SAMARKAND, February 14, 2010 -- The Silk Roads, those great trading highways of the ancient world, had a huge influence upon carpets.
So much so, that discovering carpets and carpet culture inevitably leads to discovering the unique world that the Silk Roads created.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the map of the Silk Roads corresponds almost exactly to the map of today’s carpet belt, the countries with a long and still living tradition of producing oriental rugs.
The main trading networks of the Silk Roads stretched across western China (today’s Xinjiang province) to Central Asia, where they either turned south to India or continued straight ahead to Persia, Anatolia, and the Mideast.
At the shores of the Mediterranean they stopped, but boats extended the trade to many ports of southern Europe as well.
What held the Silk Roads together, from time immemorial until they were bypassed by trans-oceanic trade beginning in the 15th century?
The obvious, but incomplete answer, is commerce. And for the markets at the poles of the trade, as in eastern China, southeast Asia, or Europe, that was probably the sole stake.
Eastern China, for example, was throughout most of the history of the Silk Roads the world’s greatest export economy. It produced enormous quantities of ceramics and silk and its export business, organized by independent traders, was a major source of tax revenue for the court.
But where these exports items were headed as they moved in vast camel trains across the empire’s western horizon was of little interest to most Chinese.
Just how much so can be judged from an epic poem written in China in the 3rd century BC. This was about the same time Alexander the Great was firmly linking the West to the Silk Road by expanding his empire to Central Asia.
The poem is “18 Songs of the Nomad’s Flute” and it tells the story of a Han princess who was forcibly abducted by Turkic-Mongol Hsiung-nu (or Xiongnu) nomads and taken north beyond the Great Wall.
Lady Wenji, who was also the daughter of one of the most famous Confucian scholars of the time, was forced to marry one of the nomad chiefs and remained among the barbarians for 12 years.
But she appears to have found nothing of value among them even as she has two sons with her husband and wonders “how could I have become bound to my enemy in love and trust?”
When finally an embassy comes from China to offer ransom for her release, there is no question which choice she will make. She returns to civilization even at the cost of parting from her children and suffering the eternal melancholy the songs describe.
The pictures above are from illustrations for “18 Songs” painted sometime in the 13th century.
But if Lady Wenji’s story became a pillar of Chinese classical literature, the image it gives of the barbarians beyond the Great Wall was only half true. In fact, the nomads and the Chinese were bound together not just as enemies but also as trading partners.
The trade relations between the nomads and China is well explained by Stewart Gordon in his 2008 book “When Asia Was the World,” which describes Asia in the millennium from 500 to 1500 AD.
The nomads, he notes, raised horses that were in constant demand by the Chinese elite and the army and they raised cattle that was essential for sedentary agriculture.
The picture here is of a young Chinese nobleman on horseback, around 1290.
In exchange, the nomads bought the grain and silk produced by China. They also bought iron for horse trappings, elegant cloth for courtly robes, and steel for weapons.
As a result of the trade, the semi-nomadic chiefs not only wore robes of Chinese silk, modeled their own elite life on that of China’s rulers and imported rice as a high-status food, they also adopted many Chinese artistic techniques, including painting, for their court culture.
This porcelain depicting a “Westerner,” or nomad, on a camel is from China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Similar ties between steppe peoples and their sedentary neighbors repeated across Eurasia – from the frontiers of India, and Persia, to the Arabian peninsula. The symbiotic relationships laid the basis for a stable cross-continental trading network that served everybody’s interest.
Over time, the Silk Roads transported goods of almost every conceivable type, from silk to spices to new plant dyes to medicines to industrial products. The industrial products not only included Chinese ceramics but Damascus steel and blown glass from China, India and Persia – the world’s three great glass-making centers in 1,000 AD.
That was at a time when, as Gordon notes, “glass-making had been entirely lost in Europe for centuries and would not be recovered for more than two centuries.”
But if commerce was the raison d’etre of the Silk Roads as far as most people in the manufacturing centers were concerned, it was the cultural exchanges that ultimately became the most important dividend for the people along the Silk Roads themselves.
Over the centuries, these exchanges were so great they created a shared Silk Roads culture that can still be seen in much of the weaving and other art of the region today.
In tracing the history of Asia from 500 to 1500, Gordon describes the cultural exchanges as taking place in two great successive waves: first Buddhist and, then, Islamic.
Both religions were “universalizing,” coming from outside and spreading across huge areas of the Silk Road network by recruiting on a basis of personal commitment rather than ethnicity or region.
At the same time, both religions encouraged people to travel for spiritual development and encouraged rulers to build rest-houses, pilgrimage sites, and colleges (monasteries or madrassas) to facilitate their quest.
Shown here is the complex of three madrassas on Registan Square in the center of Samarkand. The oldest (Ulugbeg Madrassa) dates to the 15th century, the newest to the 17th.
Thanks to these shared religious networks, ideas and artistic styles traveled as easily along the Silk Roads as commercial goods did between bazaars.
Gordon notes that by the Islamic period a man trained in Shari’a law in one state could find employment as an administrator in another.
And court painters “corresponded, viewed each others' work, and moved to find patronage across a network that stretched from Spain to southern India.”
As an example of court painting, here is a book illustration by the most famous court miniaturist, Kamal ud-Din Behzad (or Bihzad), who died in Tabriz in 1535. It clearly shows the influence of Chinese landscape painting in the background.
The evolution of much of the Silk Road region -- think today’s ‘carpet belt’ -- into a shared cultural space was hastened by two other factors: migrations and conquests.
The world being what it is, the increasing riches of cities along the trade routes both gave rise to empires and tempted conquerors from afar.
Just a few of the results were the Seljuk Turk empire extending from Central Asia to Anatolia; Genghis Khan’s empire covering most of Eurasia; and the Timurid empire stretching from Persia to Central Asia to northern India.
These vast empires united very diverse areas which ordinarily were isolated by geography. As Gordon notes, Genghis Khan ruled both steppes and large areas of agricultural China. The Mughals ruled both sides of the Himalayas.
If the shared culture of the Silk Road world could be given a single name, it would be this improbable sounding string of hyphens: Turkic-Mongol-Persian.
But the fusion was real, powerful, and long-lasting. And it helps explain much about what otherwise would be inexplicable in carpet history.
Just one example is the cosmopolitan style of the classical Persian court carpets of the 16th century. In them, Chinese-style cloudbands mix with Islamic calligraphy and Persian legends. All of them together is the legacy of the Silk Roads.
(The term “Silk Road” is a recent, elegant name for a network that needed no name in its own day. The term was coined in 1870 by German geographer Ferdinand van Richthofen, the uncle of the Red Baron.)
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