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For fifteen hundred years rare and valuable goods, as well as religions, science and philosophy, were transported between East and West along the fabled Silk Road

  • By Andrew Forbes and David Henley

The Silk Road owes its name to the most significant article of merchandise to travel its entire length, from east to west, for a thousand years between the 2nd century BC and the 8th century AD. Yet there is no evidence that it was ever called the ‘Silk Road' in any language during its heyday, and it is generally accepted that the current designation was first devised by a German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877.

Silk, although highly valuable, made up a relatively small proportion of the original ‘Silk Road' traffic, and of course it only travelled westward, from China to Central Asia and the Middle East, accompanied by other Chinese exports such as ceramics, bronze artefacts, spices and medicinal herbs. This naturally meant that the caravaneers needed something similarly valuable to carry back in the other direction, from the Middle East and Central Asia to distant Chang'an [modern Xi'an].

Due to the difficulty and expense of long-distance commerce, and because of the harsh terrain traversed by the Silk Road, such goods needed to be light, compact, rare and valuable. Ideally, to suit the sophisticated and demanding tastes of the Tang Court, they needed to be both precious and exotic.

Caravans travelling from west to east brought gems, gold and other precious metals, ivory, amber and coral, as well as opium from the Middle East, which was introduced as a medicine in China as long as fifteen hundred years before it became notorious in the West as a narcotic.

Distant Khwarizm in Transoxiana exported prized furs including sable, ermine, fox and marten to China. Sacred objects, such as Buddha images, relics and of course religious treatises and books of secular knowledge also entered China by caravan from the west and especially, via the passes across the Pamirs, India to the south.

Among the most extraordinary examples of imported Tang exotica were ostrich eggs, sometimes set in precious metal and used as drinking vessels. The Chinese regarded ostriches – which they called ‘camel-birds' – with some awe, believing they could run 300 miles in a day, fuelled by a diet of copper and iron.

  • Andrew Forbes and David Henley are old Silk Road hands, having travelled the length of the Silk Road and back again over many years on photo shoots and research trips. David's Silk Road photography has appeared in numerous guide books including Insight Guides, Berlitz and the Automobile Association, while Andrew - who holds a Ph.D. in Central Asian History - has written on the history, culture and politics of the area for various academic journals and the international press including Asian Wall Street Journal. His book Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia remains a defining account of Xinjiang in the Chinese Republican Era.

© 2012 CPA Media &  Cognoscenti Books. All Rights Reserved.