The Silk Road

Silk Road

Silk Road map from Wikipedia

Valerie Hansen, a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University, has written this history and archaeology of the Silk Road both to show what we can know about the Eurasian world’s most famous commercial route, but also how we can know it. The book is divided into chapters that look closely at individual Silk Road towns. Most of these are oases in Central Asia along the route, but she included the major metropolises of Chang’An, the capital of more than one Chinese empire, and Samarkand, the homeland of the Sogdian people. For each city, Hansen discusses the Silk Road documents and artifacts that have been uncovered and what these reveal about the role of the city in the Silk Road and the Silk Road generally.

Hansen’s general conclusions about the Silk Road may surprise. “The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history and possibly not worth studying,” she writes provocatively (262). Except, of course, it is very much worth studying. The road carried some commerce, though that was mainly local trade in locally produced goods. But it made possible the movement of emissaries and ambassadors, armies, refugees, and missionaries.

Around 200 CE Buddhism moved into the oases south of the Taklamakan desert from what is today Afghanistan, carried by small groups of Gandharan immigrants. They also gave the locals a script, making them literate for the first time. Buddhism would remain one of the dominant religions in what is now western China for many centuries. But the Sogdian people from the towns and cities of today’s Uzbekistan would slowly come to dominate the region. They practiced Zoroastrianism, embracing the same world view as their Iranian co-religionists but worshipping multiple gods. One Zoroastrian tomb painting includes depictions of the fire altar along with the Mesopotamian goddess Nana.

By the 8th century CE other central Asian people began to make their power felt, including the Uighur who remain the dominant group in western China today. One of the early Kaghans converted to Manichaeism, and encouraged his leading people to do the same. An example of the cultural syncretism of the region is evident in a document discovered in one archeological site that was a Manichaean hymn in Sogdian “but written phonetically in Chinese characters.” (268)

Yet the Manichaeans and Zoroastrians made room for one another, and also for Buddhists and even Christians from the Nestorian Church of the East. The earliest printed book, an illustrated Chinese version of the diamond sutra, was found on the Silk Road. And so too was a talisman of folded paper containing verses from the Hebrew Scriptures. (268)

The Silk Road did facilitate trade. But reports of communication between Rome and China seem overblown. Only a few Byzantine coins have been uncovered in more than a century of archaeology. The period of greatest commercial activity was the early Tang Dynasty, from he 600s until 755. Huge shipments of silk cloth left Chang’An for the Chinese military outposts in Central Asia. The cloth was used as payment to the soldiers, who could in turn use it to pay for their needs from local merchants. After the An Lushan rebellion the Tang removed their forces from the west and trade along the road reverted to local trade in local goods.

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