This is the second part of a four part series based on research done by Learners at The Integral School, Hyderabad, on the ancient silk road. The research team consisted of Aravind Bandreddi, Qutub Khan Vajihuddin, Aatmesh and Zoya Kadeer. This document, on the geography of the Silk Road, was prepared by Qutub Khan Vajihuddin.
My subject is the geography of the route. In this assignment I have briefly explained how the route came to be. Then I have written about the 3 main routes and the countries they passed through, and I have connected the geography or terrains to the silk route.
The silk road:
The silk road or the silk route was an ancient network of trade routes through regions of Eurasia. It connected the east and west from China to the Mediterranean sea. This network was used regularly from 130 BCE until 1453 CE. It started when the Han officially opened trade with the west, and ended when the Ottoman empire abstained from trading with the west and closed all the routes.
It was named the silk road in 1877, because silk was the main commodity traded along this route. It was named by Ferdinand Von Richthofen, a German geographer. China was the first to breed silkworms and produce silk. People of other countries did not know how silk was produced but there were lots of rumours. A very widely accepted rumour was that it grows on trees. Silk was very valuable and new, so everyone wanted it and the trades started.
The route began when the Han emperor needed to defeat the Xiongnu, who were nomads and they were continually raiding the Han empire from Mongolia. The Han did not have enough resources to defeat the Xiongnu and therefore could not fend them off any longer. The emperor needed good horses for warfare. The Yuezhi were known for the speed and size of their horses. Therefore Zhang Qian was sent by a Han emperor to negotiate with the Yuezhi people for help in defeating the Xiongnu. This expedition led him to Dunhuang where the Yuezhi lived who later became the Kushans.
Zhang Qian reported the account of his travels, and this lead the emperor to trade silk in exchange of horses. Then with the Western horses of Dunhuang, the Han defeated the Xiongnu. This victory lead the emperor to rethink what could be gained from trading with the west. The need of a regular stream of horses led to the starting of a route. So the silk road opened.
The road was around 7000 km in length with 4000 km in China. Other sources say that the road was 10,000km and 3000 km were in China. From Asia to Europe, the road passed through China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece and Italy. The regions in China were Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang.
The silk road passed through different countries with diverse terrain. The terrain included mountainous regions, plains, desert regions, forests and rivers. The terrain dictated the weather in these regions and was quite diverse. The weather was very harsh in many places, especially the mountainous and desert regions, with extremes of hot and cold weather. The use of a single route through the region was not advisable as the way through the region was heavily influenced by the weather. Routes closed because of extreme heat or cold and several alternate routes developed to keep the contact between different regions open. This provided the traveler with multiple routes, giving them the opportunity to choose the route free of bandits, and the route that was safest environmentally. The proliferation of multiple routes also allowed for a larger network of trade routes and more intermingling of ideas and culture.
The road had three main routes although it had many branches. The land road originated from the capital of Chang’an, now known as Xian in China. Xian, the capital of the Western Han dynasty, was the political and economic and cultural center of China. It was the Eastern terminus of the silk road.
The route ran along the Gansu province and through Dunhuang. Dunhuang was a key point in the route because the route split into two main branches from Dunhuang. The third route also passed through Dunhuang. Along the way the route split into many routes and joined together. You could go where you wanted according to your needs because all the routes were joined by other smaller routes.
Dunhuang lies after Xian on the route at an oasis at the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The route from China passed through the edges of the desert. The Northside and Southside, avoiding the heart of the desert, and met in Dunhuang. Dunhuang lies near the Gobi desert and near the Mingsha sand dunes.
Dunhuang is surrounded by high mountain deserts and the Dang river which is its water supply. It links the mountains from the South and the desert from the west and the Hexi Corridor from the east. It was one of the most important cities in the silk road and it was a resting point for travelling merchants. Most of its 312,000 square kilometers was fertile farmland. The river that came from the Qilian mountains, ran through the whole oasis providing it with water. The climate varied from extremes of heat and cold due to the city’s location.
Dunhuang acted as a garrison town protecting the region and its routes. The importance of Dunhuang, is shown by the number of ancient relics like the Jade gate and the Southern gate. The Jade gate was called the Jade gate pass because Jade was transported through this pass.
The Yumen Pass lies northwest of Dunhuang. It was a fort and it helped defend Dunhuang making it a key military place.
The Mogao caves (The caves of the thousand Buddhas) were just South of the city dug into the rocks by Buddhists. The first caves were dug in 366 AD and the last were dug in the 14th century. These caves were built for Buddhists to live in. Here they could meditate and find inner peace and live. It also served as a graveyard. The idea of cave temples came about via the silk road from India. The caves were very cool and that was important in the hot weather. This was a good alternative.
One of the caves called the library cave is stored with stored scrolls that show the huge range of goods imported and exported from here. Also these scrolls are written in lots of different languages suggesting that they were written by foreign travelers. Not only can Buddhist scrolls be found but also all kinds of different religious scrolls can be found. The most famous text in the library cave called the Diamond Sutra, is the first printed book in the world, done by woodblock printing. The caves distinguished Dunhuang as a center for Buddhist learning. This drew huge numbers of pilgrims to the city.
