What was the Silk Route?

The Silk Route is a convenient name for the Trans Asia trade routes. At one point, it was viewed as a road along which silk from China was brought to Turkey and sold to Europeans. That is an overly simplistic and not terribly realistic view. It was not a single road but a number of interconnecting Caravan Routes over which trade was conducted. Additionally, Sericulture only dates back a few thousand years; the Silk Route is much older.

The Silk Route dates back at least 5500 years, whereas silk only dates back about three thousand years. The early trade on the route was for rock salt. Salt is necessary for life and has a number of uses. Salt can help to preserve meat, and shepherds would salt their herds to get them to take on water so that they might survive mountain forage or desert crossings without water for longer than they could otherwise. Rock salt was mined in Afghanistan 5500 years ago, and so was a wonderfully important semi precious stone called Lapis Lazuli.

Years ago I had the privilege of meeting and listening to Gary W. Bowersox, author of “Gemstones of Afghanistan,” at his book lecture at the Mid East Institute. From him, I learned the key to a great puzzle. The only source of Lapis for most of the last 6000 years are the mines in Badakshan province of what is currently called Afghanistan. So, when we examine Dr. Wooley’s findings from the city of Ur that date back 5500 years ago, we know that the mountain of Lapis beyond the Zagros mountains can only mean the mines in Badakshan. Think about this: clear evidence that Ur, a major city in the Tigris Euphrates river delta, traded with mines thousands of miles away.

We see the same in Egypt, where we know that the lapis from the first dynasty Egyptian Pharos could only indicate trade with Badakshan in Southern Turkestan. Chinese archeology is a fascinating field, and a few years ago, I attended a lecture to the International Hajji Baba by a Chinese gentleman who was speaking about the archeological digs in the Tarim Basin. We are quite lucky in the International Hajji Baba to have Wendel Swan, one of the great rug scholars, to arrange such fascinating programs for us. After the lecture, I had the chance to question the fellow and I asked him if they found Lapis in their excavations. “At all levels,” he told me, meaning of course that since the excavations covered human habitation going back over 3000 years, the Lapis trade dated to the earliest periods.

Another trade item on the Silk Route that gives us clues about the trade were the so-called heavenly horses. In ancient times, the best horses in the world were a breed that the Chinese called the Heavenly Horses. These horses, which were raised in the Ferghana valley, were the predecessors of today’s Achal Tekke and were the primary blood stock for today’s Thoroughbreds. If we compare the Achal Tekke with the Heavenly horses, we see a match in conformation particularly in the pronounced withers. To my knowledge, the first record of silk over the Silk Route was by the Han dynasty in payment for these horses sometime around 200 BC.

The next major clues for me date to the Tang dynasty figurals. In and around 700 AD, it was the custom in China to use small statues in their tombs. These statues, called figurals, show Central Asian figures as well as Semitic traders. In the O’Callaghan Collection, there is a figural who very clearly appears to be Persian, and in the Seattle Art Museum is a trader with a sack, and many speculate on a Semitic model for the figure. So while I do not wish to speculate on Jewish merchants on the basis of hair and nose shape, it is quite clear that that non Chinese traders were in China around 700 AD, and the only logical route to have come by was the Silk Route.

Some of the most important traders ever on the Silk Route were a caravan of traders under the protection of Cengiz Qan. If you remember the story, a caravan was executed by the Kwarezim Shah as spies, and in retaliation, Cengiz Qan turned west. The Cengizate period was a busy time on the Silk Route. The Qan installed way stations and expedited travel and post from Baghdad to China.

One of the most important parts of the Silk Route that is either ignored or misunderstood is the routes to India. Today, India and Red China share a border, but the mountains created an effective Northern border for India that blocked trade. The main trade routes for India were by sea or through present day Afghanistan. For a considerable portion of history, the Indian markets were as important or more important than China. But we can explore that later, and when I get a few spare moments, we can look at the Silk Route after Genghis Khan.