Wealth and Faith: The trade of goods and religion on the Silk Road


The restored mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar. Ruins of Old Merv. Photograph: ASAEL Anthony/Getty Images/Hemis

It's the early morning. You wander through the still sleepy bazaar, slowly gearing up for another busy day of haggling. From the corners of your eyes, you spy servant boys cleaning the ornate iron-wrought oil lamps, their handcrafted designs obscured by soot. In many ways, this still felt new to you, a trader from Cairo born to a family of merchants. While not fabulously wealthy, you lived comfortably enough selling glass and crystal imported from the artisans of your home city to the relative frontier you now find yourself in.

You still couldn't decide if it was fate, boredom or business acumen that brought you to Merv, mother of the world and crown city of Khurasan, but it was never a choice you regretted. Cairo saw much at the heart of the Dar al-Islam, but it did not see the volumes of exotic goods that Merv, a metropolis on the border between several nations, bore witness to. As you leaf through the early market, you talk to the few regular faces in an ever-changing city and, as usual, they offer to let you browse their wares. Your keen merchant's eye inspects precious stones from beyond the Indus River, master-crafted Tamil steel and fragrant sandalwood while the smell wafting from Arabian incense and the uncountable variety of spices helped you wake up from an early morning's torpor.

Eventually, your hands meet the refreshing smoothness of a bolt of ivory white fabric, the cold crispness of the sheet is a welcomed reprieve from the heat of a Khurasani summer that was already subtly creeping into the sandstone plaza. It had not been your first encounter with silk. Almost instinctively, you look east. Beyond the walls of Merv, you knew that if you had to follow the road east, you would find the Iron Gate Pass in Uighuristan. Beyond that lays Al-Sin. You entertain the idea of visiting for a few brief moments to see the fabulous wealth of a land almost mythical to even your age-worn eyes. You banish the thought, remembering the day ahead. The bazaar in Merv is not kind to daydreamers.


The History of the Silk Road:


Adam Smith once said that trade is the lifeblood of nations. This metaphor is apt for a variety of reasons. Besides being a source of vitality and rejuvenation for the economies that benefit from it, it requires the infrastructure to flow in the same way that blood needs veins and arteries. Hence, trade routes often compound over time, building from simple pathways into well-developed roads with guard stations, toll booths and caravanserai. Eventually, one may even see a string of prosperous cities on these routes, their markets and local industries flush with the resources that come with being at the axis of wealth transfers.


One may see the ancient Silk Road as an example of this process where the meeting of East and West allowed for the flourishing of the borderlands and the transfer of goods and ideas. This being said, to refer to the Silk Road as a single path from Continental Europe to China would be overly simplistic. In reality, while the general framework of the Silk Road did coalesce around some main pathways, the broader system of routes generally acted as more of a commercial network, with modern scholars preferring the term Silk Routes due to its closer accuracy the objective situation.


A caravan of merchants. Source: History.com

While the Silk Road as we know it began during the Han Dynasty, one can easily argue that a precursor of this network could be found in the Achaemenid Persian Royal Road that ran from Susa to Asia Minor and included a network of postal stations and couriers along the Road to ensure speedy and accurate communication.

In terms of the Han Dynasty, which constituted the Chinese state between 206 B.C to 220 A.D, Emperor Wu had sent his imperial envoy Zhang Qian to establish contact with the kingdoms and peoples of Central Asia to gain allies and trade partners that would help in his war with the nomadic Xiongnu people to his North. In this conflict, a main deciding factor was horses, as the Xiongnu were excellent raiders from horseback, and Wu wished to eliminate this competitive advantage. Zhang returned to China with an overwhelmingly positive report regarding his exploration of the Ferghana Valley, or modern-day Uzbekistan. Besides mentioning the abundant rice, wheat and grapes in the region, Zhang drew the Emperor's attention to the well-bred "heavenly" horses native to the region. After importing so many horses that the indigenous Dayuan people refused to part with more, war was declared, leading Han China to gain ownership over the Ferghana Valley and opening a way Westwards.

