Wednesday, December 24, 2003

The Silk Road

The Silk road is the name for the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China. The first users of the road must have lived in the first half of the first millennium BCE, but the name 'Silk road' dates from the first century BCE. Its most famous traveler lived more than twelve hundred years later: Marco Polo of Venice (1254-1324). This road is considered to be one of the World's oldest and most historical trade route which has largly influenced the cultures of China, Centeral Asia and Eastern Europe.
The western end of the trade route appears to have developed earlier than the eastern end, principally because of the development of the the empires in the west, and the easier terrain of Persia and Syria. The Persian Empire was in control of a large area of the Middle East, extending as far as the Indian Kingdoms to the east. Trade between these two neighbours was already starting to influence the cultures of these regions. At the beginning of the sixth century BCE, the trade route started in Babylon, from where it passed through Opis/Ctesiphon (Baghdad) and Ecbatana (Hamadân) and modern Sâveh, the place where Marco Polo was to see the tombs of the three Magi who had visited Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever the historical value of the story of the Magi, they must have traveled along the Silk road. From Sâveh, the road continued to Rhagae (Tehrân), the religious capital of ancient Media. Further to the east, it passed through Parthia and reached Hecatompylus (near Dâmghân) and Susia (Tûs near Mashad). Here the road forked. The southern branch went through the Arian capital Artacoana (Herât) to Kapisa (Kandahâr) in Arachosia, and from there either to the southeast to the Lower Indus or to the northwest to Gandara (the valley of the Kabul) and the Punjab. The northern branch went from Susia through the Karakum desert, passing along the oasis Margiana (Mary or Merv) and the Scythian tribes along the Amudar'ya, to Maracanda (Samarkand) in Sogdiana or to Bactra (Balkh, near modern Mazâr-e Sharîf) and Drapsaca (Kondûz). Here, lapislazuli could be found, a precious article that was much appreciated in Babylonia and Assyria. Other articles that were traded were horses and camels.
Much of the region is taken by the Taklimakan desert, one of the most hostile environments on our planet. There is very little vegetation, and almost no rainfall; sandstorms are very common, and have claimed the lives of countless people. The locals have a very great respect for this `Land of Death'; few travellers in the past have had anything good to say about it. It covers a vast area, through which few roads pass; caravans throughout history have skirted its edges, from one isolated oasis to the next. The climate is harsh; in summers the tempreture gets as high as 50 degrees Celsius, and in winters the temperatures dip below minus 20 degrees.
The Silk Road, after a long period of hibernation, has been increasing in importance again recently.
The fight of man against the desert, one of the biggest problems for the early travellers, is finally gaining ground. There has been some progress in controlling the progress of the shifting sands, which had previously meant having to resite settlements. The construction of roads around the edges of the Taklimakan has eased access, and the discovery of large oil reserves under the desert has encouraged this development. The area is rapidly being industrialised, and Urumchi, the present capital of Xinjiang, has become a particularly unprepossessing Han Chinese industrial city.

The Map of the Silk Road:

Pictures of the Silk Road: