The Silk Road

The Silk Road: A continuous trip on the roads of civilizations

 The story of the silk road is a story of one of the oldest, most famous and most important world trade roads that connected, for long centuries, China with central Asia, Persia, western Asia and Europe. The name, silk road, was given to this road after the most important subject of trading on this road : Chinese silk. Commercial movement started along the silk road in the second century B.C. and continued with some ups and downs until the fifteenth century A.D. New maritime roads were discovered in the renaissance period to take, gradually, the place of most of the over land trader outes.

 The silk road originated in the year 330-325 B.C. when “Alexander the Great of Macedonia“ conquered Hindu kush and karakorum ranges (now Pakistan and Afghanistan), Persia, the Palmyran kingdom and the coasts of the Mediterranean. The area became a cross roads of Asia where Arab, Persian, Indian and Greek influences met. Although the silk road isstrongly connected with China (The main source of silk at that time ), the silk road stretched to the Chinese land only in the year 125 B.C. when the emperor of Handy nasty sent a messenger to the central Asian kingdoms searching for political and military alliances to help him repel Mongol incursions on the Chinese cities. For the good luck of the world, the messenger was held captive in central Asia for ten years, through which be could introduce the Chinese civilization and products to his captives. After he returned home he transferred with him lots of ideas and thoughts about the artistic, industrial and social aspects of life of central Asia. Despite his failure in his political mission, the Chinese delegate succeeded in establishing new relations that enabled peoples of the region to know each other  better and to start a new phase of cooperation among all the countries along what later became the “Silk Road“.

Land Routes of the Silk Road

The Silk Road is 7000 miles long ( 11550km).It starts in China and extends westthrough central Asia, northern India, Persia,Mesopotamia, Palmyra, and Byzantiumto reach Rome. It links the valley ofthe “Yellow River“ in the farthest pointeast of Asia with the Mediterranean andthen southern Europe. Indians who livedalong the Ghange river played an importantrole as trade mediators between China,Persia and Palmyra. They realized thatChinese silk was a most wanted materialin Europe, so they bartered Chinese silkfor precious stones, jade, gold and silver.The Indians carried silk to the Persianswho in turn carried it to the Arabpalmyrans who used to sell it in Rome.

The Silk Road consisted of several principalroutes. The different routes developedto avoid the inhospitable deserts ofGobi and Taklamakan, the undefiable

mountains of Pamir and Himalaya, and  the irresistible bandits who used to attackcaravans in countries of fragile security.Long distances, rough terrain and hazardoussecurity meant that trade goods hadto be low in volume and high in value.

Natural hardships and obstacles obligedcaravans to travel in short trips within thesame empire or kingdom where valuablegoods would move from one hand to anotherseveral times before reaching theirfinal destination. Due to that a net of roadsand routes were established in China, India,Persia, palmyra and Antioch to formthe renowned Silk Road.

Every caravan used to include a large assortmentof people: merchants from differentcountries using camels, horses,donkeys, elephants...etc for transportation,with several kinds of open and coveredcarriages. Guides, guards and scouts,armed with every weapon available tothem, were indispensable elements ineach caravan. Caravans used to be joinedby cooks, barbers, physicians, musicians,singers and dancers, clowns, wizards, fortuneand story tellers, poets, geographers  travelers, philosophers, and historians,each of them seeking an aim and, of

course, a living. Caravans carried silk,wool, linen, clothes, leather , rugs, preciousstones, dyes, spices, cosmetic, incense,arms, glass-wares, china, ceramic,pottery and wooden items, rare animalsand plants, and of course slaves andmaids..In addition to the economic significanceof the Silk Road, its cultural impact wasgreat. Merchants, artisans and missionariescarried with them their products, traditions,social values, scientific knowledgeand expertise, as well as their religiousfaiths and values and aesthetic principlesevery where they went. At the endof the second century B.C. Buddhismstarted to spread from India to central Asiaand China in the west. In the 4th centuryA.D Christianity was brought from Europeto India. When Islam appeared in theseventh century A.D. it quickly spreadfrom Bilad al Sham(the Levant) and Mesopotamiato the kingdoms and empiresof central and eastern Asia.

Decline of the Silk Road :

In the 15th century A.D new sea routeswere discovered for trading.Chaos anddisorder spread in many countries. Bandits  increased their activities against caravans.As a result, economic powers inthe cities and oases along the silk roaddeclined. Now, these cities and oasesturned to be tourist targets visited by thousandsof tourists from many countries ofthe world.

Syria had a prominent role in the start anddevelopment of the Silk Road. Manyroutes crossed its land, and hundreds ofinns and stations were built to facilitatetrading between east and west.

The Silk Road in Syria

Silk Road routes in Syria are divided into3 categories : land routes across the Syriandesert, river navigational routes, andland - river routes. The three routes wereused by caravans coming from the east tothe west or vice versa. These routes passedthrough most of the cities of the Levant :al Raqqa and Rasafa in the east, Aleppoand Idlib in the north, Palmyra, Damascus,Homs, Hama, Hawran and Bosra inthe south, and Antioch and Tyre on theMediterranean.More details about the routes of the SilkRoad have no place in this article, but itis worthy to denote the most importanthistorical sites left by the Silk Road allover Syria. Many of these sites are still  well preserved fighting against the hazardsof time and ready to receive visitorsand tourists all round the year. These sitesare the many inns that were used as tradingcenters, social forums, and as lodgingstations. Of these inns and lodges wecan mention :

Qaser el-Hir in Palmyra, Khan Sheikhounin the city bearing the same name.KhanTouman, Khan al Asal in Aleppo, KhanMa‘arret al Nouman, Khan al-Sabil along the road of Hama - Aleppo, Khan el-Madhiqin Hama, Khan al Mo‘iz along theroad of Damascus - Homs. Khan alQutaifeh, Khan Sinan Pasha and Khan al-Arous in al Qutaifeh, Khan Ayyash inA‘adra, Khan Dannuon along Damascus- Dra‘a road, Khan Sa‘asa‘a and KhanArnaba south of Damascus, and manyothers.

These inns are still standing as witnesseson the active trading movement Syria hadwitnessed during the life of the Silk Road.Aleppo alone had more than 60 inns,mostimportant of them is the Inn of the Venetiansand Inn of Marco polo. Khan Asa‘adpasha al-Azem and Khan al-Harir in Damascus,now,is used as museums. Khan al-Toton in Lattakia was also changed into amuseum.


Haifaa Mafalani