first coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen as recently as 1877, with reference to one of the earliest and most valuable commodities carried overland between China and the Mediterranean – silk. Silk may not have been the first such costly product to make the journey – certainly it was preceded by lapis lazuli and by jade. Yet silk, unknown in the west and therefore highly prized, was for many centuries the most celebrated and profitable item transported along the caravan trails of Central Asia, and it was carried from East to West, which is therefore the direction generally followed in this book.


Lapis Lazuli: The finest lapis lazuli is found in Badakshan’s Kokcha Valley in northeast Afghanistan. These deposits at the mines of Sar-e-Sang may have been worked for more than 6,000 years. Badakhshan was the source of lapis lazuli for the ancient Egyptian, Indus Valley and Mesopotamian civilizations, as well as for the later Greek and Roman worlds.


There is no precise definition of where the Silk Road ran, nor of its start or finish. Over the centuries routes changed as rivers dried up or changed course, while natural phenomena like earthquakes and desertification, or man-made events such as migration, wars and banditry combined to force merchants to find the safest and easiest course. But by and large the route ran west, from Xi’an, via the narrow Hexi Corridor of Gansu separating the Gobi Desert from the Tibetan Massif, around both sides of the great Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, and across the Pamirs to Turkistan. Thence via northern Afghanistan and Iran to the Syrian trading centre of Aleppo, and on via Antakya to Constantinople – today the great Turkish metropolis of Istanbul, spanning both the Bosphorus and the twin continents of Asia and Europe.


There were many sub-routes and other trails, not least across the Karakoram Mountains south to India. But the great spinal cord of the traditional Silk Road ran from Xi’an in the east to Antakya and Istanbul in the West, and this is the main route followed here.


The Earliest Traders


 It is impossible to state with any certainty when long distance trade first developed, or indeed precisely where. What seems clear is that, as with so many human endeavours, it occurred earlier than had long been thought. Archaeologists and historians tend continually to push back in time such ‘firsts’ through their researches, and the history of trade routes, both maritime and overland, is no exception.


Seemingly the earliest long distance trade routes developed in North Africa and the Middle East. Certainly peoples in this region had domesticated wild animals for use in transport as early as 5000 BC, firstly the donkey and then the dromedary, followed by the Bactrian camel and the horse as early as 3,500 BC.


Archaeological evidence indicates that overland trade existed between Syria and Egypt as early as the 5th millennium BC, while coastal shipping, too, was well established in the Mediterranean and Red Seas just one thousand years later. The oldest harbour yet discovered, at Lothal, in Gujarat, dates from around 2400 BC. Meanwhile, far to the east, coastal shipping routes gradually developed between China, Southeast Asia and southern India during the 1st millennium BC.


By about 1000 BC camel caravans were employed to bring precious goods – notably myrrh and frankincense – from the Hadramawt along the Hijaz coast of Arabia, linking the developing trade marts of India with those of Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean.


Bactrians and Dromedaries: Camels were first domesticated by human beings around 3,500 years ago. The dromedary, also known as the one-humped or Arabian camel has a single hump, while the Bactrian camel has two humps. They are native to the dry desert and upland areas of western Asia and Central Asia, respectively. Today there are an estimated 14 million dromedaries in North Africa and the Middle East, with a further 1.5 million Bactrians in central Asia and western China. The dromedary and the Bactrian camel are both still used for milk, meat, and as beasts of burden – the dromedary in western Asia, and the Bactrian camel further to the north and east in central Asia. Dromedaries tend to favour warmer climes, while Bactrians are better suited for the harsh terrain and often bitter cold of central Asian winters. As such, the Bactrian has been traditionally preferred along the Chinese section of the Silk Road from Xi’an to Kashgar, as well as to the west of the Pamirs in Transoxiana. Further west, however, along trade routes in Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as on the old Spice Road through Arabia, dromedaries are preferred. Dromedary-Bactrian hybrids are raised in Kazakhstan where they are called bukhts. They are larger than either parent, have a single hump, and make good draft animals.



Petra, Palmyra and Doura Europos


Perhaps the oldest trade route in the Middle East runs north from the Hejaz and Sinai through Jordan and Syria to the former Silk Road port of Antakya. Here it was joined by a desert route linking up with Mesopotamia and the Persian Royal Road. As well as the great cities of Damascus and Aleppo, three historic entrepots straddle these routes, no longer significant in terms of trade, but symbolic of a mighty entrepreneurial past. Petra, Jordan’s ‘Rose Red City half as old as Time’ flourished 2,000 years ago and traded across the Syrian Desert with Pamyra, the legendary capital of Queen Zenobia (c240-74). Further to the east, on the banks of the Euphrates River, Doura Europos formed the third of these famous desert caravanserais.


At this early stage, however, the great trans-Asian overland route that would become eventually become the Silk Road was either in its infancy, or had not yet come into being. Interestingly, trade along this nascent highway did already exist, but seems to have divided in the very heart of Asia, somewhere around Tashkurgan in the mountains of western China, a place traditionally viewed as the central point of the old Silk Road.


The Stone Tower: About 2,000 years ago, during the Han Dynasty, Tashkurgan was the main centre of the Kingdom of Puli. Later it became known as taskurgan or ‘stone castle’ in Turkish. Some scholars believe that the stone tower mentioned by Ptolemy and other early accounts of travel on the Silk Road refers to this spot. It considered to have marked the midway point between Europe and China.


Thus, in the 3rd millennium BC – long before silk became the most important item of trade between east and west – caravans carried scarce lapis lazuli and rubies from the mines of Badakshan west to Mesopotamia and Egypt, while from at least the 2nd millennium BC precious jade from the Yurungkash and Karakash Rivers of Khotan was similarly carried eastward to China.


In terms of distance, little more than 250 kilometres separates Badakshan from Khotan. But the intervening Pamir-Karakoram Massif is one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, sundering Xinjiang from Afghanistan by serried ranks of snow-covered peaks in excess of 7,000 metres high. The Silk Road, as it was known in antiquity and as it re-emerges today, could not become a single highway linking East and West until this last, most difficult barrier was breached, linking the antique Lapis Lazuli Trail west of the Pamirs with the almost equally venerable Jade Trail to the east. Once this was achieved – certainly by the time of the Greek conquests in Central Asia of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC – the path was open for direct trade between the Chinese and Mediterranean Worlds.


The Roof of the World: The Pamir Mountains are located in the heart of Central Asia and are formed by the junction of several of the world’s greatest mountain ranges, the Tian Shan, Karakoram, Kunlun and Hindu Kush, making an almost impassable massif.



The Beginnings of Long Distance Trade


Small scale agricultural commerce, in the sense of taking locally-produced or grown good to short distances to market, has no doubt existed since the first settled civilisations emerged in centres as diverse as Mesopotamia (4000 BC), Egypt (3500 BC), the Indus Valley (3000 BC), and China (2500 BC). Indeed, trade in agricultural produce at local markets probably preceded the foundation of these first major settled civilisations by thousands of years – the earliest granary yet discovered was built in the Jordan Valley in around 9500 BC, while the granary at Mehrgarh in the Indus valley dates from around 7500 BC.


The next logical evolutionary step was the development of trade in a grander sense, linking these and other great centres of civilisation by land or sea, or both. This kind of commerce is of an altogether different order from trading cabbages and chickens at a weekly market. It involves merchants and middlemen – entrepreneurs of vision, prepared to risk losses and endure delays – in the hope of making a substantial return on their initial outlay. Such speculative enterprises were dangerous, and goods carried ideally had to be small, light, and as imperishable as possible. Lapis lazuli and jade are early examples of long-distance trade goods that met these requirements. So were race spices and perfumes, gold and silver ornaments, instruments in copper and bronze – and last but not least, rich textiles, the most valuable of which in the ancient world was silk.


Ideally, to maximise profits, long distance traders would carry such light but valuable goods from one centre of civilisation to another, following a pattern of supply and demand. The same commercial principles hold true today. Buy as cheaply as possible where a specific commodity is plentiful, and sell at as high a price as possible where that commodity is scarce or otherwise unavailable. Long before the Pamir Massif was breached by overland traders in the middle of the first millennium BC, long distance caravans crossed the mountains and plains of the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as those of China and South Asia, while shipping similarly plied the major rivers and coastal waters.


Early Maritime Trade


Generally speaking, it is both easier and cheaper to transport goods by water than by land. Consequently the first major trade routes followed the great rivers that formed the agricultural bases for the earliest centres of civilisation – the Nile, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Huang He or Yellow River. As ships became sturdier and navigational skills improved, so coastal trade expanded, promoting contact between different societies and increasing wealth through trade.


Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean was the earliest region to develop this kind of maritime trade. An early inscription on the Palermo Stone dating from 2500 BC records that King Sneferu (c2590-2560 BC) took delivery of 40 shiploads of timber from an unnamed neighbouring state – quite possibly Phoenicia (the present day Lebanon), whose intrepid sailors dominated the waters of the Mediterranean in the 2nd millennium BC, and whose merchants exported fine cedar wood for shipbuilding and house construction, as well as such luxury goods as gold jewellery, fine linen and rare, purple Tyrian dye.


