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The Silk Road – A Brief History

Apricots drying, Altit Fort, Hunza.jpg (74494 bytes)

 From its shadowy beginnings in the second century BC to its slow demise in the thirteenth century the Silk Road served as the only artery that linked the otherwise isolated worlds of East and West. In its early days it was a route down which the Chinese would bring back from Central Asia the ‘Heavenly Horses of Ferghana’, animals famed for their fleetness, agility and, it was said, their ability to sweat blood. With such fine steeds at their disposal the Imperial armies of China were at last capable of repelling the increasingly troublesome raids by barbarian horsemen from the northern steppes. In return the Middle Kingdom traded silk, a fabric whose luxurious qualities would soon become valued and sought after as far afield as Rome and, importantly, whose method of production the Chinese were able to keep secret for many centuries to come. In recognition of the need to secure this new trade route Imperial troops were despatched, as early as the Han dynasty, to build watchtowers and man garrisons along the fringes of the Taklamakan desert. These fortified caravanserai were vital in helping to shelter and protect the vulnerable camel trains that slowly wended their way from oasis to oasis through some of the world’s most inhospitable lands.

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Old Silk Routes

With stability established, trade soon flourished and along with it came a flow of ideas that would slowly revolutionise the Chinese world. Setting out from the ancient monastic city of Gandhara, modern day Taxila in Pakistan, traders and pilgrims carried the new faith of Buddhism high over the treacherous passes of the Karakorum Mountains and down into the glacier fed oases of today’s Xinjiang. From there a religion that had had its beginnings centuries earlier in India now made its way inexorably on into China proper. Great Buddhist cities grew up adorned with artwork inspired by techniques introduced to the East by Greek craftsmen who had accompanied the march of Alexander the Great. Other religions followed too; Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and finally Islam. When Marco Polo travelled the Silk Road in the thirteenth century he became one of the last to witness it as a thriving and viable trade route. By the time of his return to Europe not only had the secrets of sericulture long since been betrayed but also other, more practical, sea routes had been established. As the Silk Road fell into disuse so the flowers of Central Asian Buddhism withered away and many of the regions cities were abandoned, to be slowly swallowed up by the creeping sands of the Taklamakan. Today, however, with the opening up of China and the rest of Central Asia, the Silk Road has been brought back to life and the regions through which it passes are becoming in many ways more vibrant than ever. 

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             Revised and last updated: November 20th 2013. Links