THAT FABLED HIGHWAY, the Silk Road, crossed some of the most inhospitable territory on earth for at least 2,000 years. From China’s bleak northwestern borders, the oldest and most historically important trade route wound over deserts and mountains, laden camels lurching from one oasis to another – or watering-hole at least. This vast network of caravan trails at first passed through vast tracts of bandit-ridden, arid wasteland, then between Pakistan’s killer mountain peaks, through central Asia all the way to the eastern Mediterranean. Many of these ancient overland routes are still in use today, though not for conveying the luxury goods they once did. The historic Silk Road, almost 5,000 miles long, was strewn in places with the bones of humans and camels, and when the avalanches of snow or sand that had engulfed them had cleared away, bales emerged containing luxury items of all descriptions, including that most desirable of commodities down the millennia – silk.
So hazardous was the journey and so precious were the cargoes that in certain places and at particular epochs in the history of the Silk Road, local people scavenging their patch were permitted to keep the clothes and personal belongings gleaned from the human casualties, as long as they sent on the correspondence – and the merchandise. It was the silk in those bales that above all else kept open and dominated this avenue of communication between East and West, causing empire after empire, merchant after merchant, to push eastward towards China for so long; and until the 6th century, for China to be the sole provider of the luminous, gossamer fabric.
Successive Chinese dynasties too tried to extend their imperial borders westward, at least halfway to the Mediterranean. Above all else, the Chinese desired jade, symbolically more sacred and therefore more precious to them than gold, described as the ‘Jewel of Heaven’. They also craved the strong horses of Central Asia, ‘heavenly horses’, as they came to be known, much celebrated in their sculpture.
The eastbound trade caravans did convey gold and gold embroidery, as well as Persian silver, coloured glass from Samarkand in Persia and Rome. Perhaps surprisingly, paintings too travelled from Italy. From central Asia came semi-precious gems, amber, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and pigments for pottery glazes. The Chinese also wanted Indian cottons and dyes, linen textiles, animal skins and furs, and woollen goods such as rugs, blankets and curtains, as well as lengths of woollen fabric for clothing. Add to this wish list – asbestos, iron, military equipment and vast quantities of coins and bullion, and one begins to get a sense of the sheer weight of the cargo, as well as its diversity. More prosaically, fat-tailed sheep came straggling in – and much more significantly – camels because they were not indigenous to China.
Lively pottery sculptures of Bactrian camels celebrate those dependable beasts of burden, arrogant heads in air, whose females nevertheless cry piteously when deprived of their young. They were domesticated in the early second millennium BC in Bactria, north of today’s Hindu Kush. The Bactrian camel has two humps, whereas the Arabian variety, tamed for human use later, around 1,800 BC, has one. These two species approximately divided the Silk Road. Their enhanced sense of sight and smell (particularly of water) saved their own lives and those of dehydrated caravaneers down the centuries. They were immortalised by the Chinese writer Kuo P’u: ‘The camel is an unusual domestic animal; it carries a saddle of flesh on its back; swiftly it dashes over the shifting sands; it manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has secret understanding of springs and sources; subtle indeed is its knowledge!’
As the Silk Road inter-connected with other vital commercial arteries, such as the Incense and Spice routes, and later as Arabian maritime trade expanded into southern India and Africa, increasingly exotic goods reached China, such as frankincense, Arabian perfumes, turtle shells, coral, and papyrus. Pitiful leopards and lions somehow survived the extraordinary journey, along with rhinoceros horn and ivory.
Of course it was not just luxury merchandise and vital metals that were traded along the Silk Road, but also vast quantities of household goods, clothing and food. The ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and Central Asia had always cultivated grapevines and made wine from them. For the Chinese, far from these other civilisations, grapes were a novelty, although of course rice wine was deeply familiar, though it seems – never exported along the Silk Road. Many of the fruits and flowers now taken for granted in Europe and the Western world originated in central Asia such as peaches, pears, apricots and oranges, pomegranates and figs, roses and tulips from Persia, camellias and chrysanthemums from China. In turn Chinese cuisine would be unthinkable today without the import of spices from India, including ginger, cinnamon, and coriander. Successive Chinese dynasties also relished other agricultural imports such as sesame seeds, onions, cucumbers, string beans, and carrots. How these perishable goods survived their conveyance in the saddlebags of the beasts of burden along the Silk Road is fascinating, but it is recorded that the seeds or stones of watermelon, melons and peaches did reach China.