Imperial Purple: Tyrian Purple, also known as ‘Royal Purple’ or ‘Imperial Purple’, is a dark purple dye that was first produced by Phoenician craftsman at the Lebanese city of Tyre. The dye occurs naturally in a species of sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean, but must be harvested by hand, either ‘milking’ the snail, or by crushing it completely. The resultant dye, which was highly prized by the Romans who used it to colour ceremonial clothing, was extremely expensive; the 4th century BC historian Theopompus records that ‘purple dye fetched its weight in silver’ in Asia Minor. In the first century AD Pliny the Elder noted: ‘the Tyrian hue ... is considered of the best quality when it has exactly the colour of clotted blood, and is of a blackish hue to the sight, but of a shining appearance when held up to the light’.


The Phoenicians may also have developed the first transparent glass, as well as the art of glassblowing. Subsequently glass from the eastern Mediterranean would become an important export commodity along the Silk Road, eastward to China.


Egyptian maritime trade also extended south, into the Red Sea area, to the fabled Land of Punt, now generally accepted to have been in the region of Eritrea and the Horn of Africa. In the 25th century BC the Pharaoh Sahure organised the first Egyptian expedition to Punt, seeking rare goods such as myrrh and malachite. Subsequently Pharaoh Sensuret III (1878-39 BC) reportedly ordered the construction of a prototype ‘Suez Canal’ linking the Nile with the Red Sea to facilitate maritime trade with Punt.


Precious Myrrh: Myrrh is a reddish-brown resin, the dried sap of the tree Commiphora myrrha, native to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. In times of antiquity it was used as an ingredients in incense, as an additive to wine, and as an embalming ointment.


Meanwhile, further to the east, the sophisticated civilisation of Mesopotamia had similarly developed coastal shipping, and formed a link in a maritime chain connecting Egypt and the Mediterranean with the Indus Valley civilisation and South Asia. Further east still, maritime trade permitted elements Indian civilisation to cross the Bay of Bengal to Suvarnabhumi, the ‘Golden Lands’ of Southeast Asia, resulting in the emergence of Indian-influenced states on the Southeast Asian mainland by around 250 BC. It is clear from Chinese annals that these links also extended further north, along the Chinese coast to Guangdong and Fujian. By the 2nd century BC it is likely that an interconnected system of coastal commerce connected, however indirectly, the Mediterranean World with that of the Far East. Yet these maritime links were regional and local – as far as we know, direct trans-oceanic voyaging made possible by the use of the seasonal monsoon winds in the Indian Ocean was not widespread for at least another three centuries. This made contact between East and West a slow, expensive and risky enterprise, handled by numerous merchants and middlemen, navigators and sailors. Graeco-Roman trade goods may have reached the Far East, and Chinese trade goods the Mediterranean, but quantities were small, and the two centres of world civilisation new little of each other beyond their mutual but distant existence.



The Rise of Overland Trade


During the 1st millennium BC trade routes and communications by land continued to improve. By the time of the Greek historian Herodotus (c475 BC) the Persian Emperor Darius I ‘the Great’ (521-486 BC) had asserted his control not just over Greater Iran, but over an empire that extended from Libya and the frontiers of Greece in the west, to the Indus River and Transoxiana in the east. The heart of this vast area centred on Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent, and to administer this region effectively as well as to promote trade, Darius I ordered the construction of the Persian Royal Road. This ran for almost 3,000 kilometres from the Persian capital at Persepolis to the port of Smyrna – the modern Izmir – on the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea, as well as interconnecting with trade routes west to North Africa, south to Arabia, and east to both India and Central Asia.


Beyond the Oxus: Transoxiana is the ancient Greek name for Central Asia between the Oxus and Jaxartes Rivers, also known as the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya – an area corresponding approximately to modern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Arabic, too, the area is known as ma wara an’nahr, ‘what lies beyond the river’.


But this was no mere desert trail. According to Herodotus, regular postal relay stations were constructed the length of the road. By maintaining fresh horses and riders at each station, royal couriers could carry messages from Persepolis to Smyrna in 10 days – though trade caravans might take three months to cover the same distance. Herodotus adds: ‘There is nothing in this world that travels more swiftly than the Persian couriers… Neither snow nor rain, nor heat nor darkness of night prevents them from accomplishing the task appointed to them with the uttermost speed’. The Royal Road built by Darius I was of such quality that it became a core section of the future Silk Road in the west, and was still in use in Roman times. Indeed it is claimed that a bridge in Diyabarkir, eastern Turkey, still survives from this time. Darius I also revolutionised the Persian economy by establishing a system of gold and silver coinage. Trade was encouraged, and state revenues were raised by a system of taxes and tariffs which, in part, were used to further improve communications.


Meanwhile, far to the east and beyond the impassable Pamir Massif, nascent Imperial China was similarly flexing its muscles and extending its influence and physical presence into Central Asia. Chinese civilisation was born in the fertile Huang He or Yellow River Valley under the legendary Xia Dynasty (c2070-1600 BC) and the semi-legendary Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Unlike the other emerging centres of civilisation to the west and south – Mediterranean, Mesopotamian and South Asian, all of which had some direct early contact with each other – China, isolated by land beyond the mountains and deserts of Central Asia, and by sea beyond the distant shores of Southeast Asia – had developed in virtual isolation from the rest of the world.


For the first two millennia of its existence, the Chinese state gradually coalesced and unified, establishing its control over an area extending approximately from the Gobi Desert and the Manchurian Plains in the north, to the Yangzi River in the south. By around 350 BC this process was complete, and the burgeoning Chinese polity needed somewhere else to expand. To the east lay the sea, while to the north the barren desert and hostile Xiongnu nomads had already led, by the 4th century BC, to the construction of defensive fortifications that would eventually be combined to form the Great Wall – a supposedly impregnable barrier stretching in Tang Dynasty times (618-907) for 6,400 kilometres between Shanhaiguan on the Yellow Sea to Lop Nur in the heart of Central Asia. Clearly, the Chinese state could only expand south – which it did, for almost 2,000 years with great success, until it reached its present frontiers under the Ming (1368-1644).


Yet one other alternative existed –little-known Central Asia, source of precious jade, and traditionally considered home to the powerful Daoist divinity Xiwangmu or ‘Queen Mother of the West’, guardian of the ‘Wall of Heaven’, who was thought to reside in the distant Kunlun Mountains. Through an accident of plate tectonics, China’s main access to the west has always been confined to the narrow Hexi Corridor, a long and narrow strip of land extending westward from China Proper through the Province of Gansu, sandwiched between the snow-capped Qilian Mountains to the south and the Ala Shan and Gobi Deserts to the north. From time immemorial, communications between China and central Asia have been funnelled through this slender corridor, where a series of interconnected oases make travel relatively easy, at least in comparison with the astonishingly harsh terrain to the north and south. In the 3rd century BC Qin Shi Huang (241-210 BC) unified China for the first time and became First Emperor, expanding Chinese control south as far as the Pearl River Delta. He died in 210 BC, and after a brief period of confusion was succeeded by Liu Bang, founder of the illustrious Han Dynasty (206 BC–220AD). With Liu Bang’s accession as Emperor Gaozu (202-195 BC), the stage was set for China’s imperial expansion westward – and the first recorded crossing of the Pamir Massif to Central and Western Asia.



 Alexander the Great


But Han China wasn’t the only nascent empire in Central Asia. In the mid-4th century BC, Philip II of Macedon unified Greece through force of arms before being assassinated in 336 BC. He was succeeded by his son, Alexander the Great (336-23 BC) who conceived the astonishingly ambitious idea of conquering all the known world. For Alexander – by any standards both a visionary and military genius – this meant, first and foremost, war with the Persian Empire. Soon after the death of his father, Alexander crossed the Hellespont between Europe and Asia at the head of 42,000 soldiers from Macedon and the other Greek states. He was to prove unstoppable. In 333 BC he defeated the main Persian army at the Battle of Issus, forcing Emperor Darius III to flee eastwards, abandoning his wife, mother and two daughters, as well as substantial treasure, all of which fell into the hands of the victor.


Alexander next drove south, capturing the Holy Land and seizing control of Egypt, before turning east against Mesopotamia. Here he again defeated Darius III at the Battle of Guagamela (331 BC) and captured the ancient city of Babylon. Next, following the Royal Road built by Darius I, he crossed the Zagros Mountains and captured the Persian royal capital at Persepolis. Darius fled northeast towards Bactria, but was betrayed and murdered by his Bactrian satrap, Bessus.


With the death of Darius III, Alexander’s campaign of conquest entered a new phase. He declared his war of vengeance against the Persian Empire over, and adopted various Persian customs himself, as well as marrying into the former Persian royal family, and encouraging his Greek followers similarly to take Persian wives. His aim, apparently, was to ensure the future unity of the two peoples. Meanwhile he began a new campaign against Bessus of Bactria, advancing as far into Central Asia as the western flanks of the Pamir Massif, and conquering Bactria and Sogdiana, as well as the whole area of contemporary Afghanistan. At the height of his advances into Central Asia, Alexander seized control of the Ferghana Valley in contemporary Uzbekistan, by the foothills of the Tian Shan. A statuette of a Greek soldier dating from this period was later recovered from a burial site in the northern Tian Shan, and is now on exhibition at the Provincial Museum in Urumqi, capital of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. By 329 BC – within the incredibly short period of five years – Alexander had crushed the Persian Empire and extended Greek power all the way east from the Hellespont to the Pamirs and the future frontiers of China.


