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The ancient Silk Route
By Bina Thomas
Alexander the Great

This morning I awoke to the loud crack of a supersonic jet as it whipped through the air with amazing speed. Later, while browsing the Internet, I once again marvelled at modern technology that has thrown open the information highway, enabling quick global networking at the click of a button! 

Technology today is all about speed. International business and trade is abuzz with the same quick networking. And a great deal of money is invested in planning and developing quicker modes of travel by air, rail, and sea, enabling even faster trade. Technology has made such rapid inroads into our lives that life just a few decades ago seems remote. 

Imagine a time when there were no airplanes, trains, trucks, expressways, telephones, or even electricity. Trade flourished even then. How did regions and communities network for various businesses? By trade routes, of course! Not just internal trade of a few hundred kilometres, but inter-regional trade that covered thousands of kilometres and connected continents.  

Ancient trade via the sea route is well-known. As far back as 5,000 years ago, civilisations like the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Indus Valley Civilisation thrived on trade. Later, empires were sustained by a flourishing sea trade. But what about kingdoms and regions that were landlocked and had no direct access to the sea? For instance, the northern half of the vast continent of Asia that couldn’t do much trade on the freezing waters of the Arctic ocean. That’s where internal land routes become important. And there is no other route quite like the ancient Silk Route. 

The Silk Route was like an arterial vein channelling blood to different regional pockets, from one end of Asia to the other, keeping the area alive and throbbing with cultural and trade exchanges. It was an elaborate network of small and big roads connecting the eastern coast of China with Europe and India for nearly 1,500 years! Indeed, it is still being used by traders and nomads today. 

The Silk Route was perhaps the most inhospitable and difficult of all trade routes because much of it passed through the Taklimakan and Gobi deserts of China. But it was a lifeline for hundreds of far-flung villages in the region that were connected to the main route by a network of smaller links.  

The route came into existence when emperors of the Chinese Han Dynasty sent out ambassadors, in the 1st century BC, to the sophisticated Greek cities in Central Asia, to establish commercial links. After a few decades, when Central Asia and northern India were united under the Kushan Empire, India too became part of the Silk Route. 

The route catered to the Roman Empire’s demand for Asian luxury items like silks and perfumes, till the 5th century. The expansion of the Islamic Turks in the 10th century brought about major cultural changes in the area. Buddhism, which was predominant in the region, was mostly wiped out. Political stability under the Mongol rulers in the 13th century once again restored the importance of the Silk Route. 

Chinese silk was one of the most precious commodities traded along this route. History records that Europe had never seen silk until they came into contact with the Chinese. They were so fascinated by the shimmering feather-soft fabric that it very soon became the most cherished possession of the rich. Chinese silk at the time was more expensive than gold! Royal treasuries were emptied out to buy this wonderful fabric. Along with silk came gold, ivory, exotic animals and plants from China. 

The Chinese, in turn, were particularly interested in the magnificent Central Asian horses! Also perfumes, western medicines, and precious stones from the mountains of Central Asia. 

Along with all this trade travelled communities and cultures, their art, architecture, music, and, most important, their religion. Buddhism travelled to China from India along these routes. Trade routes that cut across continents are definitely the melting pots (or should I say cauldrons!) of cross-cultural interactions. 

 (Bina Thomas is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok)

InfoChange News & Features, September 2009

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