The Silk Road: A New History

The Silk Road: A New History

The Silk Road: A New History

The Silk Road: A New History


The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures up a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different--and far more interesting--as revealed in this new history.

In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes. For centuries, key records remained hidden-sometimes deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead. Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from Xi'an to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. There was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west. China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs. Silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk. Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.

The Silk Roadis a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and China.


The document on the facing page illustrates the subject of this book. It is a court record of testimony given by an Iranian merchant living in China sometime around 670 CE. The Iranian requested the court’s assistance in recovering 275 bolts of silk owed to his deceased brother. He testified that, after lending the silk to his Chinese partner, his brother disappeared in the desert on a business trip with two camels, four cattle, and a donkey, and was presumed dead. The court ruled that, as his brother’s survivor, the Iranian was entitled to the silk, but it is not clear whether the ruling was ever enforced.

This incident reveals much about the Silk Road trade. The actual volume of trade was small. In this example, just seven animals carried all of the Iranian merchant’s goods. Two were camels, but the other five were four cattle and a donkey, all important pack animals. The presence of Iranian merchants is notable, since China’s main trading partner was not Rome but Samarkand, on the eastern edge of the Iranian world. Further, the lawsuit occurred when merchants along the Silk Road were prospering because of the massive presence of Chinese troops. This court case occurred during the seventh century, when Chinese imperial spending provided a powerful stimulus to the local economy.

Most revealing of all, we know about this lawsuit because it was written on discarded government documents, which were then sold as scrap paper, and finally used by artisans to make a paper garment for the deceased. About 1,300 years later Chinese archeologists opened a tomb near Turfan and pieced together the document from the different sections of the garment. As they connected the different pieces of paper, the testimony of the different parties was revealed.

In recent decades archeologists have reassembled thousands of other documents. What has emerged are contracts, legal disputes, receipts, cargo manifests, medical prescriptions, and the poignant contract of a slave girl sold for 120 silver coins on a particular market day over one thousand years ago. The . . .

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