Life along the Silk Road: Second Edition (Paperback)

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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


In this long-awaited second edition, Susan Whitfield broadens her exploration of the Silk Road and expands her rich and varied portrait of life along the great pre-modern trade routes of Eurasia. This new edition is comprehensively updated to support further understanding of themes relevant to global and comparative history and remains the only history of the Silk Road to reconstruct the route through the personal experiences of travelers.

In the first 1,000 years after Christ, merchants, missionaries, monks, mendicants, and military men traveled the vast network of Central Asian tracks that became known as the Silk Road. Whitfield recounts the lives of twelve individuals who lived at different times during this period, including two characters new to this edition: an African shipmaster and a Persian traveler and writer during the Arab caliphate. With these additional tales, Whitfield extends both geographical and chronological scope, bringing into view the maritime links across the Indian Ocean and depicting the network of north-south routes from the Baltic to the Gulf.

Throughout the narrative, Whitfield conveys a strong sense of what life was like for ordinary men and women on the Silk Road, the individuals usually forgotten to history. A work of great scholarship, Life along the Silk Road continues to be both accessible and entertaining.

About the Author

Susan Whitfield runs the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, which provides online access to hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, and archaeological artifacts from the eastern Silk Road. The author of numerous books and articles on the Silk Road and China, Whitfield travels widely in the region and curates relevant exhibitions. She lectures and teaches worldwide.

Praise For…

"A more completely reconstructed Silk Road and more colorfully depicted stories."

"Whitfield’s biographical summaries neatly contextualize a range of social, religious, and geo-political perspectives."
— Bulletin of the Asia Institute

Product Details
ISBN: 9780520280595
ISBN-10: 0520280598
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication Date: March 25th, 2015
Pages: 312
Language: English