The Many Alexandrias: About 70 cities and settlements were founded by Alexander, and most were called Alexandria. These include Alexandria in Egypt, Kandahar in Afghanistan, Alexandria on the Oxus, and Alexandria Eschate – the ‘furthest’ –corresponding to Khujand in modern day Tajikistan.


But Alexander’s ambitions were boundless, and having married Princess Roxana of Balkh to cement his control over his newly-conquered Central Asian Empire, he turned his attention towards India. Marching south across the Hindu Kush and then east across the Khyber Pass, he conquered southern Kashmir – the Kingdom of Gandhara – before attacking the Hindu King Porus (Raja Puru) in the Punjab. Once again, Alexander was victorious, but his army of Greek and Persian mercenaries had had enough, and mutinied by the Beas River in the eastern Punjab – the furthest point east of all Alexander’s conquests.


Returning to Babylon, Alexander died suddenly of an unexplained fever on June 10, 323 BC, just one month before his 33rd birthday. In a sudden and unparalleled explosion of energy, he had conquered a vast swathe of land linking Libya and Greece in the west with Transoxiana and the Punjab in the east – knowing little or nothing of distant China, he was, in effect and in his own eyes, a world-conqueror. His premature demise meant that he did not live long to enjoy this status, but his achievement and name would live on beyond him. Alexander’s enduring accomplishment was to forge new and strong links between Greece and Central Asia that were both cultural and commercial. His successors divided up the spoils of conquest to establish the Antigonid Empire in Greece (301-168 BC), the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and Palestine (305-30 BC), and the Seleucid Empire in Persia and Mesopotamia (323-63 BC).


Mother of Cities: Balkh is one of the oldest of Silk Road cities and is considered to be the first settlement to which the Indo-Aryan tribes moved from the North of Oxus River between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago. The Arabs called style Balkh umm al-bilaad or ‘Mother of Cities’ due to its venerable antiquity.


Beyond this, and most extraordinarily, the Alexandrian territories furthest to the east seceded to form the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom of Bactria and Sogdiana (250-140 BC), and the Indo-Greek Kingdom centred on Taxila, Gandhara and the Punjab (189 BC–10 AD). This unlikely but fruitful union of Greek and Indo-Buddhist civilisations would produce some of the most spectacular syncretic art forms of the ancient Silk Road, particularly when Indo-Greek influences were extended north, across the Pamir Massif, into the heart of Central Asia.



The Mysterious Land of the Seres


The easternmost Greek kingdoms exercised remarkable cultural and political influence over Central Asia for almost three centuries. In 329 BC Alexander the Great had founded the city of Alexandria Eschate or ‘Alexandria the Furthest’ in the Ferghana Valley – now a part of contemporary Uzbekistan. His Bactrian successors continued to expand eastwards, especially under King Euthydemus (230-200 BC) who extended his control into Sogdiana on the Kazakh and Kyrgyz frontiers with present day Xinjiang. Indeed, according to the Greek historian Strabo (64 BC–24 AD), the Bactrians crossed the Tian Shan into Chinese Central Asia, marking the earliest known direct contacts between China and Europe c220 BC. Thus Strabo writes: ‘They extended their empire even as far as the Seres’.


Far Cathay: The region of the Seres is a vast and populous country, touching on the east the Ocean and the limits of the habitable world, and extending west nearly to the confines of Bactria. The people are civilised men, of mild, just, and frugal temper, eschewing collisions with their neighbours, and even shy of close intercourse, but not averse to dispose of their own products, of which raw silk is the staple. Henry Yule (citing Pliny and Ptolemy), Cathay and the Way Thither (1866).


But who were these mysterious ‘Seres’, and whence their name? Historians generally agree that it was the Greek (and subsequently Roman) name for the inhabitants of Serica, the land where silk comes from – there is no general agreement as to the etymology of the Latin term serica, though it is often argued that it derives from the s?, the Chinese word for silk. Certainly sericulture, the cultivation of silk, seems to have first developed between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago in the Huang He or Yellow River heartland of Chinese civilisation. According to legend, the art of sericulture was first discovered by Empress Xi Lingshi, wife of the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi who is said to have reigned from 2697–2598 BC. She taught her maidservants how to raise silkworms, how to unravel the thread, and how to weave silk, later becoming honoured as the Goddess of Silk.


Although this legend is almost certainly a later embellishment of the facts – the Yellow Emperor (and, by extension, his wife), is posthumously attributed with having invented everything from agriculture and animal husbandry to traditional medicine and trade – silk has certainly been cultivated in China for almost three millennia. In 2007 Chinese archaeologists discovered woven and dyed silk textile at a tomb in Jiangxi Province, in central-southern China, dating from the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (1122-256 BC). Although initially reserved for Chinese royalty, while the secrets of sericulture were assiduously guarded, some of this early silk must have made its way west via one route or another, for traces of silk of probable Chinese origin have been found in the hair of an Egyptian mummy dating from the 21st Dynasty, or about 1000 BC. By around 200BC knowledge of sericulture had reached both Korea and Vietnam, and by the first century AD similar knowledge is thought to have reached Khotan in Central Asia.


Even so, to the Graeco-Roman world of classical antiquity, sericulture remained a mystery, so that Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) reports:


Then, we again find tribes of Scythians, and again desert tracts occupied only by wild animals, till we come to that mountain chain overhanging the sea, which is called Tabis. Not till nearly half the length of the coast which looks north-east has been past, do you find inhabited country. The first race then encountered are the Seres, so famous for the fleecy product of their forests.


There is no suggestion, then, that in the first century knowledge of sericulture had reached as far west as Rome – and to further bear this out, Pliny goes on to grumble about the negative impact of the rare and expensive export of the Seres on Roman public morals:


The Seres are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves... So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public…


Not that the Chinese Empire, at this time ruled by the great Han Dynasty, knew much more about Daqin, their name for distant Rome. Just as the Romans believed that silk was somehow ‘combed off leaves’, so some contemporaneous Chinese believed that asbestos cloth – imported from the west – was ‘woven from the wool of sea sheep’.


It would not be long, however, before many of these misconceptions disappeared, for East and West were about to discover each other, not indirectly by distant, coastal maritime trade, but much more directly, across the Pamir Massif and the steppes of Central Asia.




China Discovers Central Asia


Following the death of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang in 210 BC and the establishment of the Han Dynasty in 206 BC, the newly unified and powerful Chinese state began to expand south, towards the Gulf of Tonkin, and to turn its attentions west, via the Hexi Corridor, towards Central Asia. Emperor Wu Di (141-87 BC) – a contemporary, though neither of them are likely to have known it, of the Roman Pompey the Great (106-48 BC) – despatched his imperial envoy Zhang Qian to the west in 138 BC. Zhang Qian’s mission was to investigate the territories to the west and, if possible, to seek a military alliance with the Yuehzhi (probably the Indo-European Tocharians of the Tarim Basin and Bactria) against the powerful nomadic Xiongnu of the north. It was to be an epic journey, marking the first real opening of the Silk Road.


Emperor Wu Di: Wu Di was the seventh Han emperor and one of the greatest rulers in Chinese history. He is remembered for the vast territorial expansion China attained under his reign, as well as for organising a strong, centralised Confucian state.


Zhang Qian set out at the head of a delegation of around one hundred members, most of them military officers, and one Xiongnu guide. A mural dating from the 8th century AD in the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang represents his departure, while another mural from the same era shows his patron, the Emperor Wu Di, venerating Buddha images before commencing his campaign against the Xiongnu nomads. Yet despite Zhang Qian’s best efforts, he was captured by the Xiongnu and detained by them for 10 years before making his escape and continuing westward, past Lop Nur, and along the northern rim of the Tarim Basin. He crossed over the Tian Shan into present-day Uzbekistan (which he calls Dayuan) where he discovered all manner of things unknown to the Chinese, including the mundane – turnips – the intoxicating – grapes – and above all the legendary horses of the Ferghana Valley, which the Chinese would soon become eager to obtain for their wars against the nomads of the north.


Eventually Zhang Qian reached the long-sought Kingdom of the Yuezhi in Bactria, but they were uninterested in joining a Chinese campaign against the fierce Xiongnu. Accordingly, after a stay of one year the intrepid Zhang Qian set out for home, but was once again captured and held prisoner by the Xiongnu, escaping two years later and eventually returning to the Han court at Chang’an in 125 BC. Having been absent from the court for more than 13 years, Wu Di had long since given him up for dead, and was delighted by his return. The mission to form an alliance with the Yuezhi may have failed, but Zhang Qian succeeded in making the first recorded crossing of the Pamir-Tian Shan ranges, and brought back much valuable information about the regions to the west. According to the Han annals:


The Emperor Wu Di learned of Dayuan (Ferghana), Daxia (Bactria), Anxi (Parthia) and other lands, all great states rich in unusual products where people cultivated the land and made their living in much the same way as the people of Han. All these states were weak militarily, and prized Han goods and wealth.


Zhang Xian’s reports also made reference – apparently second hand – to still more distant regions, including Liuxuan (Turkmenistan), Yancai (Kazakhstan), Tiaozhi (Iraq) and Shendu (India). Finally, in the farthest west, lay the almost mythical land of ‘Lijian’, a reference considered by many experts to be the earliest reference in Chinese literature to the distant territories of Rome.