Dunhuang also lay on the route from Tibet to Mount Wutai (sacred Buddhist site that has paintings on the walls from the time of Buddha). From this city Buddhism, Christianity and Islam entered China. The Mogao caves illustrate the significance of the city as center of commercial and cultural exchange. Dunhuang was one of the first trading cities for merchants arriving from the west.
The land routes:
1: Spice route
2: Incense route.
3: Other routes
The spice route was used mainly to get all kinds of spices and teas. This route went into India and started from Xian and went through Dunhuang. Then the route went through Urumqi, to Kashgar. Then to Balk and to Shahrisabz just northwest of the Tibetan Plateau. All this was flat land so it was easy to cross. However, this was a detour to avoid going through the Tibetan Plateau to reach India. Then the route reached Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and the surrounding countries. From here the route would go down to India to Fatehpur Sikri.
From here the route went to Burma now known as Myanmar, for spices. This place had lots of spices because there were lots of rain forests there. And spices need that kind of an environment to grow. Then they could go all over India getting what they wanted. They could go to Madras and join up with the Maritime route, if they wanted or just go back again to Shahrisabz. Then go back to where they came from, or continue on the Incense route.
This route was preferred over the route that went directly from Dunhuang through China to Laos then to Myanmar and to Bangladesh (direct route). Because on the preferred route there would be items to trade in the various countires along the route. But if you take the other route than mostly you would be going through China, so you would not have lots of things to trade. Moreover, it was harder to take the direct route because the terrain was mountainous in China and there were dense forests in Laos making it hard to cross. On top of that, there were lots of diseases in Laos and Myanmar
The incense route was used mainly to get all kinds of Incenses. This route also started from Dunhuang and went through the same cities as the spice route until it reached Balkh and Shahrisabz. From here it did not go into India but continued ahead to the various central and south Asian countries. It passed through Samarkand. It could go to Herat or Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Or it could go to Bam and Yazd in Pakistan. Then from here it could join up with the Maritime route in Muscat. Or it could go Isfahan in Iran for the Incense.
Otherwise it could go up from Samarkand into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Almaty which is under the dangerous Eurasian Steppe. Then to Russia, going above the Caspian sea to reach Greece and Italy. Greece and Italy were very famous for their marble. Otherwise the route could go from Samarkand to Turkmenistan to Baku to reach Bursa which is in Turkey. Or it could go to Iraq where then you would go to Aleppo to Turkey. There the route would join up to the Maritime route.
All these routes were interconnected and whatever one needed they could go and get it. Supposing if you are in search of spices and marble, and you start off in Xian, then you could go via the maritime route to India and collect spices there. Otherwise you could go on land and to India. If you only wanted marble then from India you could go via the maritime route and go directly to Turkey. However if you wanted various items, then you could go by the land route and reach Turkey.
The Maritime route:
The maritime route was used, because of two main reasons. Firstly, when you would travel along the silk road, you would have to pass through a city that maybe ruled by your enemies. This would result in having to fight and go through. Otherwise, you could take a detour but that would take a long time. In the maritime route this was not the case. Secondly, the maritime route was also faster. It was a bit dangerous, but it was worth the risk. Therefore travelers used the maritime route too.
The main maritime route started on land in Karakorum and then passed through Dunhuang and reached Xian. From here the route split again. The more favoured route went down to Quanzhou which was a Chinese port. The less favoured one went up to the Korean Peninsula and to Japan. In Japan it went to Nara which is the capital. Then to the port of Osuka and joined the more favoured route in Quanzhou.
From here on the maritime route started. You could go to Philippines or Thailand or Borneo, but the main aim was to reach Rome. It went to Madras passing the Bay of Bengal and then went on to the Arabian sea passing Cape Comorin. This cape was very rough. From here you could go to the land route if you wanted. From here the route could go down to Zanzibar but it could not go to America because the Horn cape was very difficult to pass through, and ahead of that was the Atlantic ocean, which was also difficult to pass through. Or it could go to the Gulf of Oman to Pakistan up into the Persian Gulf to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, where it would join up with the land route. Otherwise the route would pass the Red sea going towards Alexandria and Egypt but not going into Africa because you would get all there is in Africa in Rome and Italy. Then the route went above to Venice and Rome where it would reach the end of the route.
Karakorum was one of the most important cities in the history of the silk road. It was the capital of the Mongol empire by 1230. Karakorum is strategically located on the most important east and west route across Mongolia. It is located near the Orkhon river. This river valley is considered a sacred place for the steppe people. This town also contained a lot of religious diversity. There are in total 12 temples, each of different religions.
The town wall enclosed a rectangle measuring 1.5 km by 2.5 km. This town has four gates. This town was very rich in all types of Metals, types of Weapons, Jewellery, Yarn and Chinese Silk. The town needed lots of Grain and that was traded for these items. Lots of ceramics and chinese style houses were recently discovered. This showed that this technology came from China. This town was above Dunhuang.
In conclusion, the Silk route was a trading route in Eurasia. It was one of the first large scale trading networks. The 2 land routes and the maritime route was very well organised considering it was determined by the diverse terrain across a vast area. The routes were all interconnected and this lead to so much cultural exchange and resourceful exchanges throughout Eurasia. Currently, the remains of the silk route have become heritage sites and research is still going on to gain more depth into this vast trading system.