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Revisiting the Silk Road

Jun. 14, 2004

Despite vivid accounts of Eastern wonders relayed by traders along the Silk Road, there was always suspicion in the Occidental mind about whether the fabled bounty of the trade link truly existed. It wasn't until Nicolo Polo and his son Marco returned from their second trip along the legendary route laden with the treasures and innovations that Nicolo had claimed to see on previous journeys that Venetians began to believe the tales. Even then, at Marco's deathbed, a priest came to ask whether he would be willing to confess his falsehoods. "I did not tell half of what I saw," Marco replied. Nearly 800 years after the Polos made their epic journeys along the Silk Road, the romance of this historic trade route has hardly dissipated. Dr. Susan Whitfield, curator of the British Library's new exhibition, "The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith," is aware of the beguiling quality of her subject and seeks to ground it. "I want people to leave with a knowledge that the Silk Road is not a faraway, exotic place," she says, "but full of everyday lives and everyday people which have relevance to us today." This ability to demonstrate the Silk Road's influence over the lives of the people who lived along its path is the great achievement of the British Library's exhibition, which runs until September 12 in London. Unlike the countless adventurers the Silk Road has attracted over two millennia, the exhibition is not after earthly treasures or visions of empire but focuses on the trade route's role as a passage for ideas. Though the exhibition, which has been five years in the making, brings together pieces from museums such as the Muse Guimet in Paris, the Museum of Indian Art in Berlin, the Miho Museum in Tokyo and the British Library's own extensive collection of artifacts, the inspiration comes from Whitfield's extensive studies of early Chinese history over the past two decades. "As I worked more and more in China," Whitfield says, "I realized what a debt medieval China owed to the Silk Road and to the influences coming in on the Silk Road."

This debt ranged from knowledge of wine making to polo and Buddhism but was often paid back in kind. China sent silk, paper, porcelain and gunpowder along the Silk Road. In exchange, astrological findings from its western reaches deepened China's knowledge of the heavens. The principal trade routes lay between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, ensuring that Silk Road kingdoms from the Mediterranean to China saw the same stars and could benefit from shared observations. Manuscripts depicting the movements of the Moon and planets found in Arabic and Indian astronomy, which had been shaped by the discoveries of Babylon, also show up in Chinese studies of the heavens. A likely product of this cumulative knowledge is an early chart of the night sky found in the Chinese city of Dunhuang in Gansu province. The manuscript, which closely resembles a projection developed eight centuries later by the Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, accurately depicts 1,500 stars that are all recognizable today.

The exhibition is designed to take viewers on a virtual journey along the Silk Road. It begins in the ancient Sogdian capital of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan one of the last of Alexander the Great's conquests before he went south to India and moves east through the now vanished western kingdoms of Khotan, Kroraina and Miran before ending in China. Over the course of this journey eastward, remarkably well preserved 1,000-year-old manuscripts and icons reveal the growth and evolution of the Silk Road's most illustrious commodity: Buddhism. The merging and morphing of regional beliefs produced versions of Buddhism quite unlike the original that took shape in India.

The Sutra of the 10 Kings, discovered in the Chinese city of Gaochang in Xinjiang province, shows one of the earliest known Chinese depictions of hell and is the exhibit's best example of the evolution of Buddhism along the Silk Road. Composed in the 10th century by a Chinese monk, the sutra illustrates the purgatorial journey of the soul from death to rebirth in one of seven orders of being, ranging from the highest, bodhisattvas (those who have attained enlightenment), to hungry ghosts or, still worse, those who have been banished to hell. The sutra was one of the first attempts to syncretize the Indian Buddhist philosophy of karmic debt with the traditional Chinese belief that the dead simply went to an underground world identical to the one they had left behind. It is a fitting testament to the influence of the Silk Road that it was the carrier not only of commodities and innovations that forever changed daily life but also of ideas that changed the afterlife.

Although the enduring image of the Silk Road is of treasure-laden caravans snaking their way toward distant and exotic lands, its real and lasting impact upon the civilizations of Asia and beyond is even more wondrous than the wildest tales of its traders. Perhaps it was this aspect of the Silk Road on display at the British Library that Marco Polo withheld from his detractors back in Venice.