The Smooth Touch of Silk

Somewhere near the bottom of the footlocker of our everyday lexicon is a phrase that nearly everyone has heard at least once: “the Silk Road“.

And, for a popular culture that suffers from a terrible lack of knowledge about history, most people manage to get some vague idea about what it was right.  Most people know that it was an overland trading route between Europe and China and that it played some role in prompting Columbus on his voyage. Oh, and that there were camels and silk.

Considering that most people keep trying to put Vietnam as the southern neighbor of Canada and the western neighbor of Iraq, that’s not too bad!

And so, in our popular understanding, this turn of phrase calls forth some of that exotic orientalism of old: mental images of camels, chinese silk clothes, deserts, Marco Polo, Kubla Khan, and maybe Xanadu (no, not the Olivia Newton John version).

Until a couple of years ago, that was roughly where my understanding was, though my history has always been pretty good, so tilt me more historical information and less poetical.

In the past couple of years, though, I slowly stumbled my way into reading about first Afghanistan and from there more and more about Inner Asia. And, like one of the explorers of the Silk Road that I’ve read about, the more I dig and find, the most I’m left simply speechless at the beauty and diversity that I’ve found.

For it turns out that this very simple and pithy phrase (coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen uncle of the Red Baron of World War I) really labels not so much a simple road or path but, really, a juncture; a juncture that sits in the middle of the largest land mass on the earth and knits together the four major spheres of settled civilizations on that land mass: the civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean; the civilizations of China and South East Asia; the Civilizations of Persia, the Near East and the Mediterranean; and the civilizations of India and the surrounding regions.

Into and across this juncture come elements, goods (yes, including silk), peoples, thoughts and languages. A huge expanse of land mass that serves essentially as a cultural superhighway transmitting things between all of those civilizations. Paper from China finds its way to the Muslim world and eventually to Europe. Gunpowder, silk, cannons, alphabets: all of these circulate across this superhighway.

And ideas. Perhaps most important, ideas. Buddhism from India to China. Manicheanism (best know because of Saint Augustine) can be found everywhere, all the way from Europe to China. Writing: many scripts of medieval central asia use a script derived from the Sogdian Language which was an Iranian language that used an Aramaic script.

Perhaps most interesting, especially in today’s multicultural world of mass movement and travel, peoples and languages. From the Indo-European Scythians, Sarmatians, Goths, Sogdians, and Tocharians to the Turkic Koks, Huns, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Turks of Turkey to the Mongolian Mongols, Tartars, and Manchus the Silk Road and the Steppes represent the worlds greatest melting pot, ever.

Spend any time studying the Steppes and the “”Aryans”” (meaning the early Indo-European peoples) on it and you realize just how thoroughly ludicrous racial purity theories are, most especially ones focused on Germanic identity: the Goths (perhaps the strongest and most successful of the early German tribes) were strongly intermixed and influenced by the Huns, a Turkic people. Genetic scientists claim that perhaps 1 in 200 people carry DNA from Genghis Khan. Through migrations, trade, and war, among other things, the the Steppes and the Silk Road took those isolated spheres of  genes and ethnic identity and mixed it all up.

Perhaps there is no better example to explode these compartmentalized ideas of history, culture and ethnic identify than a picture. This is a picture of Buddhist monks from the 9th Century CE. It comes from Bezaklik which is located in the Tarim Basin (here is a map to help you see where that is. The image really speaks for itself.

Another example of the incredibly interesting mix of cultures and history is the tale of Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, also known as the “”Bloody Baron””. A Russian General who played a major role in the Russian Civil War. He was a liberator of Mongolia from China who saw himself as a reincarnation of Genghis Khan, and declared to be a Mahakala incarnation by the Dalai Lama XIII.

I am a history person.  I always have been and I always will be.  I’ve always been particularly drawn to lesser known, more obscure history. And so, in many ways, I have found a true treasure trove for my interest in this region. It’s only a couple of years since I found my way into this region but I know this will be a lifelong interest as it unites so many interests including a desire to someday write a history about the role of the horse on Indo-European cultures.

And so, we see, there is so much buried in this one phrase, “”the Silk Road””. A lifetime of pleasant study, at the very least. But also, a very key element in the history of humanity and one that we could stand to study more because it can influence and guide us both as our current world becomes ever more connected and fluid and as we move (as we surely will) into the broad expanse of space. I firmly believe that our experience of space will be very like our experience on the Eurasian landmass: pockets of civilization joined by a fluid, open juncture.

If you’ve made it this far, then you’re probably interested in learning more.  So, here’s some places to go:

The Silk Road Foundation has great resources and articles, though the site is clunky: http://www.silk-road.com/toc/index.html
The Silk Road Project is a wonderful musical project: http://www.silkroadproject.org/
The International Dunhuang Project is simply incredible for information and resources: http://idp.bl.uk/