The Silk Road, a joint cultural heritage
The restored Silk Road refers to the "great economic project", a legendary system of caravan trade routes used around the third century B.C. and the seventeenth century A.D. It connected China with Constantinople and Europe and along a route of 7000 km promoted economic, cultural and political exchange, becoming a prelude to modern global economy. There were two main routes connecting the east and the west. The southern route – which crossed China through Central Asia from North India and the Middle East and the western route – crossing China through the Pamir ranges and the Aral Sea up to Lower Volga and the Black Sea. With time, several different branches of the route developed. Silk wasn’t the only commodity traded. Tea, ceramic products, leather, mirrors, spices or even natural colorants or cosmetics were traded with Europe. Caravans were returning to the East with a wide variety of goods: gold and silver, textiles, precious stones, amber, linen, wine or even arable crops.
Bazaars, handling points, stable cash settlements systems, caravanserais, inns for merchants and storage rooms were formed along the routes. In order to handle trade caravans translators, money changers, camel herdsmen, guards, tax collectors and even prostitutes were employed. Trade throughout the route, which could take several years to cross, came with a high risk. Many merchants died along the way of disease, robberies, attacks and lawlessness of rulers. The reward, on the other hand for those who dared to pass it was very high profitability.
The ancient route, which the merchants took, was a phenomenon in the process of formation of our civilization, a joint attainment of the ancient and medieval societies, contributing to further shape the life of mankind in many important aspects. The Silk Road which for 17 centuries culturally united Asian and European populations, brought about the transmission of knowledge, beliefs and innovative technology, as well as cultural and civilizational changes. It played an important role in the development of geographical sciences.
Both the Europeans and the Chinese learned about their existence, and at the end of the thirteenth century European merchants and missionaries, Marco Polo being one of the most famous, for the first time published books with their accounts of travels to distant countries. It is worth reminding that before Marco Polo, in 1245-1247, at the request of Pope Innocent IV, the Polish Franciscan Benedict the Pole came with an evangelizing mission to the Mongol capital of Karakorum.
The Silk Road declined in the sixteenth century. The cause lay in the development of the silk route by sea, thanks to which the maritime trade became more attractive from the dangerous caravan land routes.
Marco Polo, Benedykt Polak - the Silk Road travellers
Benedykt Polak (Benedictus Polonus)
In first half of XIII century, before Marco Polo, the Silk Road was travelled by Polish franciscan missionary named Benedykt Polak. He is considered a first polish traveller and was born around year 1200. He was the author of the brief chronicle "De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros" (On the travel of Franciscan friars to the Tatars) based on the first expedition of Europeans to Mongol Empire, in which he participated. The expedition, with evangelic mission and letter from Pop to Great Khan (later know as Cum non solum), started in April 16 1245 in Lyon (France) and was led by Giovanni di Piano Carpini (franciscan, pop delegate).
Benedykt joined the expedition in Wroclaw (Poland). In that time Poland had become a base, supporter and main supplier (food, equipment, goods) for the expedition. In first half of the journey to Mongol capitol (Karakorum) the expedition members count dropped down to only di Carpini and Benedykt.
The journey was not easy, leading through steps, deserts, mountains in difficult climatic conditions and different seasons. They travelled among the others through todays terrains of Russia, Kazakhstan, Karakorum and many trade routes, among which were large parts of the Silk Road network.
The expedition ended in 18 November 1247, lasted 2 years and 7 months including friars stay in Mongol Empire. Pops delegates did not achieve one of the main tasks of their expedition, convincing Great Khan to take Christianity. But they brought with them many valuable information about Mongols that presented a great danger for Europeans at that time and also great amount of information about far eastern countries, cultures and people which gave a great meaning and value in history of Asia discovery. Its worth to mention that Benedykt played a monumental role in bringing closer and getting to know different civilizations by information gathering and by his journals, notes and contacts he made during the expedition.
The journey of Benedykt Polak and di Carpini was the first expedition of eauropeans to then unknown parts and terrains of Asia. It was a great achievment. They have travelled almoust 20.000 km (mostly on horses), without maps and any information or knowledge of tarain and people of part of the world they were going to. Benedykt died few years after the return of the expedition, in the beginning of the second half of XIII century.