Heavenly Horses of Ferghana: The ‘Heavenly Horses’ of the Ferghana Valley were prized above all other horses by the Chinese in antiquity. The Han Dynasty began the custom of importing great numbers of horses from Bactria and the western regions, frequently exchanging these powerful mounts for silk. At other times the Chinese used military invasion to secure supplies. In 102 AD they attacked Bactria and required that the defeated forces should supply the Han Empire with one hundred of their finest horses for breeding purposes, and a further 3,000 to use as war mounts. According to Chinese tradition, the finest of the Heavenly steeds sweated blood, earning them the soubriquet ‘blood-sweating horses’.


Zhang Qian was heaped with praise and honours before going on, in 119 BC, to lead a second, successful expedition to the west of the Tian Shan, effectively establishing diplomatic relations with Ferghana, Bactria and Sogdiana, all of which sent ambassadors to Chang’an, beginning a process of regular diplomatic missions to the Chinese capital. Zhang Qian returned via the southern rim of the Tarim Basin, bringing with him a gift of exquisite Ferghana horses for Emperor Wu Di. About a decade later another Chinese emissary returned the favour when he visited the Kingdom of Anxi or Parthia, bearing with him gifts of fine silks. The bases of future trade along the great Silk Road were thus put in place, with commerce portrayed in contemporary Chinese annals as gifts (going west) and tribute (travelling east, to the Han court at Chang’an). From a Chinese perspective:


The largest of these embassies to foreign states were several hundred persons strong, while even smaller embassies comprised more than one hundred members… In the course of a year anywhere between five and ten embassies would be despatched.


In this way Chinese embassies eventually penetrated as far west as Rome, perhaps during the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), for according to the historian Florus ‘even those countries of the world not subject to imperial sway’ sent embassies to Rome, ‘the great conqueror of nations’:


Thus even the Scythians and the Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, even the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwell beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants… In truth it needed but to look at their complexions to see that they were people of another world than ours.


Zhang Qian died in around 104 BC, but because of his remarkable achievements he still remains one of China’s most revered national heroes – the man who first opened the long Silk Road to Central Asia and the West.



 Chinese Expansion in Central Asia


Between 121 and 110 BC, Emperor Wu Di followed up his successful diplomatic and commercial initiative to the west by establishing permanent military garrisons along the Hexi Corridor at Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan and Dunhuang, thus effectively ensuring control of the only practical road between Chang’an and the Tarim Basin, and binding the future province of Gansu, once and for always, to ‘China Proper’. Future generations of Chinese would make this distinction – as they still do today – by referring to the area east of Dunhuang as ‘the region within’, while to the west lies ‘the region without’. The new garrisons were designated prefectures, and to ensure Han Chinese domination of the previously sparsely dominated region, large numbers of convicts were sent west to settle them.


Just to the west of Dunhuang – itself the most westerly of the new prefectures – the road divided into two, with the southern route leaving ‘China Proper’ via Yangguan, the ‘Pass of the Sun’, while the more northerly route left via Yumenguan, the ‘Jage Gate Pass’. Later a third route would develop still further to the north, running around the north rim of the Tarim Basin via the oases of Hami and Turpan, in the lee of the Tian Shan. The area between Dunhuang and the Pamirs, corresponding to today’s southern Xinjiang, was dominated by the great Taklamakan Desert, around which a number of oases were strung, like beads on a thread, along the roads to the west.


Wu Di had the military strength, foresight and population to settle and absorb Gansu and the Hexi Corridor, but the great desert spaces between Dunhuang and the Pamir Massif  were another matter altogether. Yet control of this vast region was essential to hold back the nomads of the north – the Xiongnu and their successors – and to maintain the increasingly prosperous trade route with the West. Wu Di employed two great generals to try and subdue the Xiongnu in this area, Huo Qubing (140-117 BC) who secured western Gansu and, incidentally, gave rise to the name Jiuquan, or ‘wine spring’ through an act of generosity in sharing a flask of wine with his soldiers, and Wei Qing (died 106 BC), who took the fight to the Xiongnu, pursuing them far into the Gobi desert in the Battle of Mobei (119 BC).



 The Conquests of Ban Chao


By the time of his death in 87 BC, Wu Di had almost doubled the size of Han territories, making China the largest and most powerful empire in the world – surpassing even contemporaneous Rome. Yet it fell to his successors, the Emperors Ming (58-75 AD), Zhang (76-88) and He (89-105) to truly consolidate Chinese control over the Tarim Basin and modern day Xinjiang. These Western Han rulers were all fortunate to enjoy the services of one of China’s truly great soldiers, General Ban Chao (32-102). Under Emperor Ming, Ban Chao crushed the Xiongnu and pushed west into the Tarim, establishing Chinese control over the petty kingdoms of Loulan, Khotan and Kashgar. Under Emperor Zhang he defeated the Sogdians in 84 and captured Turpan a year later, bringing the whole Tarim Basin under Chinese control.


Chinese Saying: ‘In the time of the Western Han there was Zhang Qian, In the Eastern Han there was Ban Chao'.


In 91, under Emperor He, Ban Chao was rewarded with the position of Protector General of these newly-conquered regions, making his base at the garrison town of Kuqa. Six years later, in 97, he led an army of 70,000 men across the Pamirs and the Tian Shan to protect the – by now strategically vital – Silk Road against the continuing depredations of the Xiongnu. Ban Chao made an alliance with King Pacorus II of Parthia (78-105), advancing as far as the shores of the Caspian Sea, and despatching an envoy called Gan Ying to Rome – though in fact the latter only reached the shores of the Black Sea before tuning back. Nevertheless, with the advance of Ban Chao’s armies to the borders of Europe and the Middle East, Chinese power, influence and prestige reached a high point in Inner Asia. The ‘Seres’, so long mysterious to and distant from the West, were now neighbours who had come to stay.


Meanwhile the Great Wall of China, first established as a series of defensive walls against the nomads of the north in the 5th century BC and conjoined after the unification of China under Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC, was extended west towards Lop Nur in the Tarim Basin, while a series of beacons and watch towers was built far to the west, symbolising and helping to maintain Han control over the Tarim Basin. China’s current claims to these far-flung territories are based on their conquest and settlement in Han Dynasty times – fully a thousand years before the Uighur Turks, Xinjiang’s main ‘indigenous people’ in modern times, moved into the region.


Roman Reactions


Despite Ban Chao’s seminal advances to the west, Rome remained largely ignorant of China, just as China still knew little of Rome. Other great empires lay in between, most notably that of Parthia, which dominated Iran, Mesopotamia and Eastern Anatolia from 247 BC to 220 AD. The Parthians, who had allied themselves with Ban Chao against the nomads of the north, clearly knew a good thing when they saw it, and were determined to maintain their role as middlemen between China and Rome as long as they could. As a consequence, no Roman armies penetrated beyond Parthia to China, and precious few Roman traders made it across the Iranian plateau to the Pamirs.


The Battle of Carrhae: When the Romans were defeated by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, the survivors reported that the victorious Parthians had unfurled gleaming, shimmering banners of an unknown material, embroidered with gold, which flashed like fire in the sunlight. This is widely interpreted as the first sighting of silk by Roman forces, prompting an immediate demand for the glamorous but expensive material.


One exception we know of was Maës Titianus who, at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century AD, took advantage of a lull in the intermittent wars between Rome and Parthia to send a party of merchants as far east as Tashkurgan in the Pamir Massif, on the very western frontiers of China. Almost nothing is known of Maës Titianus, but he was probably seeking to maximise his profits in the incredibly lucrative silk trade. Silk was still pretty much a mystery to the Romans, but it had captured the heart of the fickle Roman market. A pious and puritanical Seneca the Younger (3 BC –65 AD) damned this expensive luxury in no uncertain terms:


I see clothes of silk, if material that does not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothing… Wretched seamstresses labour that the adulteress may be visible through her transparent dress, that her husband has no more knowledge than any outsider or foreigner of his wife’s body.


The Senate, too, deeply troubled by the outflow of gold and silver specie to the east, made several unsuccessful attempts to stem this trade through edicts prohibiting the wearing of silk. Yet Rome was gradually learning more about the mysterious and widely desired material. Thus Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was apparently the first to dismiss the idea that silk grew on trees, recording that moths ‘weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing for women, called silk’. As this knowledge slowly spread westward, China’s monopoly on the rich silk trade would gradually begin to diminish.



A Roman Settlement in Ancient China? Although both Rome and China were aware of each other’s existence by the 2nd century BC, in fact neither great power, located at either end of the Silk Road, knew anything substantive of the other beyond the most tenuous and tantalising of rumours – a whisper of civilisation at the far side of the world. Then, in 1957, American Sinologist Homer H. Dubbs published a book suggesting that a group of captive Roman soldiers had been resettled at the modern town of Yongchang, near Wuwei, in the remote reaches of Gansu.


According to Dubbs, these lost legionnaires may have been the last, far-flung remnants of an army commanded by the Roman general Crassus that was defeated by the Parthians at Carrhae in 54 BC. Crassus’ army of 42,000 was decisively routed, with 20,000 dead and more than 10,000 taken prisoner. According to the Roman historian Pliny, these captives were resettled in Sogdiana where they were employed as Parthian mercenaries and permitted to intermarry with the local populus.


