Great Silk RoadThe Silk Road… What do we know about it? Our imagination pictures the boundless sandy sea of scorched desert. Cutting through waves of dunes move the never-ending caravans loaded with the valuable goods …


But, of course, it is only true to a certain point. The Silk Road stretched for thousands kilometers leading caravans across scorching deserts, picturesque oases, and mountain passes. The cities and entire civilizations prospered and decayed along the way. The cities of the Silk Road witnessed numerous devastating wars, destructions, fires, famine and death. For centuries multilingual Oriental markets buzzed, for hundreds of years the dusty caravan roads were traveled by merchants who carried to Europeans precious silks and stones, spices and dyes, gold and silver, exotic birds and animals.


So, one can call the Silk Road the grandiose trade route which connected the East and the West and became the reason of appearance of many unique cities, historical monuments, customs and even the entire states.


What is the story of that surprising route which later became the reason of cultural enrichment of both the West and the East? Let us address the fascinating history of the Silk Road.


The start of the Silk Road is dated 2nd century BC when Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian visited the countries of Central Asia with diplomatic mission. Until the 2nd century BC the way from Europe to Asia stopped at the borders of China because the great ranges of Asia, the Tien Shan, the Kun-Lun, the Karakorum, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas, protected the ancient Chinese civilization from the rest of the world. It was by accident that the richest western direction was opened. One of nomadic tribes, who were allies with China, was driven out by another tribe, openly hostile to China. The former ally left to the West. The Chinese emperor sent the embassy led by Zhang Qian . Having crossed the Taklamakan desert, the mountains of Tien –Shan; having spent ten years in captivity, Zhang Qian found the former allies in the oases of Central Asia. Zhang Qian was amazed by what he saw: just single Fergana valley hosted more than 70 big and small towns and settlements with the developed crafts and agriculture. The townspeople traded with India, the Near and Middle East, and the countries of the ancient world. When Zhang Qian came back to China, he told the emperor about the countries lying to the West from China, about how rich they were. He told about the thoroughbred Davani “winged” horses which were far better than small Chinese ones. The emperor burnt with the desire to have such horses in his possession since it would give him huge advantage in the fight against nomads. Soon the embassies were sent to Central Asia. Among other gifts they brought Chinese silk there.


That was how ancient civilizations of Central Asia and China and later, of Mediterranean and India met. One went from the West, from the countries of the Mediterranean to Central Asia, explored and traveled by Greeks during Alexander the Great campaigns and the other, leading from the East, from Hang empire to Central Asia, explored by Zhang Qian who traveled that land from the north to the south via Davan, Kangyui, Soghd, and Bactria.


However, before that, there had been several roads which were used for trade between the East and the West. Those were separate sectors of the future way Silk Road. The rise of commercial relations was promoted by extraction of semiprecious stones such as lazurites, nephrites, carnelians, turquoises in the mountains of Central Asia. There was even the so-called “Lazurite Way” which was used for taking that stone from Central Asia to Iran, Mesopotamia and even to Egypt. At the same time “Nephrite Way” connected Khotan and Yarkand with Northern China. Besides that, carnelian was taken out to the countries of Westerns Asia from Sogdiana and Bactria, and turquoise - from Khoresm. All those routes, eventually, joined the Silk Road.


There were periods in the history of the Road when it was almost completely controlled by one state: Turkic khaganate in the 6th century, the empire of Genghis Khan in the second quarter of the 13th century and Timurid Empire in the last third of the 14th century. However, because of the huge distance it was practically impossible to control all the sectors.


The Silk Road was never a single-path route. Its system included some branches of caravan roads which passed across different mountain passes bypassing deserts.


The Silk Road originated in Chang’an, the ancient capital of China, and went along the northern Tien-Shan to Dunhua, the city near the Great Wall of China. There the single road split bordering the Taklamakan desert from the north and the south. The northern way went through Turfan to the Ili river valley. The Middle road (the so-called Southern way) led from Zhang Qian to the southern coast of Lake Issyk Kul- via Khotan and Yarkand, and reached Bactria (northern Afghanistan). There the Southern route split in two other roads: one followed to India, the other to the West and Merv where it merged with the Northern route. Further it passed via Nisa, the capital Parthia, Iran, Mesopotamia, Bagdad, went to Damascus and reached the Mediterranean.


The goods carried on the Silk Road moved basically from the East to the West. Judging by the road’s name silk was the main commodity in the list. Thanks to its light weight, compactness, enormous demand and high price it was ideal for trade and long-distance transportation.


In the Middle Ages the Venetian merchant Marco Polo named the caravan routes silk roads. But it was a German researcher Ferdinand Richthofen who coined the term the Great Silk Road in his fundamental work, “China”, in1877.


At the initial stage of the Silk Road development Chinese received expensive horses and the seeds of lucerne and grapes. The ancient world had cultivated grapevine and made wines from time immemorial. But for Chinese, separated from other civilizations, grapes were a novelty. Moreover, Chinese envoys were very surprised when they found that it was possible to make wine not only from rice but also from berries unknown to them. Later Chinese discovered for themselves other agricultural crops – string beans, onions, cucumbers, carrots, pomegranates, figs etc.


Various woolen goods, carpets, curtains, blankets and rugs, came to China from Central Asia and East Mediterranean. They made huge impression upon Chinese who were unfamiliar with methods wool and flax processing, carpet manufacture and weaving. Highly appreciated in Ancient China were Parthian tapestries and carpets.


Central Asia exported camels which were very appreciated in China, military equipment, gold and silver, semi-precious stones and glass items. Samarkand made glass was especially valued due to its high quality. It was considered as luxury goods. Other goods were skins, wool, cotton fabrics, gold embroidery, exotic fruits – water-melons, melons and peaches; fat-tailed sheep and hunting dogs, leopards and lions.

From China caravans carried the well-known Chinese china – snow-white vases, bowls, glasses, and dishes with graceful patterns. Only Chinese owned the secret of making the thinnest and resonant porcelain, therefore, it was very expensive in European markets. Bronze ornaments and other products from this metal, ornate bronze mirrors, umbrellas, products from the well-known Chinese varnish, medicines, and perfumery were also popular. Chinese paper, one of the most remarkable inventions of Chinese technical genius, was highly appreciated too. Gold, skins and many other things were exported as well. Merchants also carried tea and rice, woolen and flax fabrics, corals, amber and asbestos. The sacks of merchants were filled with ivory, rhino horns, turtle shells, spices, ceramic and iron items, glaze and cinnamon, ginger, bronze weapons and mirrors.


India was famous for its fabrics, spices and semi-precious stones, dyes, and ivory. Iran – for its silver products. Rome received spices, fragrances, jewels, ivory, and sugar and sent European pictures and luxury goods.


Eastern Europe imported rice, cotton, woolen and silk fabrics from Central Asia and exported considerable volumes of skins, furs, fur animals, bark for skin processing, cattle and slaves to Khoresm. Northern Europe was the source of furs, skins, honey and slaves.