Posted by: Accola8 APR 2009
It captures the imagination: long camel trains in stately progression through parched desert or across mountain pass; the ill-tempered snorts of the heavily burdened creatures and the cries of their drivers; the ever present threat of bandit attack; the immense distances covered, from the shores of the Pacific to the Levant, from where the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean to Africa or transported deep into Europe.
For several centuries much of the fortune of the Roman Empire was spent on silk. The soft woven fabric, dyed in vivid rainbow colours, was highly sought after by the elite. It was not just silk that was traded, however.
Also from the Orient came jade, ceramics, lacquer, herbs, spices, teas, paper, gunpowder and beautiful flowers like roses, camellias and chrysanthemums. Ivory, gold, gemstones, glass, cotton, wool, horses and fruit trees such as dates, peaches and pears travelled from the Occident.
Perfumes from narcissus flowers and frankincense and myrrh astonished Chinese courts.
Medicine was traded on the Silk Road. Rhubarb, used by the Chinese as a cure for fevers and malaria, found its way to the West. Ancient manuscripts discovered in the Chinese garrison town of Duanhang indicate that medical knowledge was transmitted to the civilisations that flourished along the road. Diagnoses of illnesses and recipes to treat diseases are described, as is acupuncture.
We can read about moxibustion, the burning of dried leaves of the mugwort at points of the body to ease pain and expel illness — a procedure still used in Chinese medicine.
Religions, philosophies and ideas were exchanged: Buddhism, Islam and Nestorian Christianity from the West, printing, astronomy, principles of mathematics, the astrolabe and the compass from the East. There was a great cross-fertilisation of styles and techniques in art, music and dance.
The road went into decline after the 14th century, mainly due to the creation of “sea silk routes”, but the story of the Silk Road is far from over. A railway link between the East China coast and Rotterdam may yet see international trade on a scale considerably greater than that of the past.