The history of this historic trade route is full of mystery. Entire peoples have been born and died, civilisations have disappeared and reappeared, travellers have made discoveries, artisans have created monuments of great magnitude, and the common thread of the route has survived for centuries, connecting China with the Eurasian regions. In the course of its long existence, the “Road of Life” – the Silk Road has become covered with legends and tales…
The Expedition of Zhang Qian
The amazing expedition of Zhang Qian, marked by extraordinary adventures, played a major role in the creation of the Great Silk Road, according to most historians. In 139 BC, Emperor Wudi sent an envoy to the west to form an alliance with the peoples living there and to fight together against the Xiongnu. Special attention was paid to the nomads who settled significant areas in Central Asia.
According to legend, the gifted diplomat Zhang Qian was a brave and determined warrior. He was absent from China for a whole 13 years (of which he was a prisoner for more than 10 years, but managed to escape). He finally reached the state of Dawan, which was located in the Ferghana Valley.
Here the representative of the Chinese emperor was warmly received – the government hoped to establish trade relations with the Celestial Empire. Qian was shown the Fergana horses, which according to ancient legend are the direct descendants of dragons. The horses, which “sweat blood”, are said to be descended from “heavenly horses”. They made a great impression on the envoy.
Later, with the help of the people of Davan, Zhang Qian reached Kangju State (the area between Balkhash and Issyk Kul) and then Dayuezhi (Amu Darya Basin). Then Zhang Qian returned to China, but was again captured by the Xiongnu. It was not until 126 BC that he reached the capital of the Celestial Empire, where his travels and the data he obtained were appreciated by the emperor and high dignitaries.
During the difficult and dangerous journeys, during which he often had to risk his life, Zhang Qian gathered extensive information about the lands in the northwest and the people who inhabited them. Based on the envoy’s detailed report, Emperor Wudi issued a decree establishing four new provinces in the territories recently reconquered from the Xiongnu.
Around the same time, construction began on powerful fortifications to protect and guard the caravan routes. And the new areas formed the so-called Gansu Corridor, which opened the way for free trade.
The main product
From about the second century AD, it was silk that was transported by Chinese merchants to distant lands. This compact and lightweight commodity was easy to transport and, despite its high price, attracted the attention of many merchants along the caravan route.
It was highly prized in Central Asia and Turkestan, in India and Rome, in Alexandria. Queen Cleopatra is said to have had a taste for very luxurious silk clothing, and in the first centuries after Christ there was even a special silk market in Rome.
It is also known that the Visigothic king Alaric demanded 4000 tunics made of this material as ransom during the siege of Rome in 408.
At various times, great efforts were made to reveal the secrets of silk production. For example, the ruler of Hotan could not obtain the recipe for producing the finest material. On the advice of his minister Yuichi Mu, he decided to cheat and arranged a marriage with a Chinese princess.
When the proposal was accepted, a messenger from the ruler of Hotan whispered to the princess that her future husband’s homeland was rich in fine jade but lacked fine silk, and that she should bring silkworm cocoons and the seeds of the mulberry tree if she wanted to wear the same beautiful clothes as before the wedding.
It was not long before the girl was plagued by agonising doubts as to whether or not she should divulge a state secret. She brought everything she needed to Hotan, hiding the cocoons in an elaborate hairstyle that the border guards were not allowed to inspect, and the seeds in her luggage of herbs and potions.
It is interesting to note that the enterprising bride thought on a much larger scale than her groom and brought along under the guise of domestic servants and experts in silkworm rearing and silk weaving. And even a gardener, an expert in silkworm rearing. And the silk-making technology smuggled to Hotan soon found its way to other countries and became widely used in India, for example.
Another legend says that in the sixth century, the Emperor of Byzantium, Justinian, commissioned two monks to bring him precious mulberry silkworms from China. The monks hid the “treasure” in a bamboo stick. And if the Chinese had discovered the cocoons, the clergymen would have faced the death penalty. What really happened is hard to say today, but the centuries-old secret of silk production was finally revealed.
In addition to silk, bronze mirrors, porcelain and ceramics, paper and metal goods were also shipped from China to distant lands. In the Middle Kingdom (as China was then called), there was a great demand for jade from Hotan and lapis lazuli from Bodakhshan, Indian carpets and tapestries from Parthia, glass from the Mediterranean and horses from Ferghana.
Documents and private letters from the second to fifth centuries show that paper, which first appeared in China around the second century BC, was widely used in Central Asia 300 years later.
The composition of the world’s first paper is not yet fully understood, but there is speculation that the auxiliary material used was one made from sheep’s wool, which was created during the weaving of silk. Perhaps that is why the left side of the hieroglyph “zhi” (“paper”) means “silk thread”.
Later, young bamboo shoots were used to make high-quality products. This paper was mainly produced in the south, where there were many bamboo groves. Soon, reeds were also used there as raw material. In the middle of the VIth century, coloured paper was already being produced in the Celestial Empire. In European countries, independent production of this material did not emerge until the twelfth century, most recently in England in 1491.
However, the Silk Road was not only responsible for the movement of goods. It facilitated an intensive exchange of cultural and spiritual values between the states of Eurasia. Trade routes became channels for the spread of languages and religions. Buddhism also entered the Celestial Empire via the Great Road.
Thus, the caves of the Thousand Buddhas of Kizil are the clearest example of the spread of religious ideas. Located in Xinjiang, this cave complex is the oldest Chinese Buddhist cave temple. It was built between the third and eighth centuries in the Tocharian Gaochan kingdom. More than 200 caves are carved directly into the two-kilometre-long rock.
Some of the temples are simple cells. Others are richly decorated ritual rooms with frescoes (whose origins remain a mystery to archaeologists and historians). The absence of Chinese fragments suggests that they were painted before the influence of the Tang dynasty in the region in the 8th century. The presence of Iranian and Greco-Indian elements on the frescoes suggests that the enigmatic paintings were made much earlier.
A high mountain branch of the Way
In 2005, an 1800-year-old tomb was discovered in Tibet that points to a part of the Silk Road unknown to science. The tomb, located more than 4 km above sea level, contained Chinese silk and ceramic vessels (as well as bronzes and a gold mask), suggesting ancient trade contacts between China and Tibet.
The tomb also contains ancient samples of tea leaves. Historians believe it was grown in Yunnan province (southern China). The researchers said: these finds are evidence of a long-lost highland branch of the Great Silk Road.
Marijuana in the Silk Road
Just recently, in 2016, a burial site was found during excavations in the Turpan Oasis near the Silk Road. And cannabis was found in it. Historians believe that such a find is evidence of the spread of marijuana among the traders of the “Road of Life”. The grave is about two and a half thousand years old. The 30-year-old man was buried with 13 cannabis plants that were up to one metre long.
The body was wrapped in them like a shroud. Researchers suspect that the grave belongs to the ancient Subeiha culture, which dominated the region at that time. And the Turpan Oasis was a stopover for Silk Road traders.
European travellers like Marco Polo reached East Turkestan and back unhindered with the help of the Mongols.
According to some historians, the plague also spread along the Silk Road in the XIV century.
The western part of the route was controlled in the 14th and 15th centuries by the Venetians and Genoese, who had fortified factories on the shores of the Black Sea.
In the 15th century, the Silk Road was in decline due to renewed military conflicts in Central Asia. This stimulated maritime trade and led Europe to the great geographical discoveries.