Book Review : The Silk Road – A Biography From Prehistory to the Present Day.
The Silk Road : A Biography From Prehistory To The Present Day — is a remarkable book because for thousands of years it has been a traveller’s history with brief encounters in desert towns, snowbound passes and nameless forts. It was the conduit that first brought Buddhism, Christianity and Islam into China. Today its central section encompasses several former Soviet Republics and the Chinese Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. The ancient trade route controversially crosses the sights of several foreign kingdoms, buried in sand and only now revealing their secrets. It provides introduction to its languages, literature and arts coupled with rich history of this dynamic and little known region.
Author Jonathan Clements is an expert and written many books about China including a history of Beijing and biographies of Chairman Mao and Marco Polo among others. There is a concrete identifiable Silk Road today. It is the name of the motorway that curves along the northern reaches of the Taklamakan Desert, with signage helpfully written in English so that tourists can feel they are getting somewhere. Only a handful of men and women travelled its entire length. For most of the participants in the trade route, the ‘road’ if ever there was a real one, was only to the next town or oasis.
The ‘Silk Road’ is a modern idea, dating only from 1877 when Ferdinand von Richthofen published a multi-part atlas of China. He spoke of a single ‘Silk Road’ but spoke of it in the plural as Silk Roads. Many writers prefer the terms ‘Silk Routes’ to point out there is no single identifiable road but a number of well travelled paths and tracks, worn by caravans over the years. Towns provided these caravans to grab new supplies, rest a little and graze their animals. But the pathways between them fluctuated on the basis of weather, war and local politics – even the towns of the Silk Road could fall in and out of favour, left high and dry by the ebb and flow of trade and drastic changes in the water tables or water courses.
Richthofen drew his line joining China to the Mediterrenean. Now was the traffic all in a single direction! Much of the silk that headed west from China was intended for Ferghana valley in what is now Uzbekistan, where it was traded for the region’s highest priced horses. No coins of the Roman Republic or early empire have ever been found in China. In fact much of the material Richthofen assumed to have reached Rome down his Silk Road may have trickled south from Xinjiang, through what is now India and Pakistan, and then by sea to Roman Egypt. There is a reasonable case to be made that the Silk Road began in Xian and ends at Colchester, the old Roman town of Camulodunum, where a tiny fragment of Silk, no bigger than a postage stamp has been unearthed and displayed in the local museum? Or Marseilles, the old Roman town of Massilia where ships from eastern Mediterrenean would unload their wares.
The author argues that its real end is in Samarkand in what was then Sogdiana and is now Uzbekistan, the city from which eastern goods would scatter north, south and west to reach their final destinations. The Silk Road spans a much smaller area, from Xian or Luoyang, through the sand blasted Gansu Corridor that plots a trail around the mountains of Tibet, and across the fabled deserts of Xinjiang to the nexus of Kashgar, from which it leads through mountain passes out of the Chinese world and into Central Asia. None of the people involved in trade on the Silk Road regarded themselves as part of a long route stretching between China and Europe.
The very inhospitability of the Silk Road has often made it a dumping ground for refugees, prisoners and exiles. Entire tribes feeling the steppe conquests of the Kyrgyz or the incursions of Arab invaders have been uprooted and settled among the oases. Even today, it is difficult to draw a map of the region. The mountains stay in the same place, of course, but the areas between them are literally formed from shifting sands, which can in turn block and reroute rivers. Sometimes they flow into a depression in the ground and form new lakes, for a season, or for a generation, before vanishing only to appear a few miles away.
One of the greatest dangers to the old town of Kashgar is the simple likelihood that a single earthquake might turn it back into dust. Not for nothing is Xinjiang often called the ‘Crossroads of Asia.’ For much of its history it has been situated between four powerful cultures. To its east there is China, the ancient culture of the Yellow river, and has made use of its jades since prehistoric times. To the south the Buddhist realms of India and Tibet, which often extended religious influence over the faithful in the desert oasis. To the West through the mountain passes of the Pamirs, Central Asia which adopted a distinct and powerful new identity in the middle ages to form an Islamic influence that superseded the Buddhists. To the north the northern empires of the steppes, that long, wide strand of grassland have their narrowest bottleneck. Some inevitably turned southward instead, creating periods of Xinjiang’s history when it has paid tribute or protection money to nomads.
Several influences have created in Xinjiang a hybridity of cultures and races that is without precedent. The author says Marco Polo, one of the most famous chroniclers of the Silk Road, and indeed one of the few people who claimed to have travelled its entire length, did so in the late 13th century, in the dying days of its influence. If one travels the Silk Road today, one not only sees the ruins of desert Cathay but the geological and geographical features and the sites of rebellions and revolutions and short lived republics. The story of the silk road by the 18th century turns in upon itself, and becomes the story of the rediscovery of the slik road as explorers like Hedin and Stein, Pelliot and Mannerheim set off to investigate one of the few regions of the world as yet unmapped.
Historical accounts have an inevitable bias towards civilisations that leave a footprint. The Silk Road, therefore, is a slippery historical object. Entire civilisations have risen and fallen on the Silk Road leaving perilously little evidence of themselves. The destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan is a determined effort to wipe out idolatory in the name of God. The vandalism of these ancient Buddhist monuments is only the latest and most memorably in the slow attrition of all Buddhist culture from the Silk Road. Interestingly, Mao has largely sneaked away from public places. Earlier one was used to finding a statue of Chairman Mao in every city in China. Mao has ceased to be a great unifying influence. A gripping and highly informative book about this little known region.
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(T R Ramachandran is a senior journalist and commentator.)