Cross Cultural Exchanges on the Silk Roads

Prologue: Since earliest times, human societies have traded with each other; however before the classical era, long distance travel was risky. Although many societies policed their own realms relatively effectively; trade from one society to another often ran the risk of interception by bandits or pirates. The risk necessarily increased the cost of trade.

Changes in this system developed during the Classical Era. Rulers made substantial investments in the construction of roads and bridges. They were built primarily for military and administrative purposes; but trade benefited also. Also, with the growth of large imperial states, many large states bordered each other. Gone were the vast uncontrolled regions of the past. Alexander the Great had brought Hellenistic and Indian societies into contact with each other; and only a few small buffer states stood between the Romans and the Parthian Empire. The end result was that merchants no longer faced the risks of long distance trade; the cost of that trade dropped, and its volume increased dramatically.

Trade Networks of the Hellenistic Era: The colonies established by Alexander and the Seleucids had been set up as military establishments; but they soon drew large numbers of Greek merchants and bankers who linked the areas to the homeland in the Mediterranean. The rulers of the Seleucid Empire, who controlled access to the markets of India; worked to promote trade. The Ptolemies of Egypt also promoted trade, not only by land but also by sea. They were responsible for removing pirates from the sea lanes which linked the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Their primary port was Alexandria, although they constructed several others.

Ptolemaic mariners learned about the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean which blow from the southwest in the summer and the northeast in the winter. Knowledge of these winds allowed them to travel reliably to all parts of the Indian Ocean basin. They simply departed port when the winds were favorable, and scheduled return trips when the winds blew in the opposite direction. Maintaining trade routes was expensive, requiring substantial investment in military forces, construction, and government administration; however it paid off quite well. Economic development between Hellenistic realms was stimulated, and everyone benefited. Hellenistic rulers supervised foreign trade and taxed it, which provided income even from foreign products.

Spices, gems, and pearls from India traveled by caravan and ship to cities in the Mediterranean; while Mediterranean wine and olive oil as well as jewelry and works of art were shipped to Persia and the East. Slaves were another commodity which was traded briskly. Most slaves were either kidnapped or were prisoners of war.

The Silk Roads: As classical empires expanded and order was restored to the major Empires of the world, merchants and travelers created a network that linked Eurasia and North Africa which is commonly called the Silk Roads. Caravans traveled from China to the Roman Empire. It split into two branches that skirted the dangerous deserts of Eurasia, reunited in Bactria, and continued across northern Iran. Form there it joined ports on the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Aside from land roads, the Silk Roads also included sea routes which traveled from China to Ceylon and India and from there to the Mediterranean. Goods traveled on the road included silk and spices from China and India; Spices (cloves, nutmeg, mace and cardamom) from southeast Asia, Ginger and cinnamon from China; pepper, ivory, cotton textiles, pearls, coral and Sesame Oil from India.

Spices were very much in demand not only as flavoring agents but because they were believed to also have medicinal properties. Some were believed to be aphrodisiacs. Silk came primarily from China, as silkworm cultivators and weavers there had learned the technique of producing high quality silk fabrics. No one else had mastered the art.

Government embassies often traveled the silk roads together with merchants. A number of embassies from India visited Roman Emperors; and in 97 C.E. a Chinese ambassador named Gang Ying traveled as far as Mesopotamia. He would have traveled further; but he was advised that the journey from that point would be long and dangerous, so he turned back. Chinese sources report that in 166 C.E. a delegation claiming to represent the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius arrived there. After Roman Emperors annexed Egypt into their empire, Roman merchants frequently traded by sea with India. A Greek geographer, Strabo, reported that as many as 120 ships left the Red Sea for India.

Most long distance trade was conducted in stages, rather than across the entire length of the roads. Merchandise was passed from merchant to merchant and traded down the line until it ultimately reached those active in the farther reaches.

By the first century, C.E., silk garments were items of high fashion in Rome and pepper, cinnamon, and other spices were on the dinner tables of the wealthy. The attraction was so great that many worried that excessive spending on luxury items might bankrupt the Empire. This never happened: in fact the long distance trade appears to have stimulated local economies.

Cultural and Biological Exchanges: Aside from the merchants and government emissaries; missionaries and other travelers traversed the silk roads, and brought with them their beliefs, values, and religious convictions. Sadly, disease also traveled the roads and caused devastating epidemics among populations who had no immunity. Epidemic diseases caused tremendous declines in populations, particularly in China and the Mediterranean; but no part of the road was left unaffected.

Buddhism: Buddhism was well established in Northern India by the third century B.C.E. With the sponsorship of Ashoka, it traveled to Bactria and Ceylon. It was very successful in converting merchants who carried their faith with them. As a result, Buddhism traveled to Iran, central Asia, China, and Southeast Asia. It first established itself in Oasis towns where merchants stopped for food, rest, and some markets. The oases depended heavily on trade, and allowed merchants to build monasteries there which invited monks to the community. Since the Oases hosted people of various cultures, religions and languages, they soon became quite cosmopolitan. By the second century C.E., many residents of the Oasis towns accepted Buddhism which soon became the most prominent faith on the silk roads. From there, it spread to central Asia and China. Nomadic peoples visiting the Oasis towns to trade and buy grain for their animals often found the religion intriguing, and were largely responsible for its spread throughout central Asia.

