The Silk Road

The Silk Road

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The Silk Road is an ancient trade route connecting China to the shores of the Mediterranean. By the Chinese, the Silk Road then designates the routes by which goods pass from the Far East to Syria. The main product, silk, gives its name to these paths still taken in the Middle Ages. Merchants travel there in caravans and create the first international business culture. The Romans who thus discovered the precious fabric in the 1st century BC. J.-C know nothing of its origin. Marco Polo will take the Silk Road to complete his journey to the borders of Asia.

The opening of the Silk Road

The Silk Road refers to all the caravan routes that have linked China to the West (India, Persia and Rome) for two millennia, but also the seaway used from the 1st century AD to join China and bypass either Arabia (via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden), or Iran and Pakistan (via the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz), and passes through the Indian Ocean .

The Silk Road takes its name from the silk trade (from the classical Latin serica "fabrics, silk clothing originating in China"). Of all the goods transported in Roman times, silk was then the most precious, the most expensive and the most mysterious, the object of a disproportionate craze in the elegant districts of Rome. At that time, the secret of sericulture (cultivation of silkworms) - which dates back to the Neolithic - could not yet be discovered, as the Georgics (36-29 BC) of Virgil testify, who celebrate "the wool that the Sere delicately plucks from the leaves of silk trees"; this art is in fact only disclosed in the sixth century.

The Silk Road is used for the first time in the 1st century BC. AD, after the Chinese Emperor Wudi, weary of the border harassments of the nomads Xiongnu (a northern tribe), succeeded in securing his suzerainty and strengthening the western marches of the Empire. Once the Xiongnu were defeated, the Han dynasty set out to pacify the region and build tracks, as well as establish lines of defense and garrisons. Thanks to this partial control of trade routes, trade between the Far East and the Mediterranean basin is encouraged - even if they remain perilous, given the harsh climatic conditions, the difficulties of the terrain, the tributes to be paid, unexpected payments of grants and inevitable ambushes of looters.

Trade limited to precious goods

The Silk Road overland spans some 14,000 km round trip. In order not to have to complete the entire route, the caravans generally exchange their goods or exchange their goods from camps to caravanserais all along the way, in counters or in oases where the fabrics are displayed under the palms, or in the semi-darkness. camel bivouacs: in Purusapura (present-day Peshawar, in the north-west of Pakistan), capital of Gandhara; in Taxila, capital of eastern Gandhara, or, further north, in the Pamir region, in Tach-kurgan, in a place called "the Stone Tower" (mentioned by Martin of Tire, from the story of Maès Titianos , through the Geography of Ptolemy), in the upper valley of Amu-Daria.

The distance to be covered is such that only goods of great value are transported: to the West, Chinese silk, but also lacquers, skins, turtle shells, ivories and spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger), musk and dried rhubarb roots (rhubarbus palmatum, a rare commodity with medicinal properties, also used as a dye and for tanning leather); towards the East, textiles (linen, wool), glassware, amber, lapis lazuli from Badakchan, Damascene steel swords, wine, gold and silver coins, or great "celestial steeds" of Fergana (wild horses of Transoxiana).

The Crusades and Marco Polo

The Crusades will revive international trade between West and East and make Genoa and Venice great economic powers. Italian traders transport goods to the Holy Land and create trading posts on the edges of the Mediterranean. Given their success, the Venetians are looking to open up more markets. This is how the Polo family heads east.

The first Western man to walk the Silk Road is a Venetian merchant. In 1260, Marco Polo traveled with his father and uncle on a boat full of goods to sell them in the Soldaïa counter, on the shores of the Black Sea. Probably disappointed with their dealings, they continued on horseback eastward. In Bukhara, they meet messengers from Kubilai Khan, the famous Mongolian leader responsible for the fall of the Song. After returning to Venice from 1269 to 1271, they rode again towards the East. In three years, they arrived in China through Mongolia and were welcomed by Kubilaï in Cambaluc (now Beijing) around 1275. The Mongolian sovereign proposed to Marco, then aged about twenty, to enter his service. In this way, Marco learns about India, Persia and the lands that make up what is now Vietnam. Back in Venice, around 1295, he was imprisoned in Genoa and met Rusticello from Pisa. His companion draws a manuscript of the narration of his discoveries, The Book of Wonders of the World, which met with mixed reception from his contemporaries.

The decline of the Silk Road

The decline of the Silk Road began in the mid-14th century, when the Mongol Empire (the Chinese Yuan dynasty) collapsed and Islam progressed in Central Asia, a decline which was accentuated under the Ming dynasty, China therefore entering a long period of autarky, a consequence of the closure of borders. Maritime routes and coastal areas, however, remain very busy.

Beyond the commercial contacts it established between East and West, the Silk Road facilitated cultural and religious exchanges. Travelers, merchants and pilgrims thus contributed to the spread in China of Buddhism and the art associated with it. This is evidenced by the first figurative representations of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva of the Gandhara school, the Begram treasure (discovered in 1937 in Afghanistan), the bronze Guanyins inspired by the Avalokiteshvara of Tibetan art, the rock sanctuaries of the Tarim basin. or the dissemination of sacred texts after the invention of xylography (woodcut) in the 8th century (the Diamond Sutra discovered in Dunhuang in 1907). It was also by this same route that the disciples of Mani (Manicheans) passed through in the 6th century and, in the 7th century, the Nestorian missionaries who came to China to preach the word of Nestorius, as a stele of 781 attests.

Nowadays, China is now seeking to open new Silk Roads to facilitate trade with Europe and consolidate its commercial and political hegemony.

For further

- The Silk Road: Or the mirage empires. Payot, 2017

- The Silk Roads: The Story at the Heart of the World, by Peter Frankopan. Champs History, 2019.

Video: The New Silk Road, Part 1: From China to Pakistan. DW Documentary


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