Silk Road Catalogue Cover

Introduction

Conventionally the Silk Road is treated as a phenomenon of the 1st millennium AD, temporarily interrupted by Genghis Khan in the late 12th / early 13th century and finally dealt the deathblow by the opening of the sea-routes in the 16th century.  This convention is partially accurate in relation to Silk, but woefully inadequate for encompassing the Road along which silk was an important commodity for a time.  The term itself, ‘Silk Road’, was coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen who made seven expeditions to China between 1868 and 1872.  This complex network of trade routes carried much more than silk over millennia – technologies, religions including Buddhism, philosophies, and a continual cross-pollinating exchange of ideas.  Skills and co-operation were required for maintaining trade over a vast area, connecting China, India, Central Asia, Persia, Mesopotamia, Arabia, East Africa, Asia Minor and Southern Europe.

The rare works of art and artefacts in the present catalogue illustrate some of the cultures nurtured by the Silk Road from the 3rd millennium BC through the Mongol-dominated era in the second half of the 2nd millennium AD and the dynasties of the Timurid and Mughals.  Carnelian long-beads from the Indus Valley similar to those shown here (cat. No.1) have been found at the royal cemetery of Ur and further afield in ancient trading centres along the Gulf.  Enterprising traders from the Indus Valley established an outpost at Shortugai in northern Afghanistan to ensure access to the lapis lazuli and turquoise of Badakhshan. 

The ancient land of Bactria lay in the north-west of Afghanistan and stretched out westwards into the steppes of Central Asia.  The region was artistically innovative and diverse, as the objects illustrated here show, dating from the Middle-Late Bronze Age of the 3rd millennium BC to the Hellenistic and later Roman-Gandhara periods of production.  The early immigration from the Kopet Dag and Tejen Oasis system brought irrigation techniques, along with the expertise to exploit the rich mineral lodes of gold, silver, tin, copper, lead and gemstones.  Thereafter these oasis communities were the vital trade link between China, India, Iran and Mesopotamia.  All great civilisations were accessible from Central Asia, and only accessible to each other through Central Asia.

The Chinese presence along the Silk Road became more influential during the Han Dynasty (207 BC–220 AD) as the trade in silk and horses became important.  The extraordinary story of Emperor Wu’s emissary Zhang Qian to the territories of the Yuezhi in Transoxian remains a legend.  Later the Kushan empire (2nd century BC – 3rd century AD) became the pathway of Buddhism to China.  A golden age of the Silk Road opened up under the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD), demonstrating again that dynasties benefited greatly nurturing the ancient trade routes.  Mahmud of Ghazni (971–1030) accumulated wealth through plunder, but because he disrupted and neglected the routes of trades his dynasty became impoverished after him.  The Silk Road flourished, by comparison, under the Pax Mongolica, as Genghis Khan’s descendants rebuilt glittering civilisations on the ruins of those that he had devastated.  The Mongol Empire reached its greatest extent under the rule of Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke Khan (1251–59), whose silver drinking bowl is published in this catalogue (no. 127).  His brother Kubilai established the Yuan dynasty in China, while another brother, Hulagu, destroyed the Caliphate in Baghdad and prowled the shores of the Mediterranean.

The Silk Road did not disappear when the sea-routes opened but its economic role in the world was considerably diminished.  Culturally too it was eclipsed by the spreading influence of European power, although as the Great Game illustrated, the importance of Central Asia remained critical well into the 20th century.  And now, once again, the Chinese initiative ‘One Road One Belt’ is relocating the region for its political and strategic importance, rather than for intellectual, technological and cultural knowledge that it previously transmitted.

Oliver Hoare, 2018