LISBON, April 16, 2011 -- When one thinks of the ancient carpet trade, it is the Silk Roads and camels which first come to mind.
But the trade routes that connected East and West were not just overland. Many of the same goods that moved across Eurasia by caravans also moved along the coasts by ship. And these Silk Roads maritime routes have a fascinating history of their own.
Shown here is a "Portuguese" carpet woven in Persia or India at the end of the 16th century and most likely commissioned by European merchants.
Such carpets were woven at a time when Europeans had still only recently begun trading with the East by sea. The carpets are named after their Portuguese-looking ships and sailors which, some observers believe, illustrate the biblical story of Jonah cast overboard and swallowed by a whale.
Just how and when the vast chain of sea-trading links connecting the western and eastern worlds got started is impossible to known. But by the time of the Romans, it was already well established. The sea-trade ran across the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean, and up the rim of the Pacific using a variety of boats suited to local conditions.
The Romans' galleys and bathtub-shaped sailing ships went only as far east as Alexandria, at the landlocked end of the calm sea they called Mare Nostrum. There, they picked up goods transported overland from the Red Sea, which had much rougher sailing conditions altogether.
The Red Sea, and beyond that the Indian Ocean, was the world of Arab dhows.
They were rigged to sail tightly against the wind as well as before it, so they could hug the ocean coastline and minimize the risk of going far out to sea. The dhows connected Arabia with Persia and India and went as far as the Malay Peninsula.
Beyond the Malay Peninsula, still another world began, that of ocean-going Chinese junks. They too, could run against the wind or before it, but they were much bigger than dhows and could stand very heavy seas without being swamped. They connected Southeast Asia with China's main ports of Canton and, farther north, Hangzhou.
What did this ancient trading network, which remained virtually unchanged until European ships moved east a thousand years later, carry?
The most important goods of all were spices, which were highly valued by people across Eurasia. The spices were prized as luxurious flavorings for food, as the most effective ingredients of contemporary medicines, and as perfumes for secular, medicinal and religious use.
The spices were cultivated in Arabia (cinnamon and frankincense), in India (pepper and sugar) and in the islands of Indonesia (nutmeg, mace, and cloves). The variety of spices traded was staggering, with just the four biggest being pepper, cinnamon, ginger and saffron but also including such items as galangal, which only recently has become known again in the West thanks to Thai cuisine.
But spices were far from the only things traded by sea. So, too, were silks, ceramics, cast iron objects and, one can almost certainly assume, oriental carpets.
Over the centuries, many of the East's greatest carpet-producing courts, including those of the Safavid and Mughal Empires, had access to both land and sea-trading routes thanks to their Indian Ocean ports.
The sea often could offer merchants a surer and safer way than roads to get their products to distant markets.
On land, the Silk Roads crossed some of the highest mountains in the world, passed through a multitude of tax-hungry fiefdoms and kingdoms, and required that pack animals get regular fodder and rest.
But on the sea, things could be easier. The captain of a dhow with crew of ten men could use the monsoon winds to make the round trip from the Red Sea to India in 18 months and carry a cargo of twenty to fifty tons. All along the way he could use ports that were in the hands of Muslim rulers who shared a common interest in trade and where traders spoke Arabic as their lingua franca.
Here is a photo of an Arab dhow built in last century but whose design, using wooden planks held together with ropes rather than nails to better survive crashes against coastal rocks, is centuries' old.
The eastern sea routes, and particularly the spice trade, were so profitable that any nations that controlled them could be assured of vast riches. But no single power tried to monopolize them until the rise of Europe's great maritime powers in the 15th century.
Those powers were far away on Europe's Atlantic coast and resented the costly chain of brokers connecting them with the eastern trade. They dreamed of becoming direct participants themselves but for centuries had no way of doing so.
Ironically, their moment came when Europe in general began to learn more about the geography of Eurasia by traveling the Silk Road land routes.