The earliest Buddhists in China were foreign merchants who practiced their faith in enclaves which they occupied. It remained a faith largely of expatriates and foreigners and did not appeal to the Chinese; however the presence of monasteries and missionaries led to Chinese converts. Many Chinese responded enthusiastically about the fifth century C.E. It soon became the most popular religious faith throughout East Asia, including Japan, Korea, as well as China. Merchants on the silk roads and sea lanes also carried the religion to Southeast Asia, including java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula; as well a present day Cambodia and Vietnam. Rulers of these Southeast Asian states called themselves rajas ("kings") in the custom of Indian Rulers; and adopted Sanskrit as a means of written communication. Many rulers converted to Buddhism while others promoted the Hindu cults of Vishnu and Shiva.

Christianity: Roman officials during the early centuries launched a campaign to stamp out the religion. Christians refused to observe state cults which honored the Emperors as divine, which led Roman officials to conclude that the Christians were irreligious. The zealousness of Christian missionaries who often attacked other religions as false often caused violent conflict with the followers of those other religions, which led Roman authorities to crack down on its followers. The Emperor Diocletian mercilessly persecuted them, executing them wholesale. This was in stark contrast to the earlier Roman policy of toleration of different religions. The exclusivity of Christian belief and the zeal with which its followers pursued it led the Romans to conclude that it was a menace which must be eliminated. Perhaps the greatest persecutor of Christians was Nero, the cruelest of the Emperors. Rome burned during his rule, and although he himself was suspected of beginning the fire; he quickly blamed the Christians for starting it. Many were covered with pitch and tied to stakes which were burned in Nero’s garden for evening lamps.

Still, many Christian missionaries took the example of Paul of Tarsus and worked zealously to gain converts. One of the more famous was Gregory the Wonderworker, who had a reputation for performing miracles. He popularized Christianity in Anatolia, and aside from preaching also reportedly cast out demons, moved boulders, and even diverted a river about to flood. Gregory’s work made Christianity enormously powerful throughout the Empire. Despite official efforts to eradicate it, Christian communities grew and flourished throughout the empire.

As it grew within the Empire, it also traveled the silk roads into Mesopotamia, Iran, and even India. The religion did not dominate these areas as it had the Roman Empire, but it did attract large numbers of converts. They remained a major religion in the area, even after the rise of Islam which displaced many older religions.

Christians in Southwest Asia wished to demonstrate utter loyalty to their faith. To do so, they often abstained from sex, refused fine foods or other comforts, and often withdrew from family and society. They were no doubt influenced by other Eastern religions which had emphasized contemplation. The practice of these Christians had a profound affect on religion within the Roman Empire. By the third century, C.E., many Christians in the empire abandoned society and lived as hermits in the deserts or mountains. Others moved into communities of like minded individuals who devoted their time and efforts to prayer and praise to God. These practices helped to inspire the practice of Christian monasticism in Europe.

Christians in the Mediterranean basin and in Southwest Asia parted company about the fifth century, C.E. Those in Asia became Nestorians, followers of a Greek theologian known as Nestorius who emphasized the human rather than the divine nature of Jesus. His views were rejected by Western Christians and many of his disciples left for Iran and Mesopotamia. They established prominent Christian communities and a strong church framework. They had limited contact with the Western church, but spread their religion along the silk roads. They soon established communities in Asia, India, and China.

Manichaeism: Manichaeism was a Zoroastrian religion founded by a prophet named Mani (216 – 272 C.E.) who was influenced by Buddhism and Christianity. He considered Jesus the prophet of the Mediterranean world; Buddha the prophet of India; and Zarathustra as the prophet of Persia. He saw a need for a prophet of all humanity that would blend these three religions and serve the needs of an increasingly cosmopolitan world. To him, the world was a constant struggle between light and dark; good and evil. Light he associated with spiritual awareness, and darkness with the material world. He encouraged his followers to seek the light and abandon worldly pleasures.

Mani insisted his disciples follow strict moral standards. Devout Manichaeans were known as the "elect." They abstained from marriage, sex, meat, rich foods, fine clothing, or any other personal comforts; rather they dedicated themselves to a life of prayer and fasting. Those who were not so zealous were known as "hearers," and also followed a strict moral code; but not as strict as the elect. Among the other deeds they were to perform was to provide food and gifts to keep the elect functioning.

Mani began his own church, and was its best missionary; carrying its message to Mesopotamia and later to the Sasanid empire and the eastern Mediterranean. The religion appealed to many because it offered an explanation for the presence of good and evil in the world; and also offered the means for one to achieve salvation and work to help good triumph over evil. Merchants were especially drawn to the religion, and supported it. By 200 C.E., Manichaean churches were all over the Roman Empire.

The religion soon came into conflict with other religions which opposed it. The Zoroastrians considered it a threat to public order, and urged the Sasanids to suppress it. Mani died in chains as a prisoner of the Sasanid emperor. The religions origins in the Sasanid Empire made it suspect to the Romans who also suppressed it. It eventually was exterminated from the Mediterranean basin, but survived in central Asia. It also relied on the trade routes of the silk roads to extend its influence.