Have you ever wished to travel along the Silk Road? To be one of the traders, traveling by horses or camels, fighting the bandits, surviving sand storms and successfully reaching the destination with goods to trade. How would they travel? Where would they stay on the way? And what were the goods they were exchanging?
What is Silk Road?
A number of trading routes, connecting Europe to China are called the Silk Road, although the term is fairly new. These long distance trades were taking place since 1st century B.C till the 15th century A.D. Besides the Silk Road, there are other famous routes such as Spice route, where both China and India were the main destinations. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, pepper and turmeric, along with ancient medicines were transported on the spice routes. Do you know what Iran was doing at the time?
Iran, or so-called Great Persia at the time, was a major actor in the trading route. Silk fabrics were also made in Iran, so Persians would get the material such as silk from the east, and sell the finished product to the westerners. In fact, only quite a few merchants would travel all the way from the Mediterranean to China and get back. The journey would be about 7000 km (4000 miles), and there were many hazards and dangers on the way. Many of them would travel short distances to the next market and exchange their goods and go back. That is why Iran’s location was substantial on the trade routes.
So were they Silk traders?
Not quite. Merchants were transporting all kinds of goods. From China, goods such as silk, tea, precious stones, china and porcelain vessels, spices, medicine, perfumes, ivory, rice, paper and gunpowder were exported. On the other hand western goods such as gold and silver, grapes, domesticated and exotic animals, fur, glassware, Wool, cotton and rugs were entering the country as exchange.
The Ribat-i Sharaf is a caravanserai, or rest place for travellers, located in Razavi Khorasan Province, Iran, between Merv and Nishapur. Built in the 12th century, the building looks like a fortified rectangle from the exterior. The courtyard and four Iwan floorplan is that of the traditional standard Iranian mosque.
How were the merchants traveling?
Most people think that the Silk Road was only through land, and would imagine camel and horse in endless day and night rides. While major routes were inland, there were still important sea lanes in use as well. Interestingly enough, Great Persia was still playing a major role. Skillful sailors were traveling between China, India and the Persian Gulf, so some goods were offloaded at ancient port of Siraf. It is said that residents of Siraf were all Jewish merchants.
From Siraf the goods were transported to different directions, towards important capitals and trading cities such as Persepolis, Susa, Babylon, Merv and Bukhara. Today you can see remains of ancient cities all throughout Iran. Moreover, a northern branch of the secondary routes was crossing through the Caspian Sea. Considering that Merv and Bukhara were part of Great Persia, it is imaginable that the Persian empire was making a fortune for imposing taxes on the trades.
One thing that is noteworthy here is the importance of the Royal Road in ancient Persia. Historians believe that this route was the basis of the silk road. It’s construction goes back to the time of Persia’s famous king, Darius the Great.
He was the fourth king of Achaemenid dynasty and many important construction projects were held during his time. The Royal Road was built from Sardis in the west side of current Turkey all the way to Susa in southwest of Iran in order to have rapid access to the furthest end of the empire.
What can you see if you travel along the Silk Road?
Lots! Remember that merchants would have to travel by camel and horses, they had to travel in groups, called Caravan, and needed to stay somewhere safe, like Caravanserai. You might be surprised to see so many Caravanserais, intact along the main roads in Iran, some of them still functional. Did you know “Caravanserai” is a Persian word? “Caravan” in Persian means a group of travelers and “Sara” is house. Even today, it is possible to stay in some of those ancient caravanserais and rest as the ancient merchants did.
Don’t forget about Bazaars
Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity and its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centres on the Silk Road. Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex consists of a series of interconnected, covered, brick structures, buildings, and enclosed spaces for different functions. Tabriz and its Bazaar were already prosperous and famous in the 13th century, when the town, in the province of Eastern Azerbaijan, became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The city lost its status as capital in the 16th century, but remained important as a commercial hub until the end of the 18th century, with the expansion of Ottoman power. It is one of the most complete examples of the traditional commercial and cultural system of Iran.
Bazaar is a Persian word, meaning market. Almost all historical cities of Iran had a center where the bazaar, the main religious site (jameh mosque) and also hammam (public bath) were located. Today, many of those bazaars are still standing and in use. You can still walk in the bazaar of Kashan, Shiraz, Tabriz or Yazd and time travel in the aroma of spices and leather, accompanied with the sound of coppersmiths’ hammering mixed with the mesmerising mumble of vendors and customers bargaining on goods. Bazaars are also delightful experience for tourists to buy souvenirs.
Last but not least…
The Silk Road was the highway to exchange religions and cultures as well. One of the most significant influences of the Silk Road is Nowruz, the Persian new year which is celebrated in many countries on March 21st each year. Religions such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all used the trading routes to spread the word. Pottery, textile and metalwork techniques and styles also traveled through the Silk Road. Moreover, we can follow the examples of Chinese, Indian, Persian, Greek and Roman influence on the architecture and decorative styles in each country. Even music and dances were taken to the other regions and performances took place at the royal palace or in the civic centers, while local musicians also performed for the merchants as they entered a city. All are examples of a significant cultural exchange.