A Silken Bond between East and West

Article excerpt

THE Silk Road originated in the early centuries of the Christian era as a channel of trade in silk and other goods between China and India in the east and the Roman world in the west. It has a permanent place in world history as an important means of contact between peoples and cultures and a conduit for the two-way transmission of ideas, science and technology, languages and literature.

Such contact was not always easy to maintain in the face of political pressures and other hindrances, but when one stretch of the route closed down another would take its place. Several routes, both overland and maritime, were actually followed by travellers between east and west, and the expression "Silk Road" is a symbolic one evoking an enduring spirit of communication between peoples. It is in order to rediscover that eternal spirit that the protect for the "Integral Study of the Silk Roads" has been undertaken (see the Unesco Courier, November 1988).

The Silk Roads project is a many-sided undertaking. Some scholars will be retracing the various itineraries which connected China and the West and studying the geography of the countries through which they passed. Others will be focusing on the mechanics of road building and transport technology and the ways in which they were influenced by climatic conditions and the physical barriers which had to be overcome. Still others will study the technologies used by different peoples for the exploitation of material resources, and analyse the social systems, languages and literatures of these peoples, as well as their folklore, their myths and other aspects of their culture.

Population movements, the great migrations that shaped the history of entire regions, will also be studied. But the individual travellers who made their way along the Silk Roads will not be forgotten-the artists, musicians and craftsmen who were prepared to risk their lives in pursuit of knowledge from other cultures and societies, to which in turn they contributed their own skills.

Love of adventure, a hunger for knowledge about others, these were but two of many motives which fuelled the process of exchange between different societies and helped to break down the barriers which isolated people in different regions and to establish the bonds of co-existence that make human progress possible. Th's was the legacy of the Silk Road and the spirit which brought it into being.

Orient and Occident. the first contacts

The foundations of the east-west contacts, which were later channelled along the Silk Roads, were laid in the last few centuries of the pre-Christian era with the formation of a number of Asian states whose peoples exploited the resources they found locally and competed for trade. This quest for profit led to a flourishing exchange of goods and the movement of men from re on to region.

91 Gradually, the peaceful conditions necessary for trade came into being. The diverse peoples involved in this process are vividly portrayed by the Greek historian Herodotus, who describes how their societies were organized, their ways of life and their close relationship with the Achaemenid empire in Persia.

One example of this commercial and cultural exchange is that of the Aramaean merchants who travelled through Central Asia where their alphabetic script, Aramaic, influenced the evolution of other alphabets such as Sogdian and Kharoshti. Among the other peoples described by Herodotus are the Scythians, the "Indians", and the Persian speaking people who moved eastward, where their language had a strong influence on the ancient languages of the region.

The meeting of the peoples of east and west, the exchange of ideas and technologies, and the two-way transmission of languages and literature was made possible for the first time by the Achaemenid empire between the sixth and fourth centuries BC. People were attracted from many points of the compass to the capital of the empire, Persepolis, along roads built by the emperor Darius. …