The Silk Roads: Ch 1 Summary (1st Half) - Day 38

Chapter 1: “The Creation of The Silk Road”

(Total pages in chapter: 26, Summary Count: Pages 1-10)

(Credits - Amazing Iran)

The Glorious Persian Empire
The Persian Empire is one of the greatest empires to have come out of the ‘Fertile Crescent’, a band of productive land extending from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Coast. The empire expanded in the 6th century BC from currently Southern Iran to Egypt, and all the way East to the Himalayas. Their success is greatly owed to their openness to adopt foreign customs, as Greek historian Herodotus wrote: “The Persians were prepared to abandon their own style of dress when they concluded that the fashions of a defeated foe were superior, leading them to borrow styles from the Medes as well as from the Egyptians.”

This openness helped the Persians develop a highly sophisticated administration that incorporated different peoples, overseen by a highly educated bureaucracy. They also oversaw the repair and maintenance of a road system that was the envy of the ancient world. Connecting the coast of Asia Minor with Babylon, Susa and Persepolis, this road enabled a distance of over 1600 miles to be covered in just a week, and neither snow, rain, hear or darkness could slow down the speedy transmission of messages across this road.

Persians were famous for their love of pleasure; King Darius built a magnificent palace using the highest quality ebony and silver from Egypt, cedar from Lebanon, fine gold from Bactria, lapis and cinnabar from Sogdiana, turquoise from Khwarezm and ivory from India. Next to commercial wealth, Persia also had an aggressive army that not only helped extend its frontiers but also helped defend against the ferocious (barbarians) nomads of the steppes (from Central Asia to Mongolia). At this time, Greek commanders would look East with a combination of fear and respect, seeking to learn from the Persians’ tactics on the battlefield and to adopt their technology.

Alexander the Great Moves East
Alexander of Macedon, tutored by Aristotle, had been looking East since a child in search of glory; not Europe, which offered nothing at all at the time: no cities, no culture, no prestige, no reward. In 321 BC, Alexander famously defeated the vastly superior Persian army led by Darius III on the dry plains of Gaugamela (now Iraqi Kurdistan). In a short amount of time, Alexander gained access to all the major points the linked the cities of the Persian Empire (on the Royal Road) as well as the communication network that connected the coast of Asia Minor with Central Asia.

Alexander showed tolerance and respect for the newly conquered territories. Local officials and old elites were left to administer towns that were conquered, and Alexander himself took to wearing local Persian clothing. He founded quite a few new cities in the process, mostly named after himself, such as modern day Herat, Kandahar and Bagram.

In 323 BC, Alexander died at 32 years old in Babylon, as did his unending military conquests. Following his death, Selecus became the governor of the conquered lands forming a dynasty called the Seleucid, which would rule for the next three centuries.

Hellenization started in the next few decades, as themes and symbols from the Ancient Greece entered the East. For example, the coins in the major towns followed the Greek pattern of having an image of the current rules with ringlets held by a diadem, looking rightward as Alexander had done. The Greek language was heard and seen all over Central Asia and the Indus Valley, used by officials on tax receipts, documents and such. Statues of Buddha started to be made for the first time (in the Gandhara Valley - modern day Pakistan), inspired by the cult of Apollo, when no statues of images of Buddha had been ever made before. Greek theology was taught as far as India, young men in Persia were brought up reading Homer and the Greek language was being taught in the Indus Valley. Ideas, themes, and stories coursed through the highways, spread by travelers, merchants and pilgrims.

China’s Expansion Links Asia
Under the ambitious Han dynasty in China (206 BC to AD 220), waves of expansion pushed frontiers, eventually reaching a province then called Xiyu (western regions), but today known as Xinjiang (new frontierland). A crossroads converged at Kashgar, a junction point of the Himalayas, the Pamir mountains, the Tien Shan range and the Hindu Kush.

The expansion of China linked Asia together: horse trade with the nomadic tribes of the steppes kept the routes to Central Asia open. Horses from Xinjiang were especially prized and selling them could make fortunes for tribal chieftains. The Chinese regularly dispatched envoys to visit the nomads of the steppes (known to them as the Xiongnu), to ask after their supreme leader, and pay tributes to these barbaric tribes, rather than risk attacks on their cities by them.

Many luxury gifts were given to these tribal elders but the most important item that was given was silk, treasured by the nomads for its texture and its lightness as lining for bedding and clothing. It was also a sign of political and social power: being dressed in layers of silk was a important way for the tribe’s supreme leader to show his status. However, it cost China a lot to pay such heavy tributes in thousands of rolls of silk as well as clothing items to the tribes to maintain peace. So the Han rulers finally invaded the agriculturally rich western regions of Xiyu, which drove the nomads back and the Chinese took control of the Gansu corridor in a decade long series of campaigns that ended in 119 BC. To the west lay the Pamir mountains, and beyond them, a new world. China had opened a door leading on to a transcontinental network; it was the moment of the birth of the Silk Roads.

Read the second part of the summary here:

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