Archive for ‘bubonic plague’

08/07/2019

Seven Silk Road destinations, from China to Italy: towns that grew rich on trade

  • Settlements along the route linking Europe and Asia thrived by providing accommodation and services for countless traders
  • Formally established during the Han dynasty, it was a 19th-century German geographer who coined the term Silk Road
The ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post at Yunmenguan Pass, in China’s Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
The ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post at Yunmenguan Pass, in China’s Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
We have a German geographer, cartographer and explorer to thank for the name of the world’s most famous network of transconti­nental trade routes.
Formally established during the Han dynasty, in the first and second centuries BC, it wasn’t until 1877 that Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the term Silk Road (historians increasingly favour the collective term Silk Routes).
The movement of merchandise between China and Europe had been taking place long before the Han arrived on the scene but it was they who employed troops to keep the roads safe from marauding nomads.
Commerce flourished and goods as varied as carpets and camels, glassware and gold, spices and slaves were traded; as were horses, weapons and armour.
Merchants also moved medicines but they were no match for the bubonic plague, which worked its way west along the Silk Road before devastating huge swathes of 14th century Europe.
What follows are some of the countless kingdoms, territories, (modern-day) nations and cities that grew rich on the proceeds of trade, taxes and tolls.

China

A watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang, a desert outpost at the crossroads of two major Silk Road routes in China’s northwestern Gansu province. Photo: Alamy
A watchtower made of rammed earth at Dunhuang, a desert outpost at the crossroads of two major Silk Road routes in China’s northwestern Gansu province. Photo: Alamy

Marco Polo worked in the Mongol capital, Khanbaliq (today’s Beijing), and was struck by the level of mercantile activity.

The Venetian gap-year pioneer wrote, “Every day more than a thousand carts loaded with silk enter the city, for a great deal of cloth of gold and silk is woven here.”

Light, easy to transport items such as paper and tea provided Silk Road traders with rich pickings, but it was China’s monopoly on the luxurious shimmering fabric that guaranteed huge profits.

So much so that sneaking silk worms out of the empire was punishable by death.

The desert outpost of Dunhuang found itself at the crossroads of two major Silk Road trade arteries, one leading west through the Pamir Mountains to Central Asia and another south to India.

Built into the Great Wall at nearby Yunmenguan are the ruins of a fortified gatehouse and cus­toms post, which controlled the movement of Silk Road caravans.

Also near Dunhuang, the Mogao Caves contain one of the richest collections of Buddhist art treasures any­where in the world, a legacy of the route to and from the subcontinent.

Afghanistan

Afghanistan's mountainous terrain was an inescapable part of the Silk Road, until maritime technologies would become the area's undoing. Photo: Shutterstock
Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain was an inescapable part of the Silk Road, until maritime technologies would become the area’s undoing. Photo: Shutterstock

For merchants and middlemen hauling goods through Central Asia, there was no way of bypassing the mountainous lands we know today as Afghanistan.

Evidence of trade can be traced back to long before the Silk Road – locally mined lapis lazuli stones somehow found their way to ancient Egypt, and into Tutankhamun’s funeral mask, created in 1323BC.

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Besides mercan­tile exchange, the caravan routes were responsible for the sharing of ideas and Afghanistan was a major beneficiary. Art, philosophy, language, science, food, architecture and technology were all exchanged, along with commercial goods.

In fact, maritime technology would eventually be the area’s undoing. By the 15th century, it had become cheaper and more convenient to transport cargo by sea – a far from ideal development for a landlocked region.

Iran

The Ganjali Khan Complex, in Iran. Photo: Shutterstock
The Ganjali Khan Complex, in Iran. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to the Silk Road and the routes that preceded it, the northern Mesopotamian region (present-day Iran) became China’s closest trading partner. Traders rarely journeyed the entire length of the trail, however.

Merchandise was passed along by middlemen who each travelled part of the way and overnighted in caravan­serai, forti­fied inns that provided accom­mo­dation, storerooms for goods and space for pack animals.

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With so many wheeler-dealers gathering in one place, the hostelries developed into ad hoc marketplaces.

Marco Polo writes of the Persian kingdom of Kerman, where craftsmen made saddles, bridles, spurs and “arms of every kind”.

Today, in the centre of Kerman, the former caravanserai building forms part of the Ganjali Khan Complex, which incorporates a bazaar, bathhouse and mosque.

Uzbekistan

A fort in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photo: Alamy
A fort in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Photo: Alamy

The double-landlocked country boasts some of the Silk Road’s most fabled destinations. Forts, such as the one still standing at Khiva, were built to protect traders from bandits; in fact, the city is so well-preserved, it is known as the Museum under the Sky.

The name Samarkand is also deeply entangled with the history of the Silk Road.

The earliest evidence of silk being used ou