The Silk Road
No one knows for sure when the miraculously fine, light, soft, strong, shimmering,
sensuous fabric spun from the cocoon of the Bombyx caterpillar first reached the West from China.
In the 4th century BC, Aristotle described a fibre that may have been Chinese silk.
Some people give credit for history's first great industrial espionage coup to a Chinese
princess who was departing to marry a Khotanese king.
The legend goes that she hid live worms and cocoons from customs agents so she
would be able to wear silk in her distant home.
But even after the secret of sericulture arrived in the Mediterranean world, the
Chinese silk was by far the best. Writing a short while after the time of Christ, Pliny the
Elder was scandalised by the luxurious, transparent cloths which allowed Roman women to be
"dressed and yet nude". He also fell wide of the mark in describing silk's origin and processing.
States, on the Iranian plateau, was the most voracious foreign consumer of Chinese silk at
the close of the 2nd century BC. In about 105, exchanged embassies and inaugurated official
bilateral trade along the caravan route that lay between them. With this the Silk Road was born,
in fact if not in name.
It was said to take 200 days to traverse the route, though geographically the Silk Road was
a complex and shifting proposition. It was no single road, but rather a web of caravan tracks
that threaded through some of the highest mountains and bleakest deserts on earth.
Though the road map expanded over the centuries, the network had its main eastern terminus
at the Chinese captial Ch'ang-an (modern Xian); west of there, the route divided at Dunhuang,
one branch skirting the dreaded Taklamakan desert to the north through Turfan, Kucha and Aksu,
while the other headed south via Khotan and Yarkand. The two forks met again in Kashgar, whence
the trail headed up to any of a series of passes confronting the traveller who attempted to cross
the Pamir and Tian Shan (one pass again in use today is the Torugart on the border with Kyrgyzstan).
Beyond the mountains, the Ferghana Valley fed westward through Kokand, Samarkand and Bukhara,
past Merv and on to Iran, the Levant and Constantinople. Goods reached transshipment points on
the Black and Mediterranean seas, where caravans took on cargo for the march back eastward over
the same tracks. In the middle of the network, major branches headed south over the Karakoram
range to India and north (North or Steppes road) via the Ili river across the Saka steppes.
Goods heading west and goods heading east did not fall into discrete bundles.
In fact there was no "through traffic", caravanners were mostly short and medium-distance
haulers who marketed and took on freight along a given beat according to their needs and
In general, the eastern end was enriched by the importation of gold, silver, ivory,
jade and other precious stones, wool, Mediterranean coloured glass
(an industrial mystery originally as inscrutable to the Chinese as silk was in the West),
grapes and wine, spices. Goods enriching the western end were silk, porcelain, spices, gems and
And in the middle lay Central Asia, a great clearinghouse which provided its native
beasts - horses and two-humped camels - to keep the goods flowing in both directions.
The Silk Road gave rise to unprecedented trade, but its true glory and unique status in
human history were the result of the interchange of ideas, technologies and religions that
occurred among the very different cultures that used it.
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