The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal.
But what was it, exactly? It conjures a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome.
The reality was different, and far more interesting, as revealed in this new history.
In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archaeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes.
For millennia, key records remained hidden-often deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping.
But the sands of the Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead.
Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from northwest China to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys, pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism.
Hansen notes that there was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west.
China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs.
Hansen writes that silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass were just as important as silk.
Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.
The Silk Road is a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 320 pages, 34 b/w & 16 color illus.
- Publisher: Oxford University Press Inc
- Publication Date: 11/10/2012
- Category: Asian history
- ISBN: 9780195159318
Showing 1 - 3 of 3 reviews.
Review by ElenaDanielson
Hansen has done a great service to history by telling the story of the so-called "Silk Road" through its own documents. After traveling to Kashgar, Urumqi, Turfan and Dunhuang, I had tried to understand the subject by reading through a stack of books. While often lavishly illustrated, none of the swashbuckling popular histories really made sense. Not until Hansen's book came out just this year was I able to get a grip on the history. The passport documents reveal the small number of animals in the typical caravans from 200-1000 CE. Tax records and contracts reveal the main source of income, not independent trade but military budgets and the gifts of official emmisaries. Money was largely barter, but direct payments could be made in coins when available, grain, and bolts of plain silk. The economy was largely subsistance agriculture for most of its history. When it comes to traders, Hansen highlights the Sogdians, an ethnic group with a talent for trade over longer distances (though hardly non-stop across the region), and a habit of keeping accounting records. She quotes from the eight ancient Sogdian letters found by Aurel Stein in a mailbag that had been abandoned in about 315 CE. Written by traders rather than government officials, they form a rare window on everyday life, including an irate wife named Miwnay denouncing her husband in a letter on Chinese paper written in a language that today can only be read by a handfull of scholars. Paper only became available in Europe first in Spain and Sicily in the 11th and 12th centuries, a century later in northern Europe. Cancelled pawn tickets are another source of information about loans and everyday survival in a harsh landscape. The Buddhist texts are of course better known, particularly the Diamond Sutra, considered the oldest complete printed book, from 868 CE. Hansen does mentions the travels of the famous Buddhist scholars back and forth between India and China, but she brings out details from the records that show Buddhist monks marrying, establishing families and joining the local substitance economy, not the sterotypical image of the celebate sages of popular imagination. Where there are gaps in the archival record, there are gaps in our knowledge. No archives, no history. On Aurel Stein's looting of the Dunhuang library cave, Hansen is fairly non-judgemental. More troubling is that even today ancient manuscripts are still being looted from archeological sites and offered for sale on the antiquities market. The Chinese are faced with the old dilemma: buy the stolen documents and you are not just receiving stolen merchandise but also creating a profitable market for looting; turn down the documents offered for sale, and they are lost.
Review by Meredy
Review by aulsmith
I found Hansen's explanation of how the Silk Road actually worked very helpful. However, as she delved into the archaeological discoveries at each site, I found her presentation meandering. There's a lot of interesting information about Central Asia in these pages, but I didn't have the patience to digest it all.