The Silk Road

One of the most important international trade links ever to have existed was the long-distance land route between the Middle East and China, known as the Silk Road.

By the year AD 14, Chinese silk was already fashionable in Rome. Other Chinese exports included lacquerware, bamboo products, steel and advanced farming equipment.

Meanwhile China imported exotic aromatics, perfumes, thoroughbred horses and jewels.

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Tang horse (China, AD mid-700s)
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    Tang horse (China, AD mid-700s) 

    Horses on the move

    The Tang dynasty (AD 609–918) was the golden age of the Silk Route. The capital, Chang'an (today Xi'an), at the eastern end, was the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world at that time. Foreign traders, craftsmen and diplomats from all over took up residence in Chang'an and the other principal trading centres of China, which greatly benefited from the material trade and foreign cultural influences of these interactions.

    But all of this could not have been possible without the beasts of burden which carried goods in either direction along the Silk Road. This Tang-period horse, made of painted clay and wood, was found buried in a tomb near a major Silk Road administrative centre.

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    Tang camel (China, AD 618–906) 

    By land or sea?

    The Silk Road wasn’t actually one road, but a network of routes that spanned the 4,000 miles between the Pacific and the Mediterranean. To walk or ride it takes a long time and is a costly endeavour – all those camels need feeding!

    But it is a fairly secure route as it moves from settlement to settlement and there would likely be other groups moving at the same time in either direction. Travellers would be prey to bandits in more remote areas, however.

    Much faster – but much further – was the sea route, sailing all the way around the Indian subcontinent.

    But traders could only travel as fast as the wind blows, so would sometimes be subject to the whims of nature. There was also the added threat of pirates and shipwreck.

    But apart from these considerations, the sea route was comparatively inexpensive and an ideal way of moving large quantities of fragile material such as glass or ceramics.

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    Sasanian glassware (Iran, AD 500–700) 

    Magical glass

    People living at either end of the Silk Road were able to learn about new materials and production techniques thousands of miles away. Chinese blue and white pottery was transported to the Middle East and Europe, where it was highly sought after, while Iranian glassware was exported to China where it was likewise highly praised.

    Glassware from the Sasanian period in Iran was considered magical in China – they did not yet have the technology to make glass which looked as impressive as Middle Eastern pieces. Although the sheen of this piece is no longer visible, modern replicas, made using traditional production techniques, give us a sense of how it would have looked when new.

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    Chinese style ceramic dish from Iran (Iran, about AD 1625–1650) 

    Imitation ceramic

    In addition to the economic exchanges between the east and west ends of the Silk Road, cultural and intellectual ideas could also flow. In particular, was the influence of style on craftsmen at either end of the Road.

    Here an Iranian potter has imitated the much-admired Chinese blue-and-white style of ceramics. The cobalt blue colouring looks correct, as does the floral design. But Iranians simply didn’t have access to the right kinds of raw clay, meaning their imitation pottery lacks a certain finesse and delicacy.

    The Chinese ambassador, Ch’en Ch’eng, who visited Afghanistan in 1414, saw the local blue-and-white ceramics and noted:

    “The porcelain vessels are extremely fine, and on them are delicately drawn flowers and grass in fine colours. They are extremely beautiful but they do not match the light, blue, clear and sparkling ones of China. If such a vessel is hit, it makes no sound. The nature of clay is like this.”

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    Imitation coin (China, AD 500s)  

    A coin from the west

    This coin was produced in China and was found in a grave there. But its design owes a great deal to the coins being produced in the Byzantine Empire at the time. For some reason wealthy people wanted to be buried with these imitations of coins from thousands of miles away.