I’ve been fascinated for most of my life by the histories I didn’t learn at school. According to the wisdom I received from my teachers, enlightened thinking began with the Greeks, was codified by the Romans, and was resurrected after the Dark Ages in the Renaissance where it grew into the humanist and democratic beliefs that bubbled up in Europe in the 18th Century and reached its culmination is the set of beliefs and practices widely known as western civilisation.
(Gandhi was once asked what he thought of western civilisation, and said he thought it would be a good idea.)
This view, of course, completely ignores the fact that Europe was a backwater until at least the 16th Century, and all the time inventions and advances and discoveries in the rest of the world laid the foundations upon which Europe would later stand.
Let’s leave for today the great kingdoms of Kush, Nri, Songhai, and Asumite in Africa, the Olmec, Aztec, and Mayans of the Americas, Kutai, Khmer, Dvaravati in South East Asia. In the past months, I’ve been filling my head with the broad swathe of city-states, kingdoms, principalities, and empires that created, maintained, and thrived because of the Silk Road. Not so much a road, but rather a rambling plaided string of trade routes from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea by diverse ways.
This was the mixing ground of cultures, ideas (including religious ideas), new technologies, and products. Above all, products: silk, paper, and spices travelling West; carpets, jewels, drugs, metal, glass, and other trade goods travelling East.
To hear the Venetians tell the story, they started the whole thing. In fact, they were very late into the game. One of the main western arteries did come first, established in Persia. It was the old Persian Royal Road, with postal stations along the route. The pony express was nothing new. The Persian route was established close to 2,500 years ago.
2,250 years ago, an emperor of China, struggling to keep the horse nomads of the north out of his land, sent an envoy west looking for help. Zhang Qian’s expedition led to trade deals to purchase the larger faster horses the envoy found in central Asia. Silk for horses. The Chinese beat of their enemies, and settled down to consolidate the trade, while from the other end the Parthians (who now controlled Persia) were doing the same.
For 2000 years, the Silk Road was how China got its western goods, and places as far distant from China as England got its silks and spices. Then, in the 15th Century, the rising Ottoman Empire blocked European merchants from using the routes, impelling them to find a sea route. Columbus went west, and Vasco da Gama south. And the rest is history.
If you’d like to know more, this 10:30 minute video is entertaining and interesting.
Huh! How about that. I set out to write about the Kopet Dag mountains between Turkmenistan and Iran, and the place of their inhabitants in the silk routes, and I’ve got all excited about ancient history. Another time, perhaps. Meanwhile, feel free to look at the novella I have in the Bluestocking Belles 2016 box set. Called The Bluestocking and the Barbarian, it features as hero a young man who grew up in a small kaganate high in the Kopet Dag mountains. The link is to my book page, which in turn links to the first two chapters.