THE SILK ROAD

Two thousand years ago, an ancient trade route spread across a continent. Commodities were traded from China in the east to the markets of Istanbul and Venice, and with these precious cargos travelled people with new ideas, cultures and religions, making exchanges that shaped humanity. So much more than just a transport route, the Silk Road was the world’s first global superhighway; a place of adventure and invention, that cut across borders, bringing cultures into contact and conflict.

Before the Soviets drew up the current map of Central Asia, creating arbitrary boundaries between historic lands – the Stans we know today – this was a constantly evolving region, defined by three great conquerors who swept through: Alexander the Great, three centuries before Christ; Genghis Khan in the 13th century; and Timur, the most pitiless of all, a century later.
In the West, Timur was known as Tamerlane, after his Persian nickname, Timur-e Lang, which means Timur the Lame – arrow wounds from battle had left him with permanent injuries. He conquered all the Stans, as well as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, chunks of Syria and Turkey, and some of northern India. His armies killed some 17 million people, a staggering five per cent of the global population at the time.

Woven through this history of conquest, like the silken threads of an Uzbek rug, was the Silk Road trade that made Central Asia so worth fighting over. Spices, paper, tools, precious stones and metals, tea, salt, porcelain, wine, wool and ivory were all traded from east to west and west to east, in addition to the silk that gave this network of trading routes its name.
An ancient civilisation, the Sogdians, were the busiest and most dynamic traders in the early centuries of the Silk Road. Their territory, Sogdiana, lay in modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, but they established a trading network across 2,500km from their home turf through to China. Sogdian culture used to be so central to trade here that the word Sogdian replaced the word merchant and their language, a form of ancient Persian, was the language of the Silk Road traders; a language that Alexander the Great would have heard.

By the 8th century, the Sogdians came into conflict with Islam spreading eastwards and lost their dominance. By the 9th century, an Islamic golden age was in full effect in the cities of the Silk Road, with advances in algebra, architecture, astronomy and philosophy chief among its achievements. At the epicentre of all this commerce and culture, craftsmanship and creative thinking was modern day Uzbekistan. In the 9th century, Bukhara was an intellectual powerhouse, and the world’s finest thinkers were based in Silk Road cities from here to Baghdad.

Our top The Stans Holiday

Central Asia overland tour, the stans

Central Asia overland tour, the stans

An epic journey through the five 'stans' of Central Asia

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DECLINE OF THE SILK ROAD

Decline of the Silk Road

When Europeans started exploring new trade routes by sea from the 13th century onwards, the Silk Road lost its relevance and became less used. Its death knell was sounded when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China in 1453 and closed many of the roads that made up this famous route.

Uzbekistan’s commercial power had weakened rapidly after the death of Timur in 1405, and the Timurid Empire that the Silk Road passed through for so many miles quickly began to break up into a series of khanates that frequently went to war with one another. The Russians arrived in the region in the mid 19th century to restore peace and ruled Central Asia until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Uzbekistan in particular has been shrugging off its Soviet past and reclaiming its Silk Road history. Statues of Lenin and Stalin have been replaced with statues of Timur, and the spectacular buildings of Samarkand that Timur had built are being carefully restored, after years of neglect and earthquakes had ravaged them. There’s a great dusting off and reclaiming of the ancient, Timurid era artistic skills, too – ceramic art, tile making, wood carving – as today’s craftspeople rediscover the art of their Silk Road ancestors.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dudarev Mikhail] [Intro Box: Ljuba brank] [Image 1: Stefan Krasowski] [Decline of the Silk Road: John Pavelka]
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