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Central Asia - A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SILK ROAD World Trade

Ann Saccomano Jan 2002


Two thousand years ago the two halves of the world met each other. The person who introduced them was personified in Francesco Balducci Pegolotti, a 14th century Florentine man who had the most prized of talents: he could get it for you wholesale.

Pegolotti was a merchant on the Silk Road, one of the great trade routes of the world. The legendary caravan trail brought the East to the West through a nest of pathways that began in China, snaked through central Asia and ended in Rome. It transformed exotic luxury goods into household necessities for the avid consumers of the Roman Empire. In doing so it created the first mass market.

The route wasn't a continuous line between cities. It forked into different passages spreading from central Asia to the Middle East. It wasn't the sole route between east and west but it was the most expansive one, and so became the definitive link between the two.

In the East, the Silk Road billowed out from China's Kansu province at Sian, flowed near Inner Mongolia between the Nan Shan Mountains and Gobi Desert. It made its way through central Asia to India, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey. Parts of it branched into those areas that become part of the discarded Soviet empire: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.

From the ancient city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) the goods went by the Mediterranean Sea to the route's other end point, Rome.

Marco Polo became its most famous explorer when he traveled from Europe to Asia in the late 13th century to become a confidante of Ghengis Khan. But it was people like Pegolotti-the merchants-who connected one end of the world to the other.

A trader for a powerful Florentine banking family, Pegolotti left behind one of the few written records of commercial trading in this remote outpost. His book, "Market Practices," was a guidebook for the Silk Road entrepreneur. Here can be found information about rates of exchange, what kind of translator to hire (avoid the cheap ones) how to bribe Customs officials (generously) and how to price goods (silk by the pound, animal tails 20 to a bundle).

The Road's power as a trading force was waning by the time Pegolotti wrote his book around 1340, having reached its peak in the late 13th century. But it remained a channel for societies to trade not just their goods but their ideas, religious beliefs and political systems.

Today central Asia, in the heart of the Silk Road, is torn in a tremendous military and ideological conflict. Yet this region has a rich history of societies that managed to create a link between East and West without the benefit of modern transport and communication.

The Road Begins

The earliest known history of the Silk Road dates to China's Han Dynasty and its emperor, Wu-ti (approximately 140-87 B.C.). Seeking to expand his empire, and in need of fast horses to do so, the emperor sent his army into modern-- day Uzbekistan to spirit away 30 powerful horses belonging to another tribe.

With a stock of these fine horses, the emperor and his empire were in business. Silk-making flourished and its popularity eventually gave the route its name.

Western eyes first saw silk in significant amounts-and under the least inviting of circumstances-in 57 B.C. According to Robert Collins, in his book, "East to Cathay," that was the year the Roman army chased the Parthinians (or Persians) into Iran, who then handed the Romans one of the worst defeats of the Empire, killing 20,000 soldiers and taking another 10,000 prisoner.

While the Romans probably didn't pay much attention to it at the time, the battle flags of the enemy were made of silk. The Parthinians got it from an even more distant people, whom the Romans eventually christened the "Seres," but were in fact the Chinese.

The Parthinians triumphed on the battlefield and in the marketplace. They became the earliest middlemen between the Chinese manufacturers and the Roman consumers. Parthinians traded gold, silver and glass for silk. Since neither party spoke the other's language, negotiations were conducted through hand signs, the universal language of the open air market.

The structure became the foundation for all trading along the Silk Road. Goods weren't the only imports that traveled the route. The earliest travelers brought their own languages and cultures. They built temples along the route, which in turn inspired religious pilgrimages. Buddhism spread by way of India. The Arabs' military successes in the eighth century fostered the spread of Islam. Nestorian Christianity appeared in the fifth century.

Doing Business on the Silk Road

It would take a caravan up to a year to make the 4,000 mile trip (or 6,000 to 7,000 miles if one included the backroads and side trips). Silk was the main commodity moving from east to west. From the opposite direction came wool, ivory, glass and precious metals. Over time all manner of goods trailed the road, from the most expensive cloth to the most mundane ox hide.

Few, if any, individuals made the entire trip. Instead, goods were passed along through an intricate network of middlemen. The modern distributorship can claim no braver ancestor. These businessmen had to contend not only with the usual concerns of supply and demand but sandstorms, ice storms, bloodthirsty Huns and feudal warlords.

It's likely none of these was an acceptable excuse for late delivery

Dan Waugh is an associate professor of history and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He teaches a course on the Silk Road and has traveled extensively in the region.

According to Waugh, most trade on the Silk Road was done in progressive stages along the route, with local merchants passing goods along without traveling for great stretches of distance. He bases his analysis on documentation dating to the 17th century.

"Within such a framework, you could have merchants who might remain within the boundaries of a territory which had a common currency, common commercial practices, etc.," Waugh says. "What Pegolotti or Marco Polo would seem to suggest to us was probably exceptional-knowing the road all the way from the Mediterranean to China was not terribly relevant for most who would trade on the Silk Road."

The evidence points to transactions conducted in many local markets, and that cash didn't play a big role. Although coins from the Han Dynasty era (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) have been found across Central Asia, it's more likely that bolts of silk were the preferred medium of exchange.

Purchase orders didn't exist, but there were clusters of merchants in various time periods who maintained correspondence and provided credit. The banking system flourished through a network of local business people, often of the same kin or religious group as the traveler.

This form of banking survives today but it's difficult for an outsider to trace the money trail. For this reason, investigators of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack say it may have been the conduit for funneling money through al-Qaeda cells.

The Silk Road reached its high point during the Mongol Empire. Under Ghenghis Khan and his successors, the Mongols spread their power into Iran, the Caucasus, southern Russia, Persia, Iraq and Eastern Europe.

"The period when the Mongol Empire was flourishing was the apex because there was a political entity controlling it," Waugh says. "Whether it actually had more volume of goods moving is hard to say. But by the 1260s even the Mongol Empire started to squabble, and Marco Polo speaks of political discord. So, the second half of the 13th century was peak."

Today central Asia, in the heart of the Silk Road, is torn in a tremendous military and ideological conflict. Yet this region has a rich history of societies that managed to create a link between East and West without the benefit of modern transportation or communication.

Ann Saccomano is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C
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