Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rediscovering the Silk Roads

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Rediscovering the Silk Roads

Article excerpt

For many centuries caravans of merchants passed beneath the western gate of the city of Xian, capital of China during the Tang Dynasty, their camels laden with luxury goods that would find ready buyers in the markets of Europe over 6,000 kilometres away, Most famous of the commodities they bore on their hazardous journey through the deserts, steppeland and mountain passes of Central Asia was silk, the precious fabric whose manufacturing secrets China guarded for thousands of years. It was this that caused the nineteenth-century German geographer and geologist Ferdinand von Richthofen to coin a new term to describe the caravan routes that thus linked East and West-the Seidenstrassen, the Silk Roads.

Silk was not the only cargo carried by the caravans, nor was the traffic only one-way. A host of natural and manmade products ranging from bronze and porcelain to wool and cobalt were transported over the centuries from East to West and West to East. Above all the Silk Roads, with their overland and maritime extensions westwards as far as Rome, Venice and Cadiz, and eastwards as far as Nara, were a channel for the spread of ideas, technologies, religious concepts and the arts, and contributed to the cross-fertilization between civilizations.

Many studies have been made of these great arteries of cultural and commercial exchange by scholars acting individually or with academic institutions. So far, however, no complete study of an 'interdisciplinary nature has been carried out by a truly international team. Now, as part of an important new Unesco project within the framework of the World Decade for Cultural Development, scholars and scientists from many different fields ofstudy and many countries are preparing to following the footsteps of the merchants of old.

The project, entitled "Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue', was approved by Unesco's General Conference in 1987. It is still in its early stages but has already been warmly welcomed by scientific circles, non-governmental organizations and the media. Over the next five years it will involve over a thousand specialists working in close co-operation with the more than thirty countries situated along the old Silk Roads.

It will provide an opportunity to rediscover the three major routes, which will be followed by a caravan consisting of an international team of scholars. …

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