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Useful Notes / The Silk Road

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The Silk Road's major routes, and the merchandise that was available at each stop. See the image at full resolution here.

"But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
Rejoicing, through the hushed Chorasmian waste,
Under the solitary moon: — he flowed
Right for the polar star, past Orgunjè,
Brimming, and bright, and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcelled Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles—
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain-cradle in Pamere,
A foiled circuitous wanderer: — till at last
The longed-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge, and shine upon the Aral Sea."
Sohrab and Rustam, by Matthew Arnold
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The Silk Road is a name given by the Adventurer Archaeologist Ferdinand von Richthofen (the uncle of guess who) to the overland luxury trade routes between China and the Mediterranean. It was not a "road" per se; more like a "web", a web that shifted to and fro, as natural, economic and political circumstances favored one route above another. Its name came from the Chinese silk traded along the road, which was more valued then any silk manufactured at the time. There were other goods transported along the way, such as jade, glass, porcelain, horses, spices, and what not. In fact, from China's point of view, it might be called the "jade route", as Chinese for a long time valued jade as much as westerners valued silk. Ideas and customs were also carried back and forth along the routes. For instance, Greek colonies descended from veterans of the army of Alexander the Great have left traces of merging of Oriental and Occidental art forms. From the other direction, "Arabic" (actually Indian) numerals, both by the Indian Ocean commerce and through the Silk Road were carried largely by Islamic traders (the reason for the name "Arabic") to the west. On the whole, the Silk Road was inclined toward the desert and mountain areas of Central Asia because, hazardous as those were, they were usually less hazardous than the steppes riddled with constant clan wars among the nomads dwelling there.

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Few traders actually went all the way across. Not only were the perils great, but the tariffs charged by each prince along the way mounted up until they became unaffordable, not least because there were few occasions in which the entire route was ruled by one empire; in normal times, each petty prince got a piece of the action, so to speak. Thus, the trade along the Silk Road naturally formed a sort of relay system where one trader would sell to another, and so on taking his own cut at the end of his journey. The Silk Road, like much of Central Asia, resembled an "ocean" in which each city was an "island". The names of the cities have become famous in romance and poetry and are well remembered, names like Samarkand, Bactria, Kashgar, and so on. The Silk Route also isn't limited to land.

The end of the Silk Road as remembered in the past came when the Cape of Good Hope was circumvented by the Portuguese and the luxury products from China could be gotten cheaper. Much of the Silk Route declined. Still, to this day, it is a notable trade route and caravans frequently cross. Usually with trucks instead of camels, but often carrying the same kind of goods as their ancestors. Currently, China's "Belt and Road Initiative" aims to create modern Silk Roads.

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A number of famous people had part of their lives associated with the Silk Road. These include, but are not limited to Alexander the Great, Fitzroy Maclean, Genghis Khan, Gustav Mannerheim, and most famously of all Marco Polo.

Works associated with the Silk Road:

Historical:

  • The Silk Road: A History, by Irene Franck and David Brownstone
  • To the Ends of the Earth by Irene Franck and David Brownstone
  • The Great Game series by Peter Hopkirk

Memoir:

Fiction:

  • The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio takes place in a setting rather like the Silk Road and seems to have allusions which might be caught by someone familiar with the history of the area.
  • The Silk Road was simulated in Crusader Kings II, starting from the Horse Lords expansion. It depicts the trade routes as "streams"; wars that erupt "upstream" will interrupt the flow of trade downstream, and streams which are unaffected by wars can see increases in trade volume as trade is diverted away from warring areas. To take advantage of the routes, owners of counties where the routes pass through can build trading posts (previously, only patricians can build trading posts and only in coastal counties). Ambitious (or pragmatic) rulers would often try to bring as many counties along the routes under their (or loyal vassals') control.
  • The early (and sadly lost) Doctor Who story "Marco Polo" sees The First Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbra accompany the titular explorer on his expedition.
  • Where A Bride's Story takes place along.
  • The Old World of Darkness supplement Blood & Silk, which attempts to connect Kindred of the East to Dark Ages: Vampire by way of the Road.
  • Appear as a mechanic in Crusader Kings' expansion Horse Lords and Jade Dragon. The road will start as China and Tibet, crossing the steppes, India, Persia and ending in the Levant. There's major focus in fighting for the major trade posts which give substantial wealth.

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