Story Of The Silk Road


Let us take a ride on the magic carpet of History, which
transports us back to around 3000 BC!
When wild horses were being tamed on southern Russian
When the ancient Sumerians had invented their first
cuneiform writing script;
When Minoan civilization began to flourish in the distant
island of Crete,
And two-humped Bactrian camels were being domesticated
in the Gobi desert region so vital for desert travel;
When China had produced its first silk, which made the
world later wonder and marvel!
For two thousand years successive Chinese Emperors
jealously guarded those silk worms and cocoons,
Until the worm eggs got smuggled out of China reaching
Korea, Japan, and Europe’s weaving looms!

Now gliding across several centuries of History we arrive
at 300 BC,
When the mighty Roman Empire had begun to flourish
as we see;
And the Qin Dynasty for the first time united China,
Building the first Great Wall to ward off the nomadic
hordes across their northern frontier.
Later the Han dynasty overthrew the Qin, and slowly
spread China’s wings!
But being constantly harassed by the Xiongnu nomadic
raiders from the north-west, (Tartars & Huns)
In 138 BC Han Emperor Wu, tried to forge a military
alliance with kingdoms on his West!
So he dispatched General Zhang Qian as his Envoy,
since he was the best!
Though General Zhang failed in his diplomatic mission,
He brought back news of 36 commercially viable Western
Kingdoms, which could fulfill China’s economic ambition!
He also spoke of magnificent horses seen in the Valley of
Farghana, (modern day Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and
Which were far superior to those horses seen anywhere in
Next followed two Han military expeditions successively,
Which secured all the lands between China and the Farghana
And here commences my real Silk Road Story!
For the Han Emperors not only secured those great horses
and the foreign market goods,
But also opened up the Historic Caravan Trade Routes!
So between 2nd century BC and the 14th century AD,
These routes commencing from Changan, the capital of
the Han and later Tang dynasty;
Connected the countries of Central Asian kingdoms of
Bkukhara, Samarkand, Persia, Syria and modern day
Right up to the eastern port cities of the Mediterranean
And onwards in merchant ships to reach Rome and Egypt
bordering the Mediterranean!

Origin Of The Name ‘Silk Road’:
It was only in 1877, the German geographer Ferdinand von
Having traversed some of these routes like a curious Historian;
Christened these multiple caravan routes as the ‘Silk Road’
Since silk was the most precious commodity carried in those
early days of history!
But besides silk many other items traveled between the Orient
and the West;
Religion, technology, art and culture, along with new ideas
and knowledge, - were also exchanged;
As we shall see during our journey through these routes, -
to satisfy our mental quest!


The term ‘Silk Road’ embraced a multiplicity of caravan
That carried precious cargoes of Chinese silk, jade, lacquer,
paper, gunpowder and porcelain goods!
These roads formed a fragile link connecting Imperial
China with the West,
As pioneers of Global and International Trade at its best!
These multiple routes had passed through a landscape of
mysterious diversity;
Through the Gobi and Taklamakan Desert, through Persia,
Afghanistan and Northern India, right up to the Mediterranean
But traders did not travel all the 8000 miles of these routes;
And in search for the best price for their goods, often sold
to different nationality or ethnic groups of Central Asia;
Who would continue its passage along the East-West axis
right up to Persia!
The Persians connected with the Syrians, who connected
with the Greeks and the Jews, - supplying to the Romans!
But at each stage of transaction the value rose, as the revised
price tags always showed!
The Romans were crazy about Chinese silk, and their nobility
loved that silky feel!
Silk cloth in Rome was valued at 300 silver denari, which was
a Roman soldiers entire year’s salary!
And in the year 408 AD Alaric the Goth, in exchange for
gold, pepper, silver, and 4000 pounds of Chinese silk;
Spared the sacking of Rome which he had besieged!

Northern and Southern Caravan Routes (Silk Road)
Commencement of Routes:
History is to time, as Geography is to space; let me describe
this routes as we progress.
All routes originated from the capital in Changan, the ancient
capital of the Imperial Han.
It passed through the narrow and fertile Hexi Corridor with its
String of Oases,
Under cover of the defensive walls built to protect their
Caravan trade!
China’s Great Wall had been destroyed, and also re-built
several times by her ruling dynasties,
As per the threat perception accessed by their Emperors, -
which becomes a separate Story!
Towards the south of the Hexi Corridor lies the high and
desolate Tibetan Plateau;
And in the north the Gobi Desert and the grasslands of Outer
Mongolia, - as any map would show!

