As world powers realign their cultural, economic and political outlooks, there is no better time to consider Afro-Eurasia’s complex network of ancient trade routes.
To travel the Silk Roads is to dive deep into composite cultures and interdisciplinary ways of understanding. A new book brings together more than 80 international scholars to explore the intrepid Afro-Eurasian routes that not only transported material goods, but also bridged cultural, political, and imaginary territories.
The term “Silk Road” is a modern label. It ripples alluringly off the tongue, conjuring up a lustrous path of lustrous fabric, shimmering through Asia, the Arab peninsula, Persia, and Southern Europe. But the term is a misnomer, reducing the complex history of Afro-Eurasian trade and interaction to both a single trail, and a single luxury product.
In fact, between 200 BCE and 1400 CE, mercantile and cultural exchange in Afro-Eurasia existed across a vast network of trade routes, and dealt not only in silk, yarn, and woven fabrics, but also in metals, pots, semi-precious stones, medicines, glass, furs, fruits, horses, servants — and slaves.
To travel the Silk Roadsis to dive deep into composite cultures and interdisciplinary ways of understanding. Across vertiginous mountain ranges, fertile river plains, forbidding deserts and the empty enormity of the steppe,these networks defied geographic boundaries, as much as they also passed through and merged many cultural, political, or imaginary territories. The substantial movement of materials and people also transported and evolved ideas, technologies, languages, stories, music, and faiths.
As we grapple with rapid-pace digital globalization and its associated anxieties, challenges, and backlashes, this is a fascinating moment to revisit the Silk Roads and their extended, intricate history of movement and exchange.
Sex and servitude
This image of a slave market in the Arabic text Maqamat has created a common image of Indian Ocean slave routes, focused – like the Atlantic trade routes – on black African men for manual labour. In fact, this was only one manifestation of a network of human servitude that existed across Afro-Eurasia. Young female slaves – for sexual services and entertainment – made up an important number of the Silk Roads’ human traffic. Eunuchs were also highly sought after.
Unlike the Atlantic slave trade, little material infrastructure of these routes remain, making rare written records a crucial source of research. Patient trawling of such textual traces has brought new insights in the wide geographical origins of female slaves, as well as their complex interaction with the households they served in.
Musical movement from al-‘ūd to ‘lute’
Lutes epitomize Silk Road exchange, spreading throughout Eurasia from the 3rdmillennium BCE. Originating in western and central Asia, the instrument spread into India and China, and from there to the Korean peninsula, Japan, and southeast Asia. Each transmission of the instrument was also a transculturation as technological features and cultural connotations evolved through geography and time.
One such change was the instrument’s gender associations: in Egyptian, central Asian, and Persian depictions, the lute is typically shown played by women. But in the earliest surviving representations of lutes, on Mesopotamian terracottas, the instrument is played by wild-eyed men with crazed hair, bowed legs and provocatively exposed genitals.
Lapis lazuliu: from Afghan mines to the Madonna’s robe
Lapis lazuli is best known today for its use as a pigment in Renaissance Italy. Ground up to form a deep “true blue” known as ultramarine, the stone was commonly used to colour the gown of the Virgin Mary. It was one of the most expensive painting materials in history, only replaced by artificial substitute in 1892.
Lapis’ immense value was due to its rarity and the immense challenges of its extraction and transportation. The stone only occurs at only a dozen sites in the world, most famously in the Hindu Kush mountain range stretching through modern-day Afghanistan, into northern Pakistan, Tajikistan, and into China. The four known mines in the Hindu Kush are located at altitudes between 2,000 and 5,500 m. The environment is harsh, consisting of steep bare mountains with deep river valley. Sparse settlements are linked by rocky trails, passable for less than half the year because of snow and ice. The mined lapis can only be carried out by humans and donkeys.
Three hares become a transcultural motif
The image of three hares or rabbits in a rotating composition, each sharing an ear that together form a central triangle, is a widely visible symbol along Asian and European trade routes, transcending multiple faith systems. It is found in Buddhist caves at Dunhuang, western China; in Islamic decorative arts; on the roof of the 14thcentury Wissembourg church in France; and in wooden German synagogues of the 17thand 18th centuries.
The motif originated in pre-Buddhist astral symbolism, but accrued a number of meanings over centuries and territories, including immortality, prosperity and spiritual renewal. Through this shifting interpretation, the motif is one of the most enduring visual markers of cross-cultural exchange along the Silk Roads.
Words by Eliza Apperly
Learn more about Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, here.