9/14/12 - the road that transformed the world

In today's excerpt - one of the world's least traveled roads brought about the greatest global transformation:

"The Silk Road was one of the least traveled routes in human history and pos­sibly not worth studying—if tonnage carried, traffic, or the number of trav­elers at any time were the sole measures of a given route's significance.

"Yet the Silk Road changed history, largely because the people who managed to traverse part or all of the Silk Road planted their cultures like seeds of exotic species carried to distant lands. Thriving in their new homes, they mixed with the peoples already there and often assimilated with other groups who followed. Sites of sustained economic activity, these oasis towns were beacons enticing still others to cross over mountains and move through oceans of sand. While not much of a commercial route, the Silk Road was important historically—this net­work of routes became the planet's most famous cultural artery for the exchange between east and west of religions, art, languages, and new technologies.

"Strictly speaking, the Silk Road refers to all the different overland routes leading west out of China through Central Asia to Syria and beyond. Nothing unusual in the landscape would catch the eye of someone flying overhead. The features delineating where the road went were not man-made but entirely natural—mountain passes, valleys, and springs of water in the desert. Not paved, the Silk Road was systematically mapped only in the twentieth century. No one living on these routes between 200 and 1000 CE, the peak period for the Chinese presence, ever said 'the Silk Road.' ... The term 'Silk Road' did not exist before 1877, when the Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen first used it on a map. ...

"Most of what we have learned from [recent historical] documents debunks the prevailing view of the Silk Road, in the sense that the 'road' was not an actual 'road' but a stretch of shifting, unmarked paths across massive expanses of deserts and mountains. In fact, the quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small. Yet the Silk Road did actually transform cultures both east and west. Using the documentary evidence uncovered in the past two hundred years and especially the startling new finds unearthed in recent decades, this book will attempt to explain how this modest non-road became one of the most transfor­mative super highways in human history—one that transmitted ideas, technol­ogies, and artistic motifs, not simply trade goods.

" 'Silk' is even more misleading than 'road,' inasmuch as silk was only one among many Silk Road trade goods. Chemicals, spices, metals, saddles and leather products, glass, and paper were also common. Some cargo manifests list ammonium chloride, used as a flux for metals and to treat leather, as the top trade good on certain routes. Another common trade item was paper, invented during the second century BCE, and surely a far greater contributor to human history than silk, which was used primarily for garments ...

"The communities along the Silk Road were largely agricultural rather than commercial, meaning that most people worked the land and did not engage in trade. People lived and died near where they were born. The trade that took place was mainly local and often involved exchanges of goods, rather than the use of coins. Each community, then as now, had a distinct identity. Only when wars and political unrest forced people to leave their traditional homelands did these communities along the Silk Road absorb large numbers of refugees.

"These immigrants brought their religions and languages to their new homes. Buddhism, originating in India and enjoying genuine popularity in China, certainly had the most influence, but Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and the Christian Church of the East, based in Syria, all gained followings. The people living along the Silk Road played a crucial role in transmitting, trans­lating, and modifying these belief systems as they passed from one civilization to another. ...

"These routes date back to the very origins of humankind."


Valerie Hansen


The Silk Road: A New History


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2012 by Valerie Hansen


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