One of the most famous travellers known worldwide that does not need long descriptions and introduction.
This venetian merchant and traveller was born in second half of 1254. He was one of the first Europeans that travelled through the Silk Road and China. His journey lasted 24 years and started in 1271 with his father and uncle. As its mentioned in his book "Book of the Marvels of the World" (also known as "The Travels of Marco Polo") they were first Europeans that travelled that far east, which was incorrect. Before Marco Polo, in second half of XII century (1160-1173) Benjamin from Tudel travelled to Baghdad and in first half of XIII century (1245-1247) Benedykt Polak and Giovanni di Piano de Carpini travelled to capitol of Mongol Empire.
"Book of the Marvels of the World" was written by Rustichelli from Pisa based on Marco Polo descriptions, memories and notes from his travels. Book was written during Marco Polo captivity in Genoan prison after Venice lost sea battle with Genoa. Rustichelli was also a prisoner of Genoans at the same time, and thats how they met.
First printed version of Marco Polo book was published in 1477 in Nuremberg. Marco Polo and Rustichelli were writing the book a long time before printing was invented so everything was hand written. All copies after that until printed version were duplicated by hand, what concluded in some differences in texts and descriptions.
Marco Polo died in Venice on 8 January 1324. His book was an inspiration and source of valuable information for many travellers, cartographers, geographers. Fra Mauro included Marco Polo discoveries in his famous XV century map of the world (year 1459). Christopher Columbus had a copy of Marco Polo book with him during his travels to America.
Learn more about the Silk Road on official UNESCO website. (external link, website in english)
UNESCO Silk Road
Merchandise and exchange
Although silk was the earliest trade item on the Silk Road it was not the only one nor it was most important. Popular commodities were also gold, paper, tools, spices, plants, fruits, animals, religious objects, valuables, artwork, textiles and much more. Thanks to the Silk Road there were also a cultural, religious, scientific and technological exchange.
The "Silk Road / Silk Roads" name was firstly used in XIX century by German geographer and traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen, who has travelled to China several times between 1868-1872.
In 2014 the "Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor" (a part of the Silk Road networks) was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This Corridor runs through China, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan.
The Silk Road in book title
First book using the name "The Silk Road" and with that title, was published in the year 1938 and was written by Swedish geographer and traveller Sven Hedin.
Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Almaty (Kazakhstan) both have major streets running from east to west named after the Silk Road "Jibek Jolu" (in Bishkek), "Jibek Joly" (in Almaty).
Silk - commodity and gift
Silk was not only a popular trade item but it was also used as a valued diplomatic gift. In ancient Rome the silk was considered as an exotic and luxurious item often used to showed and underline position and wealth.
Silk Road in Poland
One of the Silk Road routes run through Poland where it crossed with other historic trade routes, like Amber Route. Learn more.
Great Chinese Wall
The west part of the Great Chinese Wall was also function as protection of the Silk Road routes and valuable merchandise moved through it.
Camels on the Silk Road
In around 2nd century BCE, because of the need of transporting goods and merchandise on long distances, the nomad people of Central Asia started to domesticate camels.
"Silk problem" in Rome
In I century CE, in year 14, the Roman Empire Senate prohibited men to wear silk, as reported by roman historian Tacitus. It was the result of merchants, who because of large popularity and demand of silk in Rome, unraveled and re-wove their fabric into thinner, sheer garments in order to make their supplies last longer. The cloths made from thinner fabric were sometimes almost see through, uncovering nudity which they were supposed to cover. In that time silk become a symbol of decadence and excess in Rome. That believe and senates prohibition of silk did not last long and popularity, demand and value of silk was still growing.
Beginnings of silk production
According to Chinese traditions, the silk production was invented in China around 2700 BCE. The secret of its production was kept and guarded by Chinese for almost 3000 years and the penalty for its revealing to foreigners was death.
Silk Road networks
The Silk Road was not one, predefined route. It consisted of a networks of routes, which were changing according to geopolitical situations and also economic and trading needs.