The next act in this putative drama came in 36 BC, when a Chinese army led by General Kan Yanshou made a punitive raid against Sogdian settlement of Zhezhe, thought to have been located near the banks of the Talas River in the modern Republic of Kyrgyzstan. The Han Dynasty annals record that the Chinese forces came up against a group of foreign soldiers who formed an unusual defensive formation like a tortoise, interlocking their shields before and above themselves like fish scales – a military tactic first employed by the Roman legions, and quite unknown to the Chinese. Yet unfamiliar tactics not withstanding, the attackers were victorious, and took back around 150 of the defeated ‘fish scale’ soldiers with them to Chinese Central Asia.


About four decades later, in 5 AD, Chinese chronicles mention a newly-established settlement named Lijian – a contemporaneous Chinese name for Rome – near modern-day Yongchang, which was populated by assorted captives, convicts and other Silk Road unfortunates. Dubbs’ suggests that the Roman soldiers captured at Carrhae, or more probably their immediate descendants, were forcibly resettled at Lijian to help populate and defend the strategically vital Hexi Corridor. Such an action would have been very much in line with contemporaneous frontier policy, which had long sought to ‘use barbarians to control barbarians’. Dubbs’ hypothesis is a fascinating, but not entirely convincing thesis which is now enthusiastically embraced by the Yongchang authorities as evidence of the ancient and unique history of the town. Unfortunately, DNA tests conducted by the Chinese authorities at Yongchang in 2007 found no genetic evidence to support claims of Roman ancestry among the town’s overwhelmingly Han population.


The writer Colin Thubron visited Yongchang during his peregrinations along the Silk Road in 2003, and spent some time looking with little success for pale-skinned, red-haired locals who might be descended from these Roman exiles, noting in passing the statues of a Chinese mandarin, together with two ‘Romans’, one male and one female, near the southern entrance to town. These figures are more of a curiosity than a genuine attraction, but may just represent the easternmost limits of tenuous Roman influence along the ancient Silk Road.




The Lands Between


By the 1st century AD trade in both directions along the new Silk Road linking China with the Mediterranean was already well established, as were the concomitant diplomatic and tributary missions sent, with increasing frequency, between east and west. But China and Rome remained far apart, and few if any merchants would have made the long journey all the way from Chang’an to Antioch or to Rome itself. Instead, trade was dominated by Central Asian middlemen, who bought goods from the Chinese at Dunhuang or Kashgar, and from Mediterranean caravan merchants in Mesopotamia, Iran or Transoxiana. Central Asian trade was dominated by Tocharian and South Asian traders to the east of the Pamirs, and by Bactrian and Sogdian merchants to the west of the Pamirs.


The most important new Central Asian state to emerge during this period was the Kushan Empire (1st-3rd centuries AD), which is linked by historians with the peripatetic Yueh Zhi, thought to have been the Indo-European Tocharians of the Tarim Basin, who were driven westward to settle in Bactria by the Xiongnu in the 2nd century BC. In the 1st century BC the Yueh Zhi began to absorb Graeco-Bactrian territories to the south of the Pamirs, adopting elements of Greek culture in the process. At the height of their power in the 2nd century AD, the Kushan Empire sat squarely astride the Silk Road, as well as the southern extension via Kashmir to India, controlling all Bactria, the western Tarim Basin and northern India, and quite dominating the contemporaneous Silk Road commerce.


Besides trade goods, the ever-expanding network of Central Asian trade routes also carried art and ideas between distant centres of civilization. The Kushans were nothing if not eclectic, adapting the Greek alphabet to suit their own language. They also borrowed minting coins from the Greeks, combining texts in Greek with South Asian Pali written in the Kharoshthi script. Their religion they took initially from Persia, embracing the heterodox ideas of Zoroaster (c600 BC), only to add a veneer of Buddhism from South Asia as well as, most probably Saivisim. By the 2nd century AD Kushan rule was firmly established over the Tarim Basin oases of Kashgar, Yarkand and Khotan, and both Buddhism and Zoroastrianism were flourishing there. Kushan power and prestige reached its apex under Emperor Kanishka (127-47 AD).


Kanishka was a devout Buddhist who administered his kingdom from twin capitals at Peshawar in present day Pakistan, and from Mathura in Northern India. Under his enlightened rule Prakrit and Gandharan Buddhist texts were translated into Sanskrit, and a great Buddhist Council was convened in Kashmir in around 100 AD. The extraordinary flowering of Graeco-Buddhist art that would subsequently stun Silk Road archaeologists in the late 19th century dates, at its best, from this imaginatively syncretic period of Kushan rule.



The Art of Gandhara: Indo-Greek art reached its zenith in the Kingdom of Gandhara, under the Kushans, between the 1st and 5th centuries AD. The Kushan Period is considered the Golden Era of Ganharan Art. The Kushans were Buddhist, and built monasteries and stupas across the territory of modern-day northern Pakistan and into Afghanistan. During the reign of King Kanishka (128-51) Peshawar became the Kushan capital, the king ruling over territory that extended from Transoxiana in the north to Bengal in the east. Kanishka was a great patron of the faith and with his support Buddhism spread to Central Asia and the Far East over the Pamirs where his empire met Han China.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Kushan Art was the successful fusion of Indian and Greek elements in Gandharan iconography. Buddhist art embraced the classical world – and vice versa – with Greek stylistic elements, representations of Greek fashions and clothing, hairstyles and ornamentation. Wine figures prominently in some of the scenes, with Graeco-Roman amphorae and Bacchanalian depictions, as well as erotic courtship and depictions of music, standing in sharp contrast to Buddhist religious motifs and similar devotional scenes. Strikingly, shaven-headed monks and other devotees in clearly Hellenic dress are represented circumambulating Buddhist stupas. Greek figures and styles were also incorporated into Gandharan representations of the jataka, or stories from the life of the Buddha.


Under the Kushans trade continued to flourish and expand, and South Asia was brought squarely into the Silk Road trading equation. Chinese annals of the time note that the Kushans traded with Rome, thus according to the Hou Han Shu: ‘to the west, Tiazhu (Northern India) communicates with Daqin (Rome). Precious things from Daqin can be found there, as well as fine cotton cloth, excellent wool carpets, perfumes of all sorts, sugar loaves, pepper, ginger and black salt’. Yet, important though these trade links undoubtedly were, the Kushan hegemony over both the Silk Road and its southern extension, across the Karakoram Mountains to India, also permitted the transfer of religious ideas. Kushan Buddhist missionaries, most notably Lokaksema, travelled to the Chinese city of Loyang where he lived between 178-89 AD, translating Mahayana Buddhist texts into Chinese.


Trnasmission of Buddhism: Lokaksema was a Buddhist Kushan from Gandhara. He is the earliest known monk to have translated Mahayana Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.



Nomads of the North, Tibetans of the South


Unfortunately for the merchants and missionaries who used the Silk Road and its lesser tributaries to criss-cross Asia, the great settled empires – Chinese and Roman, Persian and Kushan – were not alone in dominating the Eurasian land mass. To the north of the Silk Road, extending from Manchuria and the Gobi Desert in the east to Dzungaria and the Kazakh Steppe in the west, the great, empty open spaces were dominated by very different peoples, denizens of a very different type of civilization. These were the wandering nomads who built no permanent settlements, but who migrated seasonally and whose wealth lay in livestock, not grain or the precious goods of the cities. Yet this very peripatetic existence made the nomads of the north into fine horsemen and fierce fighters, unpredictable warriors who could move vast distances in short periods of time, difficult – almost impossible – to control, and almost equally impossible to predict.


Ban Chao’s advance into Central Asia at the turn of the first century AD had projected Chinese power far west along the Silk Road to encompass the small independent kingdoms of the Tarim Basin. By the second century AD, however, Han power was rapidly disintegrating. When the dynasty fell, in 220 AD, a period of internal division began, with Chinese imperial power effectively ending at Dunhuang, near the western end of the Hexi Corridor. In the face of this weakness, China’s old enemy, the Xiongnu, although divided into Northern and Southern sections, once again took up the cudgels of war, capturing the ancient Chinese capital of Luoyang, in 311, and the Silk Road capital of Chang’an five years later in 316. By the mid-4th century, all of northern China was under Xiongnu control.


During this period the petty oasis kingdoms of the Tarim Basin succeeded in restoring their autonomy, but as vassals to a branch of the Xiongnu nomads known in the west as the Hepthailites – and soon to become more widely known and feared as the Huns. To the south and west, the Kushan Empire was similarly in decline, losing western territories to the Persian Sassanids (226-651), as well as to the Xiongnu in the north.


Origins of the Huns: The Xiongnu were an influential but little-known nomadic people from the region of present-day Mongolia. From around 300BC they controlled an extensive empire stretching across the Central Asian steppe from China to the Caucasus. In the West the Xiongnu became better known as the Huns, nomadic people who invaded Europe in the 4th and 5th centuries, most notably under Attila the Hun (406-53), also known as the ‘Scourge of God’.


China was partly able to reassert its influence over Central Asia until the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581-618), but it fell to the great Tang Dynasty (618-907) to re-establish full Chinese control over the Tarim Basin. The second Tang emperor Taizong (626-49) mounted campaigns against the Eastern and Western Turks to the north, before sending his forces into the Tarim Basin and re-establishing control over Turfan, Kashgar and Yarkand (635) as well as Kuqa and Khotan (648). It was at this auspicious time, when the Chang’an was entering its Silk Road prime as perhaps the richest city of the ancient world, that a first delegation from Byzantium visited the Tang capital in 643 AD.


