Everyone has heard of Marco Polo and his fantastical stories of the Silk Road, but he was only a minor footnote on the history of the Silk Road.
In this wonderful book by Susan Whitfield, she depicts what life is like for twelve different people along the Silk Road, such as a Chinese Government Official, a Uighur Horse Trader, a Buddhist Widow, and a Shipmaster from Axum. Susan Whitfield is almost more of a painter rather than an author, her descriptions of the lives of these ordinary people are so full of detail that it makes you feel as if you are walking in their shoes.
The wide array of geography and characters in these stories makes the reader understand the massive scale that the Silk Road operated on. It required horses, camels, yaks, ships, and a lot of people with different skills over multiple continents doing a variety of services to facilitate the exchange of goods and ideas between the East and the West.
My favorite chapter is about the Sogdian Merchant. Sogdia is in Central Asia, its capital is Samarkand which is in modern day Uzbekistan. Sogdians wore a distinctive conical shaped hat and were excellent traders who dominated the eastern portion of the Silk Road. In the beginning of the 8th century CE, Sogdia was conquered by the Arab Caliphate who continued to push East until they faced off against a Chinese army at the Battle of the Talas River in 751. It is in this year, that the story of the Sogdian Merchant takes place. He talks about his travels over mountains and across deserts, bringing rare gems and other goods with him to China.
The Sogdian Merchant talked about various cities he visited along the Silk Road, being exposed to various cultures, languages, and religions. Of course, he had a favorite restaurant in the Chinese Capital of Chang’an, that was famous for spicy noodles, wine, and dancers. Unfortunately, this would be his last visit to Chang’an. The Arab and Chinese armies would soon face off against one another. The Arabs were victorious, and as a result the Chinese would not allow any more foreigners to conduct business inside of China.
The Arabs brought back to Damascus Chinese prisoners of war who taught the West how to make paper. I believe that paper is one of the most important inventions in human history, and the spread of paper from East to West is the most significant transaction from the Silk Road.— From Cultures