SPEAKER: Ian Gasper SUBJECT: The Silk Road
At the October monthly meeting members listened to a talk on the history of the Silk Road by Ian Gasper, who has travelled extensively along this ancient Asiatic trade route. With the aid of maps, he showed that the Silk Road was by no means a single route, but rather a network linking central Asia eastwards with China and westwards with the Middle East and, eventually, Europe. All major civilisations were accessible from central Asia (and via central Asia to each other) by means of the various routes.
The origins of this trade route go back at least two millennia, and silk was by no means the only commodity traded along it. At different times metalwork, glassware, lapis lazuli and even paper were carried. In fact, the type of paper that spread west to Europe was not from China, as is often thought, but made in central Asia from cotton rags. The network also facilitated the spread of cultures and religions.
The merchants from the first to the seventh century were mostly Sogdians, Uyghurs and Nestorian Christians. The Sogdians’ power centre was Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan, where much of the paper industry was based, and their language was the lingua franca of the route. Merv in Turkmenistan was another of the several major cities that grew up along the road. The “engine” of the Silk Road was the Bactrian camel, the two-humped woolly beast that can carry a load of five hundred pounds, is impervious to the cold and very sure-footed. They travelled in caravans of up to a thousand at a time. Caravanserai, the equivalent of modern hotels, were established as staging – posts for the merchants and the animals. The ruins of some of these can be seen today. Bolts of silk, as well as being merchandise, were also often used as currency, as being lighter, value for value, than coinage. Silk arrived in central Asia in the third century. It is a good insulator against heat and cold and the strongest natural fibre. Silk worms live on mulberry leaves, so these trees were also grown to support the industry.
In the early thirteenth century Genghis Khan’s Mongol tribes conquered central Asia, accompanied by much brutality and slaughter. He is seen as bringing about the end of a golden age, but also as having facilitated free trade on the route by the consolidation of his power. His empire adopted the Uyghur script, made Karakoram its capital, and brought about the end of the Baghdad Caliphate to the west, which had been a centre of enlightenment since the middle of the seventh century.
In the final part of his talk, the speaker showed several pictures of the Islamic architecture characteristic of the area, mostly madrasas (educational establishments) constructed by Ulugh Beg, grandson of Tamerlane, in the fifteenth century. He was a scientist and was not averse to having depictions of living things on his buildings, contrary to some interpretations of Islam. After his death the mullahs closed his madrasas and destroyed his observatory.