‘A caravan from China comes, oh merchant tell me what you bring.’
14th-century Persian poet Hafez
The Silk Road. Three words that spool off the tongue, as rich and lustrous as the fibre they describe. For over 2,200 years, the mystery of the great cities strung along this 7,450-mile route — Samarkand, Merv, Bukhara and Constantinople, to name a few — have lured travellers and merchants, and inspired writers to pen myriad myths, poems and legends.
Stretching from central China, across the steppes and deserts of Central Asia, through the markets of Byzantium to the shores of the Mediterranean, its vast territory was coveted by some of history’s most infamous rulers; men like Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Timur.
It’s a moniker that has come to define the romance of travel and yet for most of history it was nameless. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen labelled it Die Seidenstrasse (The Silk Road). But he got it wrong. There was never just one road, but rather a skein of trails punctuated by caravanserais (roadside inns), which hosted weary travellers en route.
What started with the sale of silks and the purchasing of long-legged horses (far prettier and practical for military use than the squat, shaggy ponies of the steppes) burgeoned into a reciprocal flow of not just goods, such as furs, tea, silver and ceramics, but ideas. Of art and architecture, religion and philosophy, and science and technology. Mathematics, paper, gunpowder and rhubarb — yes, indeed; no Silk Road, no rhubarb crumble — are all legacies of skills traded on the Silk Road. It was the first sweep of globalisation and our modern world still bears the signs: from the Arab-style windows of the Doges Palace in Venice, to the wine-producing vines of the East.
Today, chances to journey the entire route are rare, so, like the Silk Road’s most famous traveller, Marco Polo, I’ll be keeping a diary — these twice-weekly blogs — to help you experience what it’s like to undertake the voyage. Let the adventure commence…
Coming next: The Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an