Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbours, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes across both land and sea, along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Maritime routes were an important part of this network, linking East and West by sea, and were used for the trade of spices in particular, thus becoming known as the Spice Routes.These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities however: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other. 'Silk Road' is in fact a relatively recent term, and for the majority of their long history, these ancient roads had no particular name. In the mid-nineteenth century, the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network Die Seidenstrasse(the Silk Road), and the term, also used in the plural, continues to stir imaginations with its evocative mystery.
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Madras (Chennai)
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Alexandria has played a pivotal role in Mediterranean trade ever since the city was founded in c.332 BC by Alexander (known as both ‘the Macedonian’ and ‘the Great’.) The second largest Egyptian city, after Cairo, and one of the largest ports on the Mediterranean coast, Alexandria was a major centre of civilization in the ancient world, controlling commerce between Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and has continued throughout its long history to act as a vital crossing point for merchants and their trade on the maritime routes between Asia...
Almaty, in south-eastern Kazakhstan, is an ancient Silk Road city whose roots can be traced back to the Bronze Age. The city lies in the foothills of the Trans-Ili Alatau, a mountain range that forms part of the northern Tian Shan mountain system connecting Central Asia with China and which has historically been a vital corridor for the passage of Silk Road merchants, for whom Almaty provided a resting point. Additionally, Almaty is situated in the floodplain of two large rivers, the Malaya Almatinka and the Bolshaya rivers, facilitating access and transport...
Baku is the capital of Azerbaijan, situated on the southern tip of the Abşeron Peninsula overlooking the Bay of Baku, along the western shore of the Caspian Sea. It lies on an ancient trade route from the Central Asian steppe towards Europe, being the main port that received trade from the east as it was shipped across the Caspian Sea. Heading westwards from Baku, merchandise would either be transported north through the Caucasus Mountains and thus to the Black Sea and to Istanbul, or would travel due east...
Balkh is an ancient city, with a 2500-year long history, situated on the plain between the Hindu Kush Mountains and the river Amu Darya (historically known as the Oxus) in the north of Afghanistan. Known by Arab conquerors as Umm-al-belad, the ‘mother of cities’, Balkh lay on the major Silk Road routes that ran between east and west. The city’s history was illustrious until Ghengis Khan and his Mongol hordes wreaked destruction in 1220; Balkh never fully recovered, and eventually faded into a village, whilst the seat of government shifted by 20 kilometers south to Mazar-e-Sharif...
The small city of Bam lies in the southeast corner of Iran, where the high central plateau gives way to the deserts of Sistan and Baluchistan. It is an oasis, situated at the crossroads of the Silk Road trade routes that spanned the surrounding desert, and nourished by underground irrigation canals, or qanāts.The modern town, founded in the 19th century, adjoins the abandoned walled city of earlier times. Above the ruins looms a medieval castle, the Arg-e-Bam, built using layers of mud (or Chineh), and sun-dried mud bricks (khesht)...
The Bamiyan Valley, enclosed in the high mountains of the Hindu Kush in central highlands of Afghanistan, was a vital link in the trade routes that spanned from China to India via ancient Bactria (present-day Afghanistan). The valley, at an altitude of 2,500 metres, follows the line of the Bamiyan River, and has been inhabited since at least the 3rd century BC.The passage of merchants through this natural corridor from the earliest days of the Silk Roads brought languages, beliefs and traditions together here, and contributed to its development as a major religious and cultural centre throughout the Middle...
The Historic Centre of Bukhara (Uzbekistan), situated on the Silk Roads, is more than two thousand years old. It is one of the best examples of well-preserved Islamic cities of Central Asia of the 10th to 17th centuries, with an urban fabric that has remained largely intact. Bukhara was long an important economic and cultural center in Central Asia. The ancient Persian city served as a major center of Islamic culture for many centuries and became a major cultural center of the Caliphate in the 8th century. Thus, it earned the title Bukhoro-i-Sharif, or “Noble Bukhara” among Muslims (one of the seven holy cities of Islam). It is one of the few places in Central Asia where one can feel the heartbeat of ancient Central Asia...
Nestled against the slopes of Mount Uludag (the ancient Mount Olympus) in Western Anatolia, Bursa emerged as an important town in Classical Antiquity. Of major significance for the city’s future was the inauguration of the silk industry in Byzantium under Emperor Justinian, as a result of which Bursa would eventually become a centre of silk production and trade...
Dunhuang was of great importance as a cultural centre on the western borders of the Chinese empire at various points in its history, and also as a stronghold defending the empire. The Silk Road routes from China to the west passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and they divided near Dunhuang. The route to the south and southwest was guarded by the so-called “Jade Gate” (Yü Guan) and "Southern Gate" (Yang Guan) which were garrisoned and supplied from Dunhuang. The region was also the site of a number of very important Buddhist monastic complexes, the most famous of which being the Mogao Grottoes...