During the Pax Mongolica of the 13th and 14th centuries, when travel on the Silk Road was safest, the first European travelers since Alexander the Great reached India and Marco Polo went as far as China. The tales they brought back inspired the Portuguese to look for route to India south around Africa and the Spanish for a route across the Atlantic.
In 1497, just five years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic to discover the New World, the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama sailed with four ships past the Cape of Good Hope and began feeling his way up the east coast of Africa. In the African-Arab trading port of Malindi (near Mombasa) he found a local navigator to guide him across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and its huge entrepots of pepper.
For the expedition, Da Gama used the kind of ocean-going caravel that both the Portuguese and the Spanish favored for their early voyages of discovery. It has a shallow draft to chart unknown waters, can sail with or against the wind, and has cargo space for voyages of up to a year.
After Da Gama's success, a larger Portuguese expedition with 13 ships followed and, when the six surviving ones returned to Lisbon laden with pepper in 1501, it was clear to all of Europe that the world would never be the same. Paul Freedman, author the 2008 book Out of the East, Spices and the Medieval Imagination, quotes Venice's envoy in Portugal giving this typical reaction of the time:
"If this routes continues – and it already appears to me easy to accomplish – the king of Portugal might be called the king of money … the entire city [of Venice] remains astonished that in our day such a new route would be discovered, never known or heard of by our ancestors," the envoy, Priuli, wrote.
The Portuguese were able to swiftly dominate the Indian Ocean trade because they had superior firepower and, in Freedman's words, "a willingness, even eagerness, to use force." Fresh from wars with the Moors, they hoped to drive Muslim traders entirely from the sea trade.
Portugal did not have the resources to do that, but it did set up its own trading network that eventually extended from Brazil to Macau on the Chinese coast and other Atlantic powers soon followed suit.
Pictured here is the Basilica Bom Jesus, a Portuguese church erected in Goa, on the west coast of India, which was Lisbon's headquarters in the East.
Curiously, the one world power that could have pre-empted Europe's domination of the sea routes never did so. That was China, which itself sent a huge fleet of war and cargo ships into the Indian Ocean in seven expeditions beginning in 1405 – almost a century before Portugal rounded Africa.
The expeditionary fleets, commanded by Admiral Zheng He, dwarfed Portugal's first voyages of discovery in every respect. His first expedition included 317 vessels and the largest of the ocean-going junks – the treasure ships -- had nine masts on their 122-meter-long (400-foot-long) decks. By contrast, the largest of Da Gama's ships had four masts and was about 30.5 meters (100 feet)long.
This picture shows the relative scale of a treasure ship and a European vessel like those of Da Gama and Columbus.
The Chinese expeditions carried silks, porcelain, and spices and were intended to display the splendor and power of the new Ming dynasty. The expeditions went as far as Persia, Arabia and down the east coast of Africa, and states and leaders that recognized Ming supremacy and offered tribute were rewarded with diplomatic recognition and trading rights.
But the Chinese fleets, which carried artisans, scholars and naturalists as well as sailors and troops, were never about monopolizing trade. Rather they were sent out to explore the world and acquaint it with the Mings. After the last expedition in 1433, China's rulers began to regard the expeditions as too costly and no longer useful. They were confident trade would always flow to China anyway as the Center of the World.
China's approach to sea trade did not change the world, but Europe's did. The Europeans' trading outposts became colonies and their wooden sailing ships evolved into giant ocean steamships. The seas became crisscrossed by ever more vessels, laying the foundations for today's globalized world economy.
These days, there is no doubt that oriental carpets, along with many other goods once traded along the Silk Roads, move west by both sea and land. Most of the handmade carpets exported to Europe arrive at Germany's port of Hamburg, from which many are shipped on to the United States.
The ocean-going carpets are memorialized in Hamburg by one of the few public monuments to the carpet trade that exists in the world today. It is a bridge covered with a stone mosaic in the pattern of a Persian carpet and it lies in the heart of the port's old warehouse district, the Speicherstadt. (For more see: Carpet Made of Stone Honors Hamburg As Europe's Oriental Rug Port.)
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