The ancient world had no concept of "the Silk Road" - the term was coined by a German geographer in 1887, who was actually trying to map the best route for a railway line across China. Equally there's no doubt that goods and ideas travelled in ancient times by various routes across Asia, creating links between civilisations in India, China and Iran. But few ever travelled the whole way: we should not imagine huge caravans of camels crossing the mountains and deserts, nor any kind of paved road. It meandered along largely unmarked trails which converged at the main oasis towns. There is plenty of evidence that travellers were infrequent and not necessarily concerned with commerce, and trade was mainly local and small scale.
Gaziantep, Eastern Turkey. A modern evocation of the "Silk Road" on the central reservation. Photo AMW
Setting aside the romance, what actual evidence is there for life along the "Silk Road"?
Chinese wooden strips
During the Han dynasty, China's power gradually extended into Central Asia, as shown by thousands of documents, not on paper (it had been invented but was still used only as a wrapping material) but on thin slivers of wood. By 100 BC they had reached Dunhuang - and the route from the capital at Chang'an (Xi'an) was protected by soldiers with bases at regular intervals. The documents include letters between officials, records of purchases of clothes and grain from the locals, notices of new edicts from the emperor. Passes were issued to all travellers. One set of wooden slivers records a case involving Sogdian traders who think they've been conned - being paid the rate for low-quality camels when they'd actually provided top class fat white ones. The documents also record delegations who travelled along the road to see the emperor: some were huge, some were quite modest in scale - and included visitors from the west: possibly even one from Rome.
Documents from Indian settlers
Document in Karoshti script from Loulan, China - ?3rd century AD
What was a document written in an Indian script doing thousands of miles away in China? From this and other documents - mostly written on wood - from the 2nd century AD onwards, we discover a community of immigrants from Gandhara living peacefully among the locals, getting married to them, and working as scribes, teaching their Chinese hosts how to write on wooden panels, and explaining the teachings of the Buddha to them.
Evidence: the Sogdian letters
One of the letters sent by a Sogdian living in China
In 1907, near Dunhuang on the western edge of China, the British/Hungarian archaeologist, explorer and scholar Aurel Stein found an abandoned post bag containing letters written in the Sogdian language - eight rolls of neatly folded paper. The letters date from the 4th century AD, and all came from different towns in China - but all are on similar sized sheets of paper (writing paper being a Central Asian invention gradually spreading westwards). Four have been translated into English by Nicholas Sims-Williams, and can be read here.
From the letters we can work out:
- The letter-carrier was on his way to Samarkand when the letters got lost (there's an "address" on the little bag that was used as an envelope for one of the letters).
- The date they were lost. A letter refers to the total destruction of Luoyang - a city in China which was attacked three times - once in AD 311, the date that seems more likely than 190 or 535. The same letter refers to the Huns who were then invading China and who invaded Europe in the late 4th century.
- There were already Sogdian communities living in several cities in China. One letter mentions 40 Sogdians - who built a fire-temple.
- Miwnay, the Dunhuang woman who wrote two of the letters after her husband had abandoned her (and his debts), appealed for help to two associates of her husband and then to a priest. A glimpse of family life among the ancient Sogdians:
I obeyed you and came to Dunhuang and did not listen to what my mother or my brothers told me. The gods must have been angry with me the day I obeyed you! I'd rather be married to a dog or a pig than to you!
There's a PS by her daughter which says they can't afford the 20 staters for a passage home, and that they've been forced to become servants to the Chinese. [Letter 3]
- One of the writers was an agent for a rich businessman employing a large number of weavers, and trading in wool, linen and musk. [Letter 2]
- Another letter is from a servant to his master, a merchant, complaining that no caravan is leaving, and that there are various goods ready to be sent - including pepper. [Letter 5]
- All amounts mentioned in the letters as being traded are small.
- All the letters suggest the writers have fallen on hard times in China - presumably due to political troubles around the fall of the Western Jin dynasty.
Many Sogdians settled in Turfan - documents (preserved in the desert conditions) show them as farmers, hotel-keepers and vets, and many more went as refugees to China after the Muslim conquest in AD 712 (as Yazdegird III, the last king of kings had done).
Evidence: the Dunhuang documents
One of the Dunhuang caves
Dunhuang is where the Silk Road leaves China, and divides into northern and southern routes around the inhospitable Taklamakan desert. It was established as a garrison town in 111 BC, to help protect China against the Xiongnu. From the 4th century AD until the 14th it became a centre for Chinese followers of Buddha, whose philosophy began to reach China in the 2nd century AD from India (where Buddhism began, around the 5th century BC).
Eventually about 500 caves around Dunhuang had been dug out and were being used by Buddhists as centres for prayer, meditation, and as monasteries. Visitors (the Chinese emperor, clergy, local and foreign dignitaries, merchants, soldiers, tourists) donated money to maintain the community and its work.
Eventually many were abandoned, and blocked up. In 1900, a local monk, Wang, discovered what became known as the "Library Cave" - a treasure trove of maybe 50,000 manuscripts in over 20 different languages and numerous scripts. After the archaeologist Aurel Stein bought a large number (for the bargain price of £130) expeditions began to converge from all sides - France, Russia, Germany, Japan. All made off with their share of manuscripts for their national museums (where they still are today). There were even some left for Beijing when the Chinese realised what was being lost.
The "Caves of a thousand Buddhas" are now a World Heritage site. An international project is under way to collect, catalogue, digitise and publish as many manuscripts as possible: see here for up-to-date information. Among the manuscripts are: the world's first printed book, early books on astronomy, the rules of the game Go, and scriptures - not only Buddhist, but also Zoroastrian, Manichaean and Christian. There are also paintings, sculpture and works of art of all kinds. Along with the manuscripts they provide a fascinating window on life in one on the major towns on the Silk Road.
Persian influence: female polo player (painted terra-cotta from Dunhuang, around 8th century AD).
Evidence: the end of the road: Chang'an (now Xi'an)
Tombs in Xi'an dating from the Tang dynasty show Iranians still practising the Zoroastrian religion, where bones were buried after the corpse had been "cleaned up" by vultures and other scavengers. Some Sogdians, though, chose to be buried according to Chinese customs.
Evidence: transmission of disease.
The Silk Road has long been blamed for the transmission of the Black Death (bubonic plague) which reached Europe in 1347. The evidence connecting Yersinia pestis to the Silk Road is circumstantial - recently research has revealed that four types of intestinal parasitic worms did indeed travel the route from China to the west. 2000 year old "personal hygiene sticks" from the latrine of a relay station at Xuanquanzhi have revealed eggs of the Chinese Liver Fluke - endemic 1000 miles to the east. This discovery makes it likely that other diseases could have travelled that way.