The Silk Road — Doctor George Clark — 10th March 2014

The words, ‘The Silk Road’ some­how con­jured up images in my mind of Marco Polo’s travels to Cathay, trav­el­ling across the Himalayas on ele­phants. Nothing could be fur­ther from the truth as Doctor George Clark explained.  He is an expert on the sub­ject and has trav­elled part of the route, going from West to East, from Issykul Lake to Tash Rabat.

The route was star­ted in about 220 BC by the Han Dynasty and is some 4000 miles long, stretch­ing from China to the Mediterranean. Whilst silk was a very luc­rat­ive product from China, other goods were traded along the route as well, namely jade, col­oured glass, horses,  roses, rhu­barb, peas, peaches, oranges, camel­lias, paper, and reli­gion to men­tion just a few. It was very import­ant because it was the only route from China to the Mediterranean and Europe.

The route was not a single trail but con­sisted of sev­eral tracks as shown in the accom­pa­ny­ing map and took the trav­el­ler through very extreme con­di­tions. At times the routes went through hot, unfor­giv­ing desserts and at others over very high moun­tains where trav­el­lers could quite easily freeze to death. Only mis­sion­ar­ies trav­elled the whole route, normal traders would only cover a few hun­dred miles, buying and selling goods at vari­ous cara­van serai

Silk route 2

There was always the danger of being attacked by ban­dits on the road, so traders used to travel in groups, or cara­vans and at vari­ous point along the routes there would be ‘Caravan Serais’, which were safe places  for rest­ing and feed­ing.

Temujin, who became Genghis Khan and  foun­ded the Mongol Empire by unit­ing the nomadic tribes of North East Asia,  conquered most of cent­ral Asia and China, making it the largest empire in his­tory. He real­ised the value of the silk road and sta­tioned sol­diers reg­u­larly along the route to keep it safe.

In 751 AD the Muslims defeated the Chinese at the battle of Talas and brought back the secrets of paper and silk making to the Middle East, which spread from there  to Europe. In 1514 the Portuguese reached China by sea and a new sea route was opened caus­ing the ‘Silk Road’ to decline. Many of the cara­van serai became buried in sand and hidden; only to be redis­covered by 19th cen­tury European Explorers who plundered the arte­facts from the route.

Many of the treas­ures can now be found in the British Museum and other well-known west­ern museums. Needless to say China is keen to reclaim them.

It was another riv­et­ing talk by Doctor George Clark and we will be keen to invite him again.