Rise of humans on the earth is a chronicle of mass migrations. Among these a road is surely a consequence of choices people make to reach their destination. In times of famine they sought places where food was in abundance. Later trade between peoples connected by roads. Road is the straight line between two points where geography has a say. In terms of geography we consider unfordable rivers, lakes and insurmountable mountains as features that stretch roads about. Of these we shall look at two roads in particular. These serve as locus for entire history of Europe and Asia to fan out. It brought about changes that none could have realized. Silk Road is one and the other is Appian Way which includes Roman road system as one whole.
The region separating China from Europe and Western Asia has Taklimakan desert, known as `Land of Death’; caravans throughout history have skirted its edges, from one isolated oasis to the next. The land surrounding the Taklimakan is equally hostile. To the northeast lies the Gobi desert, almost as harsh in climate as the Taklimakan itself; on the remaining three sides lie some of the highest mountains in the world. To the South are the Himalaya, Karakorum and Kunlun ranges, which provide an effective barrier separating Central Asia from the Indian sub-continent. Only a few icy passes cross these. Coming from the west or south, the only way in is over the passes.
On the eastern and western sides of the continent, the civilisations of China and the West developed. The western end of the trade route appears to have developed earlier than the eastern end, principally because of the development of the empires in the west, and the easier terrain of Persia and Syria.
In the west, the Greek empire was taken over by the Roman Empire. It is often thought that the Romans had first encountered silk in one of their campaigns against the Parthians in 53 B.C, and realised that it could not have been produced by this relatively unsophisticated people. The Romans obtained samples of this new material, and it quickly became very popular in Rome, for its soft texture and attractiveness. They reputedly learnt from Parthian prisoners that it came from a mysterious tribe in the east, who they came to refer to as the silk people, `Seres’. The Parthians quickly realised that there was money to be made from trading the material, and sent trade missions towards the east just as Rome sent their own agents out to explore the route, and to try to obtain silk at a lower price. In short this trade route to the East was seen by the Romans, as a route for silk rather than the other goods that were traded.
The name `Silk Road’ itself does not originate from the Romans, however, but is a nineteenth century term, coined by the German scholar, von Richthofen. The description of this route to the west as the `Silk Road’ is somewhat misleading. Firstly, no single route was taken; crossing Central Asia several different branches developed, passing through different oasis settlements. The routes all started from the capital in Changan, headed up the Gansu corridor, and reached Dunhuang on the edge of the Taklimakan.
In addition to silk, the route carried many other precious commodities. Caravans heading towards China carried gold and other precious metals, ivory, precious stones, and glass, which was not manufactured in China until the fifth century. In the opposite direction furs, ceramics, jade, bronze objects, lacquer and iron were carried. Many of these goods were bartered for others along the way, and objects often changed hands several times. There are no records of Roman traders being seen in Changan, nor Chinese merchants in Rome, though their goods were appreciated in both places. ( To be Cont’d)