The Silk Roads

A network of interconnected trade routes crisscrossed the Asian steppes. These linked together the three continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, and were known collectively as the Silk Roads.

Starting in the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great's conquests stretched Greek influence as far away as Bactria in present-day Afghanistan, where the city of Balkh was an important centre of learning. In the 4th century CE, Buddhism was dominant in Central Asia. Influenced by Greek depictions of gods, they began producing Buddha statues. In the 6thcentury, Christianity grew strong and influential. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were many more Christians in Asia than in Europe. In the early 8thcentury, Central Asia was conquered by Muslims, and Islam has been the dominant religion there ever since.At the crossroads of different branches of the Silk Roads, cities flourished. Palmyra was a hub for trade between East Asia and the Mediterranean coast. In Kashgar, cargo was loaded from camels onto yaks. Farthest east were Xi'an and Luoyang.

Caravanserais and treasures

Regularly spaced along the routes was a string of caravanserais, inns where travelers could rest in safety and trade goods, information and stories. Feed and water were available for draught animals. The oldest caravanserais were built over 2,500 years ago. They stretched from eastern China to the Mediterranean. Over time, maritime routes grew ever more important, traffic along the caravan routes thinned out, and many of the caravanserais fell into decay.

Samarkand was a central junction of the Silk Roads. For long periods, the city, situated in what is now Uzbekistan, was the largest in Central Asia. Two thousand years ago, Sogdian merchants from the area around Samarkand dominated trade in much of Central Asia. Five hundred years later, there were Sogdian diplomats at the courts of Tang Dynasty China and Byzantine Constantinople. The Sogdian language was long the lingua franca of the Silk Roads. Today the city has over 500,000 residents. Samarkand is famous for gold embroidery, wood-carving and silk-weaving.

Two-humped Bactrian camels were one of the essential pillars of Silk Roads commerce. For over 4,500 years, people have been using them as pack animals. They can carry 200 kilos and walk over 40 kilometers a day. They can handle drought, storms, heat and cold. The dynasty controlled a corridor through Central Asia, which made travel safer and enabled trade to flourish. Official caravans could consist of over 1,000 pack animals and travel long distances, but most caravans consisted of between two and twelve animals. The cities to be visited along the way were entered in the traveler's passport.

The Silk Roads was a conduit for ideas, inventions, worldviews, diseases and commodities. It was chiefly expensive goods that were worth transporting long distances. The cargo was bought and sold as it travelled and became increasingly expensive. Chinese silk was sometimes used as currency as well as a commodity. Spices from India, ivory from Africa and wheat from Scythia on the Black Sea were important trade goods. Rhubarb was one of the first medicinal plants imported to the West from China. The slave trade was many times as big and profitable as trade in rare luxury goods.

The city of Luoyang is situated were the Luo and Yellow Rivers meet. This is one of China´s four ancient capitals. The others are Beijing, Nanjing and Xi'an. Luoyang was the capital of thirteen Chinese dynasties. During the Tang Dynasty, in the late 7th century, the east–west Silk Roads route was connected here to the grand canal that links northern and southern China. Luoyang was a cosmopolitan capital city in which Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism coexisted. This was also the period when China was ruled by its only empress, Wu Zetian. The city had some one million residents at the time, and was probably the second largest in the world after Xi'an.