The Silk Road is as iconic in world history as the Colossus of Rhodes or the Suez Canal. But what was it, exactly? It conjures a hazy image of a caravan of camels laden with silk on a dusty desert track, reaching from China to Rome. The reality was different, and far more interesting, as revealed
in this new history.
In The Silk Road, Valerie Hansen describes the remarkable archaeological finds that revolutionize our understanding of these trade routes. For millennia, key records remained hidden - often deliberately buried by bureaucrats for safe keeping. But the sands of the
Taklamakan Desert have revealed fascinating material, sometimes preserved by illiterate locals who recycled official documents to make insoles for shoes or garments for the dead.
Hansen explores seven oases along the road, from northwest China to Samarkand, where merchants, envoys,
pilgrims, and travelers mixed in cosmopolitan communities, tolerant of religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. Hansen notes that there was no single, continuous road, but a chain of markets that traded between east and west. China and the Roman Empire had very little direct trade. China's main
partners were the peoples of modern-day Iran, whose tombs in China reveal much about their Zoroastrian beliefs. Hansen writes that silk was not the most important good on the road; paper, invented in China before Julius Caesar was born, had a bigger impact in Europe, while metals, spices, and glass
were just as important as silk. Perhaps most significant of all was the road's transmission of ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs.
The Silk Road is a fascinating story of archeological discovery, cultural transmission, and the intricate chains across Central Asia and Southeast
1. At the Crossroads of Central Asia: The Kingdom of Kroraina
2. The Meeting Place of Asian Languages: The City of Kuche and the Caves of Kizil
3. Midway between China and Iran: Turfan
4. Homeland of the Sogdians, the Silk Road Traders: Samarkand and Sogdiana
The Cosmopolitan Terminus of the Silk Road: Historic Chang'an, Modern Day Xi'an
6. The Time Capsule of Silk Road History: The Dunhuang Caves
7. The Bellwether Oasis: Khotan
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Valerie Hansen is Professor of History at Yale University. Her books include The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600, Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400, and Changing Gods in Medieval China, 1127-1276, and co-author of Voyages in World