This Silk Road would originate in Xi'an, follow the Great Wall to the Northwest, pass through the foreboding Takla Makan Desert, climb the Pamir mountains, bypass Afghanistan, eventually reach the Levant and enter the Mediterranean Sea through a metropolis such as Antioch. Few people walked the entirety of the route, and therefore a wide variety of middlemen could be found along the Road. This was also augmented by a strong maritime component with the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean allowing ocean navigators to push Northwest in the Winter and Southwest in the Summer. The alternation would allow traders to travel from the Red Sea to India during the Summer and back to the Red Sea in Winter.


The Road of Paper, a Road of Prayer


While the Silk Road does get its name from one of its most popular commodities, bolts of silk manufactured in China, this does little to credit the sheer variety of goods exchanging hands on the Road. Food, livestock, leather, iron tools, religious objects, artwork and precious stones could be found in the bustling bazaars of Merv, Samarkand and Aleppo. What is just as exciting but a significantly downplayed aspect of this trade was the exchange of technologies and ideas across the disparate cultures of the Road. Paper and gunpowder were invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty and introduced through the Silk Road. They would revolutionize Europe through the creation of the printing press and gunpowder weaponry.


Faith, however, would come to form a vital part of the influence of the Silk Road. Given its nature as a commercial crossroads between cultures, kingdoms and continents, the Road would see Imams, Christian preachers, Buddhist monks, and the followers of hundreds of faiths walk along its well-trodden paths. These often came into contact with each other and, by sword or by dialogue, came to influence the theology and practice of the faithful. Buddhism flowed from its birthplace of Northern India to China with Sogdian merchants translating Sanskrit and Pali sutras into Mandarin. To attempt to document the wide variety of faiths and their interactions across the Road would be a fool's errand. Therefore, it would be best to illustrate this through historical precedent.


The Nestorian Cross. A reproduction of a stone tablet found in a Christian monastery in 13th-century Beijing. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In modern-day Kyrgyzstan, there is an ancient Christian cemetery. In contrast to the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant iconography we are well acquainted with in the West, the cross on these graves is adorned with a lotus blossom at its base, the symbol of the Nestorians. On one of them, an epitaph reads, "This is the grave of Jeremiah, the believer." In terms of date, the gravestone states that Jeremiah died in the year of the sheep. In contrast to the Levantine origin of his faith, he adorned his grave using the Chinese zodiac.


Further east, in the old Chinese capital of Chang'an, one could find a 9-foot tall limestone relic referred to as the Nestorian Stele. This monument described Christian theology in Buddhist linguistics. The stele reads as follows:


"[Christ] fixed the extent of the Eight Boundaries [the Eight Consciousnesses of Mahayana Buddhism], thus completing the truth and freeing it from dross [worthlessness]; he opened the gate of the three constant principles [impermanence, suffering, and nonself], introducing life and destroying death.”

Further West into Afghanistan, the 7th Century Buddhist scholar Xuanzang mentioned the "immense stone Buddhas carved into cliffs." These are the Buddhas of Bamiyan, 120-foot icons carved into the hills, and they would remain until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001.

A girl watching over her herd of goats, the niche where one of the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood looming in the background. From wsj.com


An Eastern Road closed, a Western Sea wide open


Perhaps, in retrospect, the most lasting impact of the Silk Road was its closure. When the Ottoman Empire closed European trade with China, it led the merchants and sailors of the Old World to ply their trade and seek out new ways of accessing the East, bypassing the territorial hegemony of the Ottomans. This compelled an Italian explorer by the name of Christopher Colombus to wonder if a route to India could be found Westward, cutting a straight line between Portugal and the East. Hence, the discovery of America and the Age of Exploration would begin.



European caravels during the Age of Exploration. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alfredo Roque Gameiro


References

  • Bauer, S. W. The History of the Ancient World. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

  • Beckwith, C. I. Empires of the Silk Road. Princeton University Press, 2011.

  • Durant, W. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster, 1972.

  • Ebrey, P. B. The Cambridge Illustrated History of China. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

  • Hansen, V. The Silk Road. Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

  • Rodgers, N. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. Anness, 2008.

  • Strassler R. B. The Landmark Herodotus. Anchor Books, 2009.

  • Syncretism | Khan Academy. Retrieved 26 September 2021, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/world-history/ancient-medieval/syncretism/a/syncretism-article.


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