Nevertheless, even under the Tang Dynasty, China’s control over the eastern Silk Road was to prove tenuous at times. In 662, with the northern nomads temporarily at peace, a new challenge to Tang power arose from an entirely new source – Tibet. This was entirely unexpected, as Tibet had no previous history of expansionism in Central Asia – indeed it is hardly mentioned in the Chinese annals down to this time. In 608-9, however, a Tibetan nobleman named Namri Lontsan united the fledgling Tibetan state and sent emissaries to the Chinese Court. Unlikely as it might seem today, for the next four centuries the Tibetan Empire would play a decisive military role in Central Asia, its armies issuing forth from the Tibetan Plateau to challenge Chinese control over the Silk Road in Gansu and, especially, in the Tarim Basin where Tibetan forces seized control of the southern Silk Road between Dunhuang and Khotan.


Tibetan Empires: From the 7th to the 11th century a series of emperors ruled Tibet, with the power of the state gradually increasing across central Asia. By the reign of Emperor Rapalcan in the early ninth century, Tibetan influence extended as far north as Mongolia and as far south as Bengal. From this time conflict broke out between the Tibetans and the Uighurs, severely disrupting Silk Road traffic.


Meanwhile, to the north of the Hexi Corridor and in the Gobi steppe and Dzungaria, a new power, the Gökturk Empire, arose to replace the Xiongnu. From 552 to 745 the Gökturks succeeded in unifying the various disparate Turkic tribes of Central Asia into a single powerful entity, playing the same role to the north of the Hexi Corridor as the Tibetan Empire to the south. By the mid-8th century, however, the power of the Gökturk Khans was very much on the wane, and in 744 a new Turkic power, the Uyghur Khaganate, took control of Mongolia and proclaimed itself leader of all the Turkic peoples of Central Asia.



Byzantium and the Chinese Silk Monopoly


Just as China had entered a period of division and decline following the fall of the Han Empire in 220, so the once mighty Roman Empire split into Eastern and Western sections in 285 under the Emperors Diocletian and Maximian. Similarly, just as China was troubled by repeated nomadic invasions from the north, so was the divided Roman Empire, with Goths and Vandals penetrating as far as Rome itself, while the Huns – a western branch of the same Xiongnu tribes troubling China far to the east – penetrated as far as the Alps and the central Balkans. The Western Roman Empire eventually succumbed in 476, when Germanic armies under Odoacer (435-93) captured Rome.


Further to the east, however, the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, managed to survive and prosper. Historians generally consider Constantine I (306-377) to have been the first Byzantine emperor. By the mid-6th century, Emperor Justinian I (527-65) had recovered Italy, southern Iberia and parts of North Africa, but the nature of the Byzantine state had changed completely, with Latin abandoned and Greek adopted as the language of government.


For at least two millennia, even from the time of the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi, China had managed to maintain a very successful monopoly on the export of silkworms and the knowledge of sericulture. But no monopoly is foolproof, and no technology can be kept secret forever. The monopoly was defended by imperial decree imposing a mandatory death sentence on anyone attempting to export silkworms or their eggs, but this security was first breached – as far as is known – by the second century BC, when knowledge of sericulture reached Korea. It is thought likely to have reached Vietnam – a Chinese colony between 208 BC and 939 AD – at a similarly early date. During the first half of the 1st century AD, silk worm technology is thought to have reached the Han-Chinese dominated oasis of Khotan in the Tarim Basin – an oasis that is still a centre of silk production today. A Chinese princess given in marriage to a Khotan prince is said to have carried the eggs of silkworms to her new husband concealed in her hair.


It is thought that silkworms and knowledge of sericulture travelled from Khotan south to India and west to Sassanid Persia during the 4th century BC AD, while records also recount a Japanese expedition to China in the same century carrying four silk-weaving girls, together with silkworm eggs, back to Japan. From Persia knowledge of sericulture travelled slowly but inevitably further to the west. In particular the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-65) was keen to strengthen his empire by expanding long distance trade, circumventing, in so far as was possible, the monopoly on silk still enjoyed by the Sassanids. To this end he tried to establish contact with the expanding silk markets of South Asia by way of Ethiopia and the Red Sea, but to little avail. The real breakthrough came in 552, when Justinian first obtained the elusive silkworm eggs. These were smuggled to him across Persia by two Nestorian monks in bamboo tubes. With their safe arrival in Constantinople, silk would gradually become an indigenous Byzantine product.



The Rise of Islam


By the 7th century AD Chinese power and prestige were once again established over much of the eastern and central Silk Road, with restive Turkic tribes to the north, and expansionist Tibetans to the south. In the Middle East and Mediterranean Worlds, Sassanid Persia and Byzantium ruled the roost – but this long-established hegemony would not survive much longer. Another people like the Tibetans, long ignored by history, were about to put their spectacular mark on the geopolitical makeup not just of Eurasia, but of Africa too. It was the time of the Arabs.


Traditions of the Prophet: ‘Seek Knowledge, even though it be in China’, Hadith, Prophet Muhammad.


In about 570 a boy child was born at Mecca into the Quraysh tribe of Nejd. His parents named him Muhammad. He was orphaned at a young age, but was brought up by his uncle and became a merchant. He married successfully, and was quite comfortably off in material terms – but he was dissatisfied with life in Mecca, and sought spiritual solace. Sometime around 610 he received his first revelation from God, and began teaching a strict monotheism aimed at purifying the true faith and driving idolatry from Arabia. In 622 he and his followers left Mecca on hijra or ‘migration’ for the relative safety of nearby Medina; the Islamic Era is dated from this event. By the time Muhammad died a decade later in 632, most of Arabia had converted to the new faith of Islam, or ‘submission’ to the Will of God.


The Genius of Arabesques: Most people are familiar with the characteristic arabesques and repeated geometric patterns which characterise and distinguish so many facets of Islamic Art. Fewer, perhaps are aware of the hadith, or Tradition of the Prophet, which gave rise to this peculiarly Muslim phenomenon. It is reported that, on a particular day in early 7th century Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad returned home to find that his favourite wife, Aisha, had bought some cushions decorated with illustrations of birds and animals. The Prophet explained that only God could bestow life, and that pale imitations – such as the pictures on the cushions – were better eschewed. The hadith ends on an appropriately admonitory note: "The house which contains pictures will not be entered by the angels".

From an aesthetic point of view this Tradition, whilst limiting the scope of artistic endeavour open to Muslim artisans, was to give direct rise to the magnificent non-representational art forms associated with the World of Islam. From the rich terraces of the Registan in Samarkand, through the dazzling minarets of Isfahan and Aleppo, to the infinitely elegant Taj Mahal in Agra, no cultural tradition can surpass that of Islam in the fine art of geometric decoration.


The new religion expanded at a phenomenal rate. During the time of the Rashidun Caliphate (632-61), Arab-Islamic armies swept out of Arabia, initially conquering the great trade routes and trading cities of the Fertile Crescent, before advancing as far as Libya in the west and Afghanistan in the east. Under the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) the frontiers of the Islamic Empire were extended to Spain and southern France in the west, while Bactria and Samarkand were conquered in Central Asia, and Muslim armies reached the banks of the Indus. The world has seen nothing like it before – Sassanid Persia was swept away in just over a dozen years, while Byzantium was greatly reduced in size and influence, with Constantinople under Arab siege from 674-8.


No doubt news of these momentous events reached the Tang Court in Chang’an, though as yet it can have been little but a distant whisper. Then, in 750, the widely unpopular Umayyad Dynasty was swept away (except in Iberia), and replaced by the powerful new Abbasid Dynasty. While the Umayyads had their power base in Damascus and were studiously Arab in their makeup, the new Abbasid rulers enjoyed a much wider power base in Baghdad that rested not just on Arab aristocrats, but on poor Arabs, non-Arab converts and even sectarian Shia’ dissenters.


The rise of the Abbasids would usher in a golden age for the Islamic Caliphate, lasting for just over five centuries until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. Fortunately for international commerce in general and the Silk Road in particular, Islam was a religion born of trade and wedded to both overland and maritime commerce. But before the business of commercial, cultural and religious exchange between Tang China and the emerging Islamic Empire could be properly established, there was the small question of spheres of influence to sort out first.


Tang versus Abbasid


With the demise of the Sassanid Empire and its replacement by fast-moving Arab armies, it could only be a matter of time before Tang China, the great power of the Far East, came up against the Abassid Dynasty, the new rulers of the Middle East – and the testing ground would be Central Asia, as both sides sought to take control of the opulent Silk Road traffic.


The first clash occurred in 715, when a new king, by name Alutar, was installed as King of Ferghana with the reported backing of both Arab and Tibetan soldiers – a combination of enemies guaranteed to drive the contemporaneous Tang ruler, Xuanzong (712-56) to apoplexy.  The deposed king, Ikhshid, fled to Chinese-controlled Kuqa, where he appealed for aid. The Chinese sent a force of 10,000 men under Zhang Xiaosong to restore Ikhshid to his throne, a task he accomplished successfully. Next, in 717, Arab and Tibetan armies are reported to have cooperated in besieging Aksu in the Tarim Basin. Once again the Chinese, led by General Tang Jiahui, were victorious.


