For nearly two thousand years, merchants travelled the Silk Road routes running from China to the West. Their best-known cargo was of course silk, but many other goods were traded between East and West, including wool, carpets and amber from the West, and mirrors, gunpowder, porcelain and paper from China. Merchants travelled in various groups and guises, from humble foot pedlars to huge caravan trains of camels, stretching literally for miles across the horizon. Other beasts of burden included donkeys, horses and yaks.
It was rare to travel the whole of the Silk Road during most periods of history. Bandits, border skirmishes and unreasonable customs officials made it difficult to trek all the way, so merchandise was often transferred from one group of traders to another en route. Many middlemen make for steep prices, so the final selling price of the goods was often hugely above their original cost. The terrain was difficult, often treacherous, involving high mountain passes, deserts, and severe climates. Just the fact of bringing merchandise safely from one country to another was a near miracle. Some groups of people excelled as Silk Road traders, one example being the long-vanished Sogdians of Central Asia, who were said to send their boys out along the Silk Road from the age of five, and were trading on their own account by the age of 12.
Along the way, merchants stayed at caravanserais. These traditionally consisted of a central courtyard, with water for the animals, and store rooms around the sides on the ground floor. Lodging rooms were on the upper floor, and the sturdy doors were firmly locked at night so that the merchants, their goods and beasts could rest safely. Some of these old caravanserais can still be found in Central Asian countries such as Turkey and Syria. They range from smaller, humbler versions to ones which are the size of cathedrals and almost as grand! At the very best caravanserais, there were proper beds, hot and cold water and even their own shops and banking facilities. Merchants preferred their caravanserais to be beyond the city walls, so that they could arrive and leave easily – the authorities preferred them in the town centre for the opposite reason, so that they could collect taxes due from the caravans before they had a chance to leave the district!
Other facilities along the way included ‘service stations’ where locals made a living from catering to travellers’ needs. Merchants carrying costly porcelain knew that they could get any breakages mended in Tashkent, for instance, and thus arrive with their goods at least apparently intact. The trade routes stretched from Xian in eastern China to Byzantium, branching off into practically every country in the Middle East. Some scholars claim that Venice was the final destination of the Silk Route – and some archaeologists even quote the UK as a credible terminus, as Chinese silk has been found in the grave of an Iron Age king.
Merchants traded their goods in the bazaars, which are still a feature of life in the Middle and Far East today. The Great Bazaar in Istanbul, named Kapali Carsi, is said to be the finest example of a medieval bazaar. It began as a small strong room, the Bedestan , built in 1461 and swiftly grew until finally it covered 100 acres, and now has 18 gates and about 4000 shops. All kinds of bargaining behaviour was evolved; complex negotiations might be done simply by hand gestures, carried out beneath the cover of a cloth or shawl to prevent prying eyes from knowing what deals were being struck. Bargaining today remains a key feature of the colourful bazaars of Central Asia and beyond, bazaars which still create fabulous, exotic displays to tempt their customers. The Silk Road no longer exists in the same way today, but its spirit is alive its traders and merchandise.
Read some of the myths and legends from the Silk Road in Stories from the Silk Road – Cherry Gilchrist (Barefoot Books 1999)