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The Legacy of the Silk Road

In an era of tolerance, the ancient Silk Road encouraged rich cultural exchange

By Valerie Hansen Created: January 31, 2013 Last Updated: January 31, 2013
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A settlement on the Suu-Samyr plateau, more than 8,200 feet above sea level, along the ancient Silk Road from Bishkek to Osh, some 125 miles from Bishkek on August 2, 2012. (Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/GettyImages)

A settlement on the Suu-Samyr plateau, more than 8,200 feet above sea level, along the ancient Silk Road from Bishkek to Osh, some 125 miles from Bishkek on August 2, 2012. (Vyacheslav Oseledko/AFP/GettyImages)

Despite all the talk in diplomatic circles of a new Silk Road and restoring trade in Central Asia, in actuality, these routes were among the least traveled in human history—possibly not worth studying if tonnage, traffic, or the number of travelers at any one time were sole measures. The Silk Road found a place in history because of its rich cultural legacy in written records and artifacts, and because trade and tolerance were so intertwined.

Trade was not the primary purpose of the Silk Road, more a network of pathways than a road, in its heyday. Instead, the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to travel along part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands.

The Silk Road was a famous artery for the exchange between East and West of religions, languages, and technologies.

Thriving in new homes, newcomers mixed with local residents and often absorbed other groups who followed. Sites of sustained economic activity, oasis towns like Turfan, Dunhuang, or Khotan, enticed still others to cross over mountains and traverse oceans of sand. While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road became the planet’s most famous cultural artery for the exchange between East and West of religions, art, languages, and new technologies.

We use the term “Silk Road” to refer generally to the exchanges between China and places farther to the west, specifically Iran, India, and, on rare occasions, Europe. Most vigorous before the year 1000, these exchanges were often linked to Buddhism.

And that’s why cities of Khotan and Kashgar in Xinjiang, northwestern China, are famous for their Sunday markets, where tourists can buy locally made crafts, naan, and grilled mutton on skewers. As visitors watch farmers fiercely bargaining over the price of a donkey, it’s easy to imagine Xinjiang always this way, but that’s an illusion. The predominantly non-Chinese crowds in the northwest prompt a similar reaction: Surely these are the direct descendants of the earliest Silk Road settlers.

In fact, though, a major historic break divides modern Xinjiang from its Silk Road past. The Islamic conquest of the Buddhist kingdom in 1006 brought a dramatic realignment to the region. Eventually Xinjiang’s inhabitants converted to Islam making that the principal religion in the region today. They also gradually gave up speaking Khotanese, Tocharian, Gandhari, and other languages spoken during the first millennium A.D. for Uighur, the language one hears most often in the region today.

Excavated materials shed light on the nature of the Silk Road trade. These materials, written on paper, silk, leather, and wood, survive only in dry locales, places like Niya, Loulan, Kucha, Turfan, and Khotan in Xinjiang; Samarkand in Uzbekistan; Dunhuang in Gansu province; and Chang’an, the capital during the former Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 9) and the Tang (618–907).

These documents were recovered not only from tombs, but also from abandoned postal stations, shrines, and homes beneath the dry desert—the perfect environment for the preservation of documents as well as art, clothing, ancient religious texts, ossified food, and human remains.

Ancient Documents

Many documents, found by accident, were written by people from all social levels, not simply the literate rich and powerful. These documents were not composed as histories. Their authors did not expect later generations to read them, yet they offer a glimpse into the past that’s often refreshingly personal, factual, anecdotal, and random.

Documents later recycled as shoes for the dead or in the arms of figurines show that Silk Road trade was often local and small in scale. Even the most ardent believer in a high-volume, frequent trade must concede that there is little empirical basis. Scholars offer varying interpretations of these scraps of evidence, but there’s no denying that the debates concern scraps, not massive bodies, of evidence.





   

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