Comparative culture

Silk Road



Prelude to the Silk Road


1. The routes of Alexander the Great and Zhang Qian. Bactria in now northern Afghanistan was the hub of transcontinental traffic.


Peoples had been interacting and trading with each other in prehistoric times. An evidence of exchange among peoples of the great Eurasian steppe is the common form of the “cosmic deer” that decorated pole tops and other standards. The oldest relic recovered is the 2400-2000 BCE bronze stag, from Alaca Hüyük, Anatolia. The fourth century BCE tomb at Pazyryk yielded a reindeer with outsized antler. Several specimen of similar vintage were found in tombs of northern China, especially the Ordos region (left two). The gold figurine with the most ornate antler is from Nalin gaotu, Shenmu county, Shaanxi.



In the fifth century BCE, today’s Afghanistan was a part of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. Persian influence is testified by the Oxus treasure, a horde of artifacts excavated besides the River Oxus (Amu Darya). Bactria, the land with a thousand cities, was especially prosperous.


2. Persian gold chariot figerines recovered besides the Amu Darya.


Then, In 329 BCE, Alexander the Great came to Transoxiana, land beyond the River Oxus. Here he adopted Persian ceremonies and found his only Queen, Roxane. Here he met also his fiercest resistance. Besides locals, his enemies also include Scythians, nomads of the steppe.


Soon after Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his empire split into three kingdoms: Macedon, Egypt, and the Seleucids in the east. Since the mid third century BCE, the Seleucids came under the pressure of the Parthians, a semi-nomadic people from the northeast who, led by the house of Arsacid, gradually took over now Iran, then Iraq, until they set up their winter capital Ctesiphon south of today’s Baghdad in 141 BCE. The Parthian Empire lasted until 224 CE, when it was overthrew by the Sassanid Persians, descendent of the Persian Empires destroyed by Alexander.


The Greeks who remained in Central Asia established the kingdom of Bactria and spread Hellenic culture. Nevertheless, they were not immune to native influences. In Ai Khanum, at the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, archeologists uncovered the ruin of a third-century Greek city complete with Corinthian colonnades and a large gymnasium. Its artifacts, for example the ceremonial silver plate showing the Greek goddess Cybele on a lion-drawn chariot before an stepped Asian-style alter, expressed the blending of cultures.



3. Silver plate showing eclectic influences recovered in Ai Khanum.


Meanwhile, events were accelerating at the eastern and western ends of Eurasia. In 221 BCE, when Rome’s toughest enemy Hannibal took command of the Carthaginian army, Qin unified China by conquering six states that had been warring with it and each other for centuries. In 215 BCE, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty expelled the nomadic Xiongnu from regions south of the long walls built by the former states. However, even reinforced walls could not prevent the Xiongnu from overrunning much territory during the anarchy that followed the Qin’s collapse in 206 BCE. The Han Dynasty, which succeeded the Qin, bought partial peace by paying tribute and presenting princesses to the Xiongnu for more than seven decades.


The Xiongnu had emerged as a steppe power in the third centuries BCE by integrating semi-autonomous nomadic tribes into a federation. Among its victims was the Yuezhi, whose rich pastures north of the Qilian Range the Xiongnu annexed. Fleeing west, the Yuezhi drove the Sai people from the Ili Valley, but had to run themselves when their old enemies came after them in 162 BCE. The Xiongnu made the skull of their king into a drinking cup and the Wusun, their former neighbor in the Qilian, took over Ili. Kicked out again, the Yuezhi swept south through Transoxiana. Known as Tokhari in western sources, the Yuezhi were among the best known of the nomads who took Bactria from the Greeks. They attacked the Greeks in the 130s BCE and overran Bactria in the following decades. The Kushan Empire they founded, which extended into present Pakistan and northern India, lasted until 225.


The Han, too, came after the Yuezhi, but as an ally. Wudì, who acceded the throne in 140 BCE at age seventeen, decided that China had suffered enough humiliation from the Xiongnu. He dispatched Zhang Qian to seek the Yuezhi for an anti-Xiongnu alliance. Zhang fell into the hands of the Xiongnu, who pressed on Han territory on the north and northwest. Escaping after ten years’ detention and making his way through Ferghana and Sogdiana in today’s Uzbekistan, he reached the Yuezhi north of the Oxus in 128 BCE, but was disappointed to find them happily lording over the Bactrian Greeks, with no intention to cooperate with the distant Han and settle their grudge against the terrible Xiongnu. Nevertheless, he brought back something most valuable, intelligence about western countries. Based on them, the Han formulated a strategy to augment military operations with diplomatic and economic efforts aimed to deprive the Xiongnu of the support and resources of these countries. Zhang Qian led a large team on his second western mission, laden with gold and gifts. Parthia received a Chinese envoy and returned an embassy in 113 BCE. A few years later, the first silk-bearing caravan arrived from the east via Bactria.


The Romans invaded Parthia in 53 BCE. Their army led by Crassus was annihilated in the battle of Carrhae at the upper Euphrates. Here the Romans first encountered nomadic mounted archers. From their experience of horsemen at full gallop shooting backward at their pursuers came the idiom “Parthian shot” as the ultimate putdown. Some say the legions were also amazed by Parthian banners made of silk. Whether it is true or not, silk did reach the Mediterranean around this time.