By 750, when the Umayyad Dynasty was replaced by the Abbasids, China had asserted its political authority over the Arabs by force of arms on two occasions, but without effectively projecting its control to the west of the Pamir Massif in the vitally important Ferghana Valley and across western Central Asia. In 751 the Tang Emperor Xuanzong determined to change this by challenging the first Abbasid Caliph, Abu al-Abbas Abdullah (75-54), also known as ‘As-Saffah’, ‘the Slaughterer’, for control of the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) River and, more particularly, the Ferghana Valley – home to the incredibly valuable ‘Heavenly Horses’.


The Arab forces of  Ziyad ibn-Salih and the Chinese forces of Gao Xianzhi eventually met by the banks of the Talas River in present day Kyrgyzstan. The Arab armies won the day, largely because a group of Karluk mercenaries serving with the Chinese decided to change sides, cutting off the Chinese and allowing the Muslims to establish effective hegemony over western Central Asia. The defeated Chinese did manage to inflict heavy losses on their Arab adversaries, however, and it may well have been that this unusual Sino-Arab clash of arms helped to establish clear spheres of influence for the two great empires, perhaps based on mutual military respect.


It is interesting to note that, as a result of the Chinese defeat at Talas, an important technological transfer between East and West is thought to have taken place. After the battle numbers of Chinese prisoners of war were sent to Samarkand, where they taught their Muslim captors the art of making paper. By 794 this new skill had reached Baghdad, where a paper mill had been set up. From the Middle East the technology of paper making eventually reached the west, as a direct result of the Sino-Arab clash of arms at the Battle of Talas.


Paper Manufacture: The art of paper making seems to have first been developed in China during the 2nd century AD. One of the ‘Four Great Inventions of Ancient China’ (together with the compass, gunpowder and printing), the Chinese kept the process a secret for hundreds of years, though it spread to Korea and Japan in the early 7th century. After the Battle of Talas in 751, the technology spread first to Baghdad and then to Damascus, as well as east and south to Iran and India. The first paper mill in Europe was established at Valencia in Spain in 1120, probably as a direct result of the Battle of Talas, by way of Islamic Spain.



The Glory of Tang


The Chinese were checked at Talas, but the relatively indecisive Arab victory – which may equally have checked any thought of Arab advance across the Tian Shan into China Proper – helped to establish spheres of influence, and in no way hindered Silk Road traffic or the exchange of ambassadors between the Tang and Abbasid Courts. Soon after the clash at Talas, Tang troops strengthened their position in the Pamir region by advancing across the Karakoram Mountains to seize Gilgit. Tang primacy in the Tarim Basin was thus seemingly ensured, while the gradual process of Islamization continued further to the west, in the former Sassanid lands and across contemporary Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.


Meanwhile, between its inception in 618 and its ultimate fall in 907, Tang China would come to epitomise the prosperity, sophistication and power most associated with the ancient Silk Road. The Tang state wasn’t always militarily successful – just four years after its defeat at Talas, the dynasty was riven by the disastrous An Shi Rebellion (755-63), when a rebellious general of Sogdian-Turkic ancestry almost succeeded in destroying the ruling Tang house. Yet during its years of primacy, and particularly during the halcyon days of the late 7th and early 8th centuries, the Silk Road was in its prime and the Tang capital at Chang’an was unsurpassed in wealth and style by any other city on the face of the earth.


Through judicious use of the overland and maritime trade routes – and in particular the Silk Road – the Tang grew wealthy and gained access to new technologies. From India, Persia, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean World they acquired new ideas of fashion, fine glass and ceramics, and new techniques of metal working. Foreign ideas and styles crept in, ranging from sitting on benches and chairs, to new forms of dancing and musical entertainment. Strange and exotic religions also followed the trade routes and were, by and large, permitted to flourish in the tolerant environment of Tang China. Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism and Islam all penetrated the Middle Kingdom in this way, as eventually did Judaism.


Xuan Zang: The peripatetic Buddhist monk Xuan Zang (602-64) remains the best-known and best-loved of all Chinese travellers on the early Silk Road, not least because of his fictional reincarnation in the celebrated 16th century novel Xiyouji or ‘Journey to the West’ in which the novelist Wu Chengen created a magical version of the Buddhist pilgrim’s travels, accompanied by his companions Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy, to the realm of the ‘Queen Mother of the West’.

The real Xuan Zang set out from Chang’an (Xi’an) for India in 629, at a time when unauthorised travel to the western regions was forbidden by an inward-looking Chinese administration. Travelling mainly by night to avoid soldiers and officials, he crossed the Jade Gate Pass at Yumenguan and set out for the oasis of Hami where he almost died of thirst in the desert. After a period of recuperation at Turpan, Xuan Zang continued along the Northern Silk Road via Kuqa and across the Tian Shan to Transoxiana, before turning south to India. Here he studied at the Buddhist University of Nalanda for several years before continuing to visit historic Buddhist centres in Nepal and at Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, spending a total of around 15 years in the Subcontinent.

Later he returned to Chang,an, bringing with him 22 horse-loads of Buddhist manuscripts, written mainly in Sanskrit, as well as religious relics and precious Buddha images.


At its peak in around 750, the Tang capital of Chang’an was probably the largest and most populous city in the world. An estimated 800,000 to one million people lived within the city walls, with another one million or so living outside the walls in the greater metropolitan area. The city walls were simply massive, rising through 5.5 metres in height, and extending for 35 kilometres to form an elongated square with sides 8 kilometres by 9.5 kilometres. As many as 25,000 foreigners, including such diverse peoples as Turks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Indians, Koreans, Malays, Japanese and even Armenians, lived within the city walls, congregated mainly around the Western Market. Although the Tang state functioned as a Confucian bureaucracy, other religions were widely tolerated, and Chang’an had Buddhist and Taoist temples, as well as places of worship for Manichaeans, Nestorians, Zoroastrians, Christians and Muslims. It was a sophisticated, fun-loving city, with entertainers and courtesans from all over – though the dancers, ‘tumblers’, singers and musicians from the Tarim Basin city states of Kuqa and Aksu were particularly popular.


Trade routes led north to the Ordos and Mongolia, south to Guangdong and the Chinese colony of Annam, southwest to Yunnan and the Tibetan Plateau, and east to the fertile plains of the Yellow River. But the greatest of all these trade routes was the Silk Road, along which travelled rare medicines and perfumes, incense, spices, wines, ceramics and glass. By the mid-8th century, China’s monopoly on silk production had been definitively broken, but the best silks produced in the world still originated in China, and demand for them seems to have been steady farther to the west. Moreover, from Tang times China began to develop a new and important export to Central Asia, Tibet and India – tea, which was easily carried when compressed and valuable enough to exchange for the war horses China always greatly desired.


The Ancient Tea Horse Road: China’s ancient Tea Horse Road was in reality a collection of tracks and trails leading from the tea producing regions of Yunnan and Sichuan westward to Central Asia and Tibet. Tea was in great demand among the nomads of Central Asia and especially among Mongols and Tibetans, for whom it represented an important dietary supplement, usually taking with yak butter. In exchange, the Chinese required, as ever, swift and powerful steeds that they could not easily breed at home. The main Tea Horse Road led from Yunnan, across the Chamdo Region of Tibet, to Lhasa and Nepal. Other similar ‘tea for horse’ roads paralleled the ancient Silk Road through Gansu and Qinghai Provinces.


During the Tang era, maritime trade also flourished and expanded. Chinese goods were shipped from Guangdong and the south China coast to India and the Middle East, generally aboard Arab and Persian bottoms. The same merchant navigators carried wine and incense, pearls and precious glass back to China. By the mid-8th century some Tang shipping, too, was apparently calling independently at Indian Ocean ports including, perhaps, Berbera on the Somali coast, but this trade is poorly documented compared with the later Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) maritime expeditions.



Tibetans, Turks and Chinese Muslims


The An Shi Rebellion (755-63) marked the passing of Tang primacy, though the dynasty would survive for another 144 years, to 907. During this period the Tang state was squeezed by the energetic Tibetan Empire to the south and by new nomadic peoples in the north. In around 840 a group of Turkic people known as the Uighur were displaced from their ancestral homelands in the Mongolian Steppe, and driven south by Kirghiz raiders. The Uighur moved into the Tarim Basin, settling in the old oasis cities of Kuqa and Aksu before gradually spreading around the rim of the Taklamakan Desert. Here they underwent an extraordinary transformation, changing from pastoral nomads to settled oasis dwellers and cultivators.


The Uighur Turks: ‘Uighurs are the best among Turks. Their language is called King’s Turkish’. Mahmud al-Kashgari, Dictionary of Turkic Languages (1072).


The newly-settled Uighur seem to have practiced Manichaeism and Buddhism at this time, as well as writing in an adapted Sogdian script. It seems likely that they intermarried with the original Tokharian inhabitants of the oases, gradually giving the Tarim Basin the overwhelmingly Uighur nature of its indigenous population today – but, unfortunately for current Uighur nationalist aspirations, this was almost exactly a thousand years after Emperor Wu Di first claimed the area as part of the Han state. In such ways are intractable geo-political disputes given form..


Despite the Tibetan pressure from the south and the immigration of Uighur Turks from the northeast, the Silk Road continued to flourish during this period, albeit Chinese control over the Tarim Basin was nominal at best. The main reason for this was the rise of Islam in western Central Asia and the establishment of a near-universal Arab Caliphate under the Abbasids in Baghdad.


