The Silk Roads: Threading through the Past

By Huyghe, Francois-Bernard | UNESCO Courier, March 1991 | Go to article overview
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The Silk Roads: Threading through the Past


Huyghe, Francois-Bernard, UNESCO Courier


Scholars taking part in UNESCO's Maritime Silk Roads expedition highlight the complexities of exchanges along the great trade routes of long ago

AFTER leaving oman and calling at Karachi, Goa, Colombo and Madras, the maritime Silk Roads expedition embarked on the second half of its voyage at Phuket in Thailand. Although they are following a route which traces a single line across the map, the participants realize that its ramifications are labyrinthine in their complexity. Each discovery of a new site, each new lecture and symposium, fits into a pattern and sets a vast network of travel, trade and communication in a new perspective.

The stop-off at Karachi was an opportunity to reflect on the trading civilization of the Indus, the Aryan invasions of the Indian sub-continent, and the relations between Sind and Central Asia, Iran and China which go back to the last millennium of the pre-Christian era. At Goa we were in the Portuguese world, with its privileged links with Malacca and Macao. Sri Lanka evoked thoughts of the Greco-Roman world, of Arab trade, and the spiritual influence of an island which played a leading role in the spread of Buddhism. In Madras, the abundance of research on relations with the Roman world was only rivalled by that of studies on the links between Tamil Nadu and South and Southeast Asia. So many threads to be unravelled from such a tangled skein ! The general term Silk Roads" is also used to designate trade routes in commodities such as porcelain, spices and incense. But there are other routes whose scattered traces invite study. One of them is that taken by Roman coins. it is not Surprising that Roman coins should have turned up all along our route, but when two numismatists put forward some ingenious hypotheses at a seminar held in Madras they prompted a number of more general historical questions. How important was the heavy drain of coinage along the trade-route with India which caused the Roman emperor Tiberius such alarm? What role did the emperor's entourage play in this? When were Roman coins prized at their nominal value and when according to their weight in metal, and why? Tiny coins lost at the other end of the world are evidence of crises and conflicts that were agitating a distant empire.

Another specialist on board the Fulk al-Salamah, the Ship of Peace, is studying even smaller objects, the beads with which necklaces were made. His field of research begins in the third century BC, and is based on the different shapes of rough glass beads. From the region of what is today Pondicherry it is possible to trace the steps of indian glassmakers to Sri Lanka, Viet Nam, Thailand and Malaysia and learn something about the beliefs and hierarchies that existed in those societies. Perhaps we should think in terms of a "glass bead road" or a "seashell road"? After all some seashells, particularly those from Oman, were used for centuries aS a unit of exchange. The type, location and quantity of shells found along the Silk Roads warrant scholarly investigation.

Even the simplest and most tangible vestiges of trade raise questions with complex answers. Such vestiges amply prove, as we might expect, how ancient, regular and intensive were the relations between cultures and how rich was their common heritage. But artefacts and coins always have a value that is not merely utilitarian. They indicate that trade routes are also channels of communication for technology, ideas, art forms and beliefs.

A speaker at one seminar pointed out that while many scholars have abandoned the concept of cultural "influences" on the grounds that it is too simplistic, they have often replaced it by the concept of "interactions" which is hardly more illuminating. As they try to decipher the clues left by their predecessors, modern travellers along the Silk Roads are constantly struck by the irrelevance of some of the categories we use. Stones, Pottery, artefacts, stories, maps and vestiges are the external transcription of an inner need that impels certain peoples towards maritime adventure, each in its own different way.

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