Silk was the most important, but certainly not the only westbound commodity from China. Caravans of camels as many as 4,000 strong set off from China with tea and rice, initially unknown further west. Their luxury goods proved irresistible. Lacquer, carved jade, ornamental vessels, mirrors and weapons of bronze, cosmetics and medicines, even umbrellas, travelled across the historic world. Only the Chinese had discovered how to make the most delicate porcelain, and also snow-white ceramics. Paper, as we know it, rather than papyrus, was another uniquely Chinese invention.
Along this lifeline of Asia, tiny villages offering caravanserais or hostels became great centres of learning and aesthetic exchange as well as commerce, growing into cities like Chang’an (today’s Xi’an in China and twice its capital). Other emergent hubs included Kashgar, Samarkand, Palmyra and Antioch. Some are noble ruins now, others engulfed completely by shifting sands as land eroded and rivers dried up or changed their course. Belligerent central Asian nomads were tamed (somewhat) by their craving for silk and other luxuries. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Crusaders in their turn would literally ‘die for’ silk.
Recorded as active from 138 BC to AD 1366, and probably for at least 1,000 years before that, the Silk Road was of course not just enabling the long-distance transport of valuable goods, but also acted as a communications artery for the exchange of cultures, ideas and religious beliefs, as well as technology, processes and techniques, design forms, patterns and materials. The people travelling east and west were intellectuals and artisans, pilgrims and missionaries, musicians, entertainers and dancers, as well as traders. At a certain point on the Silk Road, during the Pax Mongolica, established by Genghis Khan, the journey became so much safer that ‘passports’ were issued, and Marco Polo could travel its length for pleasure and curiosity, commenting as he went. Historic ‘travel writers’ and ‘tour operators’ gave advice on choice caravanseries and shopping opportunities. Such an infusion of cosmopolitan exotica defined one of China’s ‘golden’ dynasties, the Tang, at which time the poet Li Po captured the atmosphere of the northern capital, Chang’an:
‘Where shall we say adieu?
Why not the Ching-I gate of Chang’an
Where Persian waitresses beckon
with white hands
Enticing customers to drink their fill
of fine wine?
That Western houri with features
like a flower –
She stands by the wine-warmer, and laughs with the breath of spring,
Laughs with the breath of spring,
Dances in a dress of gauze!
In this way, some of the most ground-breaking concepts and technologies of human endeavour travelled along the Silk Road’s great trading routes. Writing, and later paper and printing, the wheel, horse-riding, medical, astronomical and engineering advances, innovations in weaponry and warfare that constantly threatened the very continuity of the Silk Road, somehow continued to flow along it.
So what do you see today of the Silk Road? Precious little remains. In Pakistan the remarkable engineering feat of the Karakoram Highway has reduced to a few (arduous) days that part of the journey that took the travellers of history months of their lives. Chinese lion sculptures guard the bridge at the town of Gilgit, which lies in a valley on an offshoot of the Silk Road passing through northeastern Pakistan. Old stone plaques honour those that died locally on the historic Silk Road, and more recent ones commemorate those who died building the KKH. Shops in Gilgit at the Cinema Bazaar stock modern Chinese ‘luxuries’ – copies of Ming ceramics and bargain microwaves. A modern Iranian jeweller who lives in Peshawar, itself on a branch of the Silk Road, still buys antique materials in the market there to create her jewellery, such as Chinese coins and beads, fragments of jade and antique faïence.
On this section of the Silk Road there are remnants of Gandaran culture – breathtakingly beautiful, spiritually uplifting examples of Buddhist culture, dating from the 1st to the 5th centuries, including life-sized terracotta heads. At the Said Sharif Museum in Swat, these sculptures are astonishingly European in appearance, such as one resembling a Gothic sculpture of Jesus Christ, though they were created during the great Gandharan civilisation of what is today’s northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. In their infinitely human yet humane, symbolic yet representational style, they embody that fertile merging of West and East – the union of Hellenistic influences with local Buddhist culture, as Alexander the Great pushed eastwards on the Silk Road as far as Pakistan and then northern India.
What caused the end of the Silk Road? Though threatened at times by conflict and natural disaster, trade between China and the eastern Mediterranean continued until the beginning of the Ming dynasty in 1368. During this lengthy epoch China became increasingly insular, withdrawing from international relations and commerce, and effectively sealing her borders. Most of the great cities of the Silk Road gradually fell into decline. The route was broken, the Silk Road finally at an end.
Silk Road Luxuries from China opens on 5 November and continues indefinitely at the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington DC, www.asia.si.edu