Islam was born in Najd, on the old Arabian trade route between Yemen and Damascus. Its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, was a merchant and caravan trader. It’s no coincidence that much of the ethos of Islam revolves around commerce – far from being the religion of conquest it is so often portrayed as in the West, Islam is quintessentially a religion of trade. Soon after the initial Arab conquests, it became advantageous for the conquered peoples to embrace Islam, both to avoid paying the poll tax levied on ‘People of the Book’ (Jews and Christians), and to benefit from Islam’s extended trade links. Muslim traders and caravaneers helped each other in ports, oases and city bazaars. Caravanserai sprang up along trade routes to serve the travellers, while mosques acted as places for Muslim travellers to rest, safely store goods, and exchange commercial and political information with their fellow believers.


In Islamic law, a mosque should be established in any community where there are at least 40 believers. This necessitated religious officials such as an imam to read the khutbah or Friday prayers, a muezzin to make the call to prayer, and so on. Resident Muslims, whether restaurateurs and inn keepers or religious teachers required wives and readily intermarried with local women, bringing up the children of such unions as Muslims. In this way Islam spread rapidly along the Silk Road – indeed along most trade routes, including by sea – establishing small, self-propagating Muslim communities just about everywhere trade caravans or sailing dhows might stop. Islamic law requires that Muslims should only eat permitted, halal food, while non-Muslims, too, would happily consume Muslim fare. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Muslims gradually developed something of a monopoly in the accommodation and catering businesses.


By sea, too, Islam made inroads on the Far East. Just as Arab caravaneers – accompanied increasingly by Turkic, Mongol and Chinese converts – traversed and kept open the overland Silk Road via central Asia, so Arab sailors – accompanied increasingly by Indian and Malay converts – helped develop strong maritime ties between the Middle East and the Tang coast. Once again, the chief motive force was trade and profit, but where sailors and merchants went, religious teachers and missionaries followed, as did mixed Han-Muslim communities in such coastal towns as Guangzhou and Fuzhou. The oldest mosque in China – Guangzhou’s Huaisheng Masjid – is said to date from the mid-7th century, and to have been established by Saad Abu Waqqas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad who is buried in the Huaisheng Masjid cemetery.


In time this migration of Muslims into Tang (and subsequently Song) China would give rise to a new people, the Muslim Chinese or Hui, since 1949 recognised by the Chinese authorities as a distinct national minority. Hui Muslims speak Chinese, not Turkish or Arabic, and beyond being Muslim identify first and foremost with China and the Chinese polity. They live in every province – just about every county – of China, and for centuries have excelled at long-distance trade, catering and inn management. They would prove vital middlemen in the Silk Road trade, providing an ideal cultural bridge between settled Han Chinese and itinerant Arab, Turkish and Iranian caravaneers or sailors.



China under the Song Dynasty


Although the An Shih Rebellion (755-63) was eventually put down, at great cost, by the Tang Emperor Daizong (762-79), the Tang state never fully recovered, and for its remaining 144 years was torn by the rivalries of increasingly autonomous provincial military governors. As Tang power and prestige declined, nomadic attacks on outlying garrisons and interference in Silk Road traffic increased. In 907, after almost three centuries in power, the dynasty finally collapsed and was followed by a period of disunity known as the ‘Five Dynasties and ten Kingdoms’ (907-60). The nation was only reunified in 960, with the accession of the Song Dynasty that would rule all China under the Northern Song (960-1127) and the southern part of the country under the Southern Song (1127-1279).


Song China was both wealthy and sophisticated. The state rested upon a Confucian meritocracy administering what became an increasingly free market economy encompassing a massive population – for the times – of about 100 million people that produced abundant food surpluses and other goods for trade. The Song was the first government in the world to issue paper currency. It also maintained the first standing navy of any Chinese state, introduced gunpowder warfare, new techniques of hydraulic engineering and the first movable type printing machines. For most of the Song Dynasty’s three centuries, China was prosperous and relatively powerful – but unlike in Tang times, the Song polity looked south and east, sending ships to the Indian Ocean and trading with Southeast Asia, India and beyond, but not exercising great control over Central Asia. Indeed for most of the Song period, Gansu’s Hexi Corridor represented the western limits of Chinese control, while in the Tarim Basin the scattered Uighur city-states came under the control of the Karakhanid Turks (999-1211).


It was during this period that Islam gradually extended its control across the Tarim Basin and into Gansu, changing the character of the Northwest completely. No longer was Chinese Central Asia – the area today known as Xinjiang – a region inhabited by Tokharian Buddhists and Uighur Manichaeans, but instead it became firmly Turkish-Muslim in culture. Meanwhile, a new power was developing to the north, in Mongolia, which would have drastic consequences not just for Song China and the Karakhanids, but for almost all the known world.



Samanids, Ghaznavids and Seljuks


Meanwhile, to the west of the Pamirs, Arab civilisation attained its classical ‘golden age’ under the Abbasid Dynasty during the 8th and 9th centuries, most particularly during the reign of the 5th Abbasid Caliph, the illustrious Harun al-Rashid (763-809). Harun was a learned scholar and poet who encouraged science and the arts, and encouraged wise men and scholars to settle at his court in Baghdad. He maintained diplomatic relations with India and China, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (768-814). Relations between these two near contemporaries seem to have been very good, with Harun sending envoys bearing silks, brass, perfumes, slaves and ivory, as well as an elephant and a water clock which made a great impression at Charlemagne’s court in Aachen. In return Charlemagne sent Harun al-Rashid fine Spanish horses, Frisian cloth, and trained hunting dogs.


Harun was also a good soldier, and his relations with Eastern Christendom at Byzantium were by no means as good as his relations with Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Between 780 and 806 he led several large armies against Byzantium, which only prevented the capture of Constantinople by paying the Abbasids a substantial tribute in gold.


Under the Abbasids the Arabs, too, were desirous of fine silks, despite the Prophet Muhammad’s injunction against wearing silk clothes – at least for Muslim men. Thus, according to the Hadith or Traditions of the Prophet, Muhammad addressed a group of his companions while holding a silk garment in one hand, and gold in another, saying ‘these are prohibited to Muslim men, but permitted to Muslim women’. Still more significantly, the Qur’an states that those believers who enter paradise will be ‘adorned with gold bracelets and pearls, and their clothing will be of silk’ (Sura al-Hajj). Similarly, once in heaven believers ‘will wear green garments of fine silk and rich brocade’ (Sura al-Insan).


The Last of the Abbasids: Hulagu Khan (1217-65) captured and sacked Baghdad on February 10, 1258 – the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and, for many, the end of the Arab Golden Age. Muslims warned the victorious Hulagu that disaster would befall the Mongols if the blood of Al-Musta’sim (1242-58), the last Abbasid Caliph, were to be spilled. Hulagu, whether through superstition or simple caution, took the warning to heart and had Al-Musta’sim rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by horses to avoid bloodshed. Al Musta’sim’s family were also executed, with the exception of the youngest son and daughter, who were sent to Mongolia to become slaves at Hulagu’s court.


Following Harun’s death the Abbasid Caliphate entered on a long, slow period of decline. The rival Umayyads maintained their dynasty in Spain, and the North African provinces from Morocco to Egypt acquired de facto independence. Next, in about 820, the Persian Samanids (819-99) asserted their control over Transoxiana and Khorasan, severing any direct Silk Road link between Tang China and the Abbasids. Samanid authority extended over Bukhara and Samarkand – the Mausoleum of Ismail the Samanid (892-907) in Bukhara was built during this time – and the Tajik people generally date their emergence as a nation from the Samanid period (819-999).


Caravan Cities: ‘In all the other parts of the world light descends upon earth.  From holy Samarkand and Bukhara, it ascends.’ Tajik saying.


The Samanids in turn were replaced by the Turkish Ghaznavids, decendants of Turkic slave guards to the Samanids who, ultimately, ovethrew their Persian masters. The Ghaznavids controlled most of Persia, all of Afghanistan and Transoxiana, and northern India as far as the Punjab during the period of their primacy (975-1187). The Ghaznavid state was the first major Muslim empire in Central Asia, and definitively marked the end of Arab and Abbasid influence in the region. By the mid 11th century, however, the Ghaznavids found themselves challenged to the west by the emergence of yet another Turkic-Muslim state, the Seljuk Empire (1037-1194), which established control over all the territory between Anatolia and Afghanistan, reducing the Ghaznavid state to the North Indian plains.


Meanwhile, to the east of the Pamirs, China was in absolute decline, and a series of petty states and fierce nomad entities developed to disrupt trade, while to the west, Abbasid decline and the emergence of contending Persian and then Turkish states did little to promote trade along the Silk Road with China. During this period – between approximately 800 and 1200 AD – The direct contacts that had been established between Tang China and the West withered, and while caravans continued to traverse the Silk Road, trade was disrupted by political uncertainties, and the sea routes to China via the Indian Ocean prospered as a consequence.


Nor was silk the important commodity it had once been. China’s monopoly had been broken, and while both the Tang and their successors, the Song, continued to produce and export literally millions of bolts of fine silk, they were increasingly rivalled first by Persian, and then by Byzantine production.




 Text copyright © Andrew Forbes / CPA Media 2011.

Category:  China

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