The city of Ephesus was one of thelargest and most important cities in the ancient Mediterranean world, lying on the western coast of Asia Minor (in modern day Turkey). It was one of the oldest Greek settlements on the Aegean Sea, and later the provincial seat of Roman government in Asia. Situated at end of the Royal Road—the chief thoroughfare of the Roman East—the city was a western terminus of East-West trade, with one of the most important Mediterranean harbours for exporting products to Greece, Italy and the rest of the Roman West. The city itself developed around an ancient shrine of the earth goddess Artemis (Roman Diana), and later, from the beginning of the Christian era, became a key city in the expansion of Christianity, from which St Paul launched many...
Fatehpur Sikri (“The City of Victory”) was animportant halt for merchants on the routes across northern India, and stands as a testimony to the architectural achievements of the Mughal Empire in the late 16th century. It became the Mughal capital under the rule of the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), who moved his residence to the city and erected a major new palace complex. Most sources connect this decision with the emperor's veneration for a local Sufi holy man, Shaikh Salim Chisti, and it was in Chisti's honor in 1568 that Akbar ordered the Jami Masjid (the great mosque) to be constructed, one of the largest mosques in India, built to accommodate some 10,000 faithful and completed in 1571-72...
Herat owes its existence to the Hari Rud,the river flowing past the city just a few miles away. The river rises in the mountains of Ghor to the east, turns north along the present border with Iran, and eventually vanishes in the sands of the Karakum desert. Along the way it sustains a narrow but fertile oasis, cultivated continuously since antiquity, and flanked by some of the richest grazing grounds in all of Central Asia. Herat was also a crossroads of commerce: routes ran north along the Hari Rud to Merv and Bukhara, south to Kerman and into Iran, east to Balkh, Samarkand and China, and west to Nishapur and Constantinople...
Isfahan was once one of the largestand most important cities in Central Asia, positioned as it is on the cross- roads of the main north-south and east-west trade routes that cross Central Asia. The city was the splendid capital of the Seljuq and Safavid dynasties, and is renowned for its beauty, which has given rise to the Iranian saying that “Isfahan is half the world”. Commerce has always been central to the growth of Isfahan, to the extent that the Safavid Shah Abbas I (1588-1629) effectively re-routed the Silk Road through Isfahan and made the city his capital so that his empire would enjoy a trading monopoly. By the seventeenth century, the city attracted not only European merchants but also missionaries and mercenaries, as it became a religiously tolerant centre of mercantile and diplomatic...
Jeddah, the “bride of the Red Sea”, is a major portand urban centre on the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula overlooking the Red Sea. The second largest city in Saudi Arabia after Riyadh, Jeddah is an ancient trading city that also acts as a vital gateway to Mecca, situated on the maritime trade route connecting the Mediterranean with India, the Arabian Peninsula and south east Asia.The position of Jeddah has always made the city a perfect trading port for cargo ships travelling the Red Sea, and the city’s traditional souks reflect a history of maritime trade and exchange. Furthermore, Jeddah is one of the closest ports to Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam, to which able-bodied Muslims are required to go on pilgrimage at least once in their lifetimes. The city was chosen by the Caliph ‘Uthman in 646 AD as the favoured landing point for pilgrims...
Despite its relatively small size, Karakorum was one of the most important cities in the history of the Silk Road. Although founded by Genghis Khan in 1220, Karakorum’s development as capital of the Mongol Empire occurred in the 1230s under his son Ögedei. The Mongols had a profound impact on the history of trade across Central Asia, as their vast empire connected east and west, and trade and exchange were facilitated by the Pax Mongolica, enforcing, as far as possible, peace and a degree of stability across the vast territories under...
Kashgar lies in far western China in the Uygur Region of Xinjiang. The city is situated at the western end of the Tarim Basin in a fertile oasis of loess and alluvial soils watered by the Kashgar River and by several springs. The fertile oasis allows corn, rice, wheat and cotton, as well as melons, grapes, apricots, peaches and cherries to grow. Various handicrafts such as cotton and silk textiles, leatherwear and pottery are produced in the city and its suburbs...
MADRAS (Chennai)
Madras is the capital city of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Located on the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal, it is a major commercial, cultural, economic and educational center in South India. Madras – later Chennai – has lured international commerce and fostered global connectivity. Situated alongside the Maritime Silk Roads for hundreds of years, Madras has enjoyed global connectivity for...
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Muscat, the modern day capital of Oman,has been a strategic centre of trade and exchange along the historic maritime Silk Roads since the 2nd century AD. Located in a cove on the country’s north- eastern coastline, overlooking the Gulf of Oman and the Straits of Hormuz, the city is in a key geographical position on the maritime cross-roads linking Asia with Africa and Europe, and was a vital stopping point for merchants whether they were travelling up the Persian Gulf to Asia, west along the Arabian coast to Africa, or east to India and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, it was a port with excellent natural shelter, where sailors could safely escape bad weather and make repairs, and had plentiful supplies of good quality fresh water – a point of enormous importance to travellers departing for long and often uncertain journeys at sea...
Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. During this period the framework of national government was consolidated and Nara enjoyed great prosperity, emerging as the fountainhead of Japanese culture. The city’s historic monuments – Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace – provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change. The city has been linked to the network of Maritime Silk Roads through its neighboring port Osaka...
Located on the south-east coastof China, the city of Quanzhou was one of the most important Chinese ports along the historic Maritime Silk Roads. Known as Zayton (or Zaitun) by traders arriving from the Arab world, the port has welcomed sailors and travellers from many different cultures and religions as they traversed these routes. Commercial and cultural interaction between the city and other regions, particularly around the South Sea, can be dated to as early as the Chinese Southern Dynasties of the 6th century AD. Subsequently, the port was one of the four major Chinese ports in use under the...
Samarkand has long been a central point for trade across the region, and was a substantial city renowned for its craft production, with a citadel and strong fortifications, several centuries before it was conquered by Alexander in 329 BC. From the late antique and early medieval period, the city and the surrounding area were...
The city of Shahrisabz (formerly knownas Kesh) in southern Uzbekistan is one of the most ancient cities along the trade routes of Central Asia. Located approximately 80 km south of Samarkand, it rose to prominence in the 14th century, as it was the birthplace of Tamerlane (1336-1405), founder of the Timurid dynasty, and was controlled by the Barlas tribe to which he belonged. Indeed, Tamerlane considered keeping Shahrisabz as his capital, but ultimately settled on Samarkand. His home town was the location of important family graves—among them, those of his father and two oldest sons, Jahangir and Omar Sheikh—and Tamerlane had a tomb for himself prepared there, although he would instead be buried in a new mausoleum built in Samarkand...
Urumqi is situated at the heart of Xinjiang region, in northwestern China. The city’s name in local language means “fine pasture”. It is located in a fertile belt of oases along the northern slope of the eastern Tien Shan range.Situated along the ancient Silk Road, the city became an important center for caravans on the Silk Road traveling onto the Ili River Valley from the main route across Turkistan. Urumqi thus was a major hub on the Silk Road during China’s Tang Dynasty, having developed a reputation as an important commercial and cultural centre...
Situated in the heart of a lagoon on the coast of northeast Italy, Venice was a major power in the medieval and early modern world, and a key city in the development of trade routes from the east to Europe. Its strategic position on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, within reach of the Byzantine Empire and traders from the Near East, allowed the city to become a hub of trade in the west, receiving goods from the east by sea and disseminating them into the growing European market...
An ancient imperial capital andeastern departure point of the Silk Road, Xi’an (formerly Chang’an) has long been an important crossroads for people from throughout China, Central Asia, and the Middle East, and thus a hub of diverse ethnic identities and religious beliefs. The central location of Xi'an in what is now the Shaanxi Province, near the confluence of the Wei and Feng Rivers, helps explain why the area was the site of several important imperial capitals for almost a millennium of Chinese history. The first unified Chinese empire, the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), had its capital just north of the current city, where the impressive tomb complex of the Qin emperors was discovered, famously containing more than 8000 terracotta statues spread...
A branch of the Silk Road skirts the western and southern edges of Iran’s central desert, passing through a string of small cities — Kashan, Nain, Yazd, Kerman — on the way to India. Of these, Yazd is the largest and the most remarkable, a port of the desert from which tracks led to Mashad and on to Merv, north to Rayy and south to the Persian Gulf. A provincial city dependent on trade, Yazd also...
Anchored in the Indian Ocean off Africa’seast coast, Zanzibar, an island state within the United Republic of Tanzania, is an ethnic and architectural expression of a unique meeting place, mixing the cultures of Africa, the Arab region, India and Europe over more than a millennium. As gateway to East Africa and turning point in trade on the Maritime Silk Road between Africa and Asia, Zanzibar brought together migrants, traders, conquerors and also victims of slave trades. Africans, Arabs, Indians, Persians, Portuguese, Dutch and English met and mingled here and left behind a hybrid civilization characterized by a distinctive stone architecture, a rich, eclectic cuisine, and a diverse population that introduced the words of many nations into Kiswahili, a language of Bantu origin...
Valencia, the “Medina al-Tarab”(City of Sand), is one of the oldest cities in Spain. The city was founded on the banks of the River Turia in 138 BC by the Romans, and began to prosper in the Andulasian period(714 AD- 1171 AD).The advent of Islamic culture brought with it a myriad of trading activities related to paper, silk, leather and ceramics and placed Valencia as a commercial hub. After witnessing a brief period of decline, Valencia again revived its importance in the 15th Century, a period which is also referred to as the “Golden Period of Valencia”...
Aleppo has stood at the crossroads of trade routes across Syria since at least the 3rd millennium BC, when the city was first mentioned in ancient Syrian manuscripts. It is the largest city in Syria, and is situated on a plateau in the northwest of the country, some 100 kilometers from both the Mediterranean to the west, and the Euphrates River to the east, a location that has kept Aleppo at the center of international communication and commerce. This is reflected in the historic citadel, which contains one of the largest and best-preserved bazaars in the region, a testimony to the integral role of trade in the city’s development...