Two Northern Routes:
This Hexi Corridor forked out at Anxi town, with a Northern
Route through the ‘Jade Gate Pass’ to Hami and Turpan;
Going along the southern edge of the ‘Heavenly Mountains’,
called the Tian Shan;
To join the Southern Route at the foothills of the Pamirs at
the fabled city of Kashgar!
Turpan north of Anxi was an oases city, known for its vine-
yards since the time of Han dynasty.
At Turpan the caravans had a further option of turning North-
West, passing through Urumqi into Kazakstan steppes;
Skirting the northern fringes of Tian Shan, on to Samarkand,
Bukhara and Theran;
All the way to Merv and Tabriz going south of the Caspian
Sea via Asia Minor, the present day Turkey;
Right up to Constantinople, the ancient Byzantine capital
Now at Anaxi, on the eastern side of the Taklamakan Desert,
The merchants exchanged their horses, mules and wagons,
for sturdy Bactrian Camels;
Only to exchange them back at Kashgar, with merchants
going eastward, through the same treacherous terrain!
These double-humped camels could carry 1000 pounds of
load and travel 30 miles a day;
Drink-up 25 gallons at a single session, whenever an oases
came their way!
During a desert storm their double eye lashes acted like a
wind screen wiper,
They could even shut their nostrils to survive such hostile
desert atmosphere!

The Southern Silk Route:
The Southern Route from Anaxi passed through Dunhuang -
a garrisoned City, to protect the silk trade built by the Han
This route skirted south of the Taklamakan Desert passing
through Khotan, to join the Northern Route at Kashgar.
Dunhuang lay on the eastern edge of the Taklamakan;
‘Taklamakan’ in Turkic meant ‘the place of no return’!
It is the most arid of deserts 1000 km long and 400km wide,
With the merciless sun raising the temperature to 50 degrees
Celsius by day, and cooling to minus 20 degrees at night!
So the route had to fork out skirting around this Desert’s
northern and southern sides!

Kashgar at the Crossroads of Cenral Asia:
Kashgar, at an altitude of 4282 feet is China’s largest Oases
City, with some 2000 year’s of history, located strategically;
In the shadows of the Pamir Mountains commanding the access
to high glacial passes of the Silk Route to Central Asia!
This Pamir Region is also known as ‘the crossroads of Central
Where Asia’s highest mountain ranges from India, Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Soviet Union and China get “knotted together”;
The Himalayas, Hindu Kush, Karakoram; with the Kunlun
and Tian Shan mountains of China;
Creating the famous ‘Pamir Knot’ with which we are
Here merchants from China and the West met to exchange
their merchandise, and also bargain for a fair price!
From the West came dates, saffron powder, and pistachio nuts
from Persia;
Frankincense, aloes and myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood,
lotus, and the great Religion of Buddhism from Northern India!
Here they also exchanged their wooly Yaks and pack ponies, -
For sturdy camels for their onward journey towards ‘Cathay’, -
The name given by Marco Polo to China in those ancient

Routes Beyond Kashgar:
From Kashgar a primary route turned south across the
Kharakoram Range into Upper Indus region and the Ganges
A southwestern route passed through the ‘Wakhan Corridor’
of the Pamir to Bactria in modern day Afghanistan, and onwards
to Merv at the eastern edge of Old Persian Empire!
Merv an ancient oases Turkmen city during 9th and 10th centuries,
was known as ‘The gateway to Central Asia’,
With caravans going eastwards to Samarkand via Bukhara!
The high mountain passes were accessible during the Summer
months mostly,
While the choice of caravan routes depended on the political
situation, route safety, and availability of Oases mainly.

Buddhism Reaches China via the Silk Road:
Traditionally, during the expansion of the Kushan Empire
under Kanishka during the 1st and early 2nd century AD;
They controlled the entire region of Bactria in the west, and
up to Sarnath near Varanasi in the Indian sub-continent;
Stretching up to the Tarim Basin area in the East - adjoining
the Chinese territory;
Which facilitated the travel of many Buddhist missionaries!
Soon Buddhism became China’s dominant religion, and even
saw ninety percent conversions!
During the 4th and 7th centuries monks Faxian and Xuanzang,
Had traveled to India respectively, to collect original scriptures
and texts, which were later translated.
In the Cave Complex at Mogao, in China’s Gansu province,
Are treasured valuable Buddhist art and sculptures for the
World to see!
But with the rise of Islam after the 7th century and its spread
up to the Tarim Basin region,
Influence of Buddhism had gradually began to wane!

Silk Road Summary:
The Silk Road which was initiated by the Han Dynasty,
Is considered as General Zhang’s innovative legacy!
Under the Tang Dynasty (690-705AD) this route saw its
Golden Age, in respect of the Route’s expansion and the
volume of trade!
Later between the 9th and 10th centuries this Road saw a period
of deterioration,
Until Kublai Khan during 13th Century reopened Silk Road’s
Kublai, the grandson of Genghis, established his glorious
Capital at Dadu, (modern Beijing)
And became the first Emperor of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty
By this time the faster maritime sea routes became more
economically viable for commerce and trade;
And the Ming Dynasty closed the western land routes, -
sealing our Silk Road’s fate!
Thanks dear Readers for taking this ride on the ‘Magic
Carpet of History’;
Through shifting sand dunes, wind scarred rocks, and
worn caravan routes, across many lost civilizations
and dynasties;
As I now conclude my researched Silk Road Story!
- Raj Nandy, New Delhi
E-mail: rajnandy 21@yahoo.in

Poem Submitted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Poem Edited: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

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