Life along the Silk Road

Life along the Silk Road

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by Susan Whitfield

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In the first 1,000 years after Christ, merchants, missionaries, monks, mendicants, and military men traveled on the vast network of Central Asian tracks that became known as the Silk Road. Linking Europe, India, and the Far East, the route passed through many countries and many settlements, from the splendid city of Samarkand to tiny desert hamlets. Susan… See more details below


In the first 1,000 years after Christ, merchants, missionaries, monks, mendicants, and military men traveled on the vast network of Central Asian tracks that became known as the Silk Road. Linking Europe, India, and the Far East, the route passed through many countries and many settlements, from the splendid city of Samarkand to tiny desert hamlets. Susan Whitfield creates a rich and varied portrait of life along the greatest trade route in history in a vivid, lively, and learned account that spans the eighth through the tenth centuries. Recounting the lives of ten individuals who lived at different times during this period, Whitfield draws on contemporary sources and uses firsthand accounts whenever possible to reconstruct the history of the route through the personal experiences of these characters.

Life along the Silk Road brings alive the now ruined and sand-covered desert towns and their inhabitants. Readers encounter an Ulghur nomad from the Gobi Desert accompanying a herd of steppe ponies for sale to the Chinese state; Ah-long, widow of a prosperous merchant, now reduced to poverty and forced to resort to law and charity to survive; and the Chinese princess sent as part of a diplomatic deal to marry a Turkish kaghan. In the process we learn about women's lives, modes of communication, weapons, types of cosmetics, methods of treating altitude sickness in the Tibetan army, and ways that merchants cheated their customers. Throughout the narrative, Whitfield conveys a strong sense of what life was like for ordinary men and women on the Silk Road--everyone from itinerant Buddhist monks, to Zoroastrians and Nestorian Christians seeking converts among the desert settlers, to storytellers, musicians, courtesans, diviners, peddlers, and miracle-workers who offered their wares in the marketplaces and at temple fairs. A work of great scholarship, Life along the Silk Road is at the same time extremely accessible and entertaining.

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Editorial Reviews

Liya Li
Enlightening new book. . . . recounts the history of the eastern Silk Road, from Samarkand to Chang¹an, through ten individual composites based on the historical record who lived in different city-states along the eastern Silk Road from the 8th to the 10th centuries. Whitfield¹s skillfully crafted tales take readers on a journey back to the heyday of the Silk Road and enable them to relive its people¹s unusual existence.
—(The Bloomsbury review)
Richard Foltz
Wonderfully written and highly evocative. . . . Armchair travelers and historians will certainly enjoy reading it.

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University of California Press
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Older Edition
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.75(d)

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Life along the Silk Road

By Susan Whitfield


Copyright © 2015 Susan Whitfield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96029-9


The Merchant's Tale


The country of Samarkand is about 500 miles in circumference and broader from east to west than from north to south. The capital is six miles or so in circumference, completely enclosed by rugged land and very populous. The precious merchandise of many foreign countries is stored here. The soil is rich and productive and yields abundant harvests. The forest trees afford thick vegetation and flowers and fruit are plentiful. Shen horses are bred here. The inhabitants' skill in the arts and trades exceeds that of other countries. The climate is agreeable and temperate and the people brave and energetic.

XUANZANG, Buddhist Records of the Western World, AD 646

IT WAS THE YEAR 751 by the western calendar, 134 by Islamic reckoning, the second year of the reign of al-Saff ah., the first of the Arabic Abbasid caliphs and the Byzantine Carolingian emperors, and the ninth in the Tianbao (Heavenly Riches) reign period of the Tang-dynasty emperor Xuanzong in China. The merchant Nanaivandak was from Samarkand, a city-state formerly independent but now, since the advance of the Arab-led armies east of the Amu Darya (Oxus river), under the rule of the caliphate. He had traveled for nearly a year from Samarkand, over the towering Pamir mountains, and along the fringes of the Taklamakan desert to Chang'an, the capital of Tang-dynasty China.

Nanaivandak's family hailed from the town of Panjikant, about forty miles east of Samarkand in the region known as Sogdia. The Arab armies coming from the west referred to Sogdia as "the land beyond the Oxus," or Transoxania. Panjikant was at the easternmost edge, tucked in the Zerafshan valley between two fingers of mountains that extruded from the great Pamir ranges to the east. Panjikant was on a small hill and, like all Sogdian cities, was built with thick fortified walls. The land sloped away on the western side of the city to the Zerafshan river, and the snow-capped peaks of the Pamir dominated the southeastern horizon.

The area enclosed within the walls was quite small, little more than thirty acres, and only the ruler, nobles, merchants, and richer tradesmen had their houses there. By Nanaivandak's time, the merchants and landowners lived in large two-story houses, crowded together with vaulted alleys in between. A large double-height audience hall on the ground floor of each house was decorated with murals and woodcarvings and illuminated by a skylight. A staircase led to the living quarters on the second floor. The houses also had a room containing a Zoroastrian fire altar. Small workshops occupied the ground floor facing the main street, and these were rented out to shopkeepers and artisans. There was no space for courtyards, gardens, or parks, and few trees grew within the walls, though the valley floor was criss-crossed with irrigation canals that fed the fields and numerous gardens. The small lanes of the city were crowded and dirty with refuse, and the smell was sometimes unbearable in the summer when the temperature could soar to over 100 º F and the air was still. After a few days, the heat of the unrelenting sun would even scorch the summer grass on the plain, and everyone would long for a rare rainstorm to wash clean the city lanes.

The city did not stop at the walls. A bazaar was held outside the main gate leading west to Samarkand, and the area was always bustling with people and animals. Many languages might be heard at any time, haggling over the silks, spices, stones, and other luxuries that dazzled the senses with their colors and smells. Smaller houses sprawled down the hill and over the valley floor.

Nanaivandak wore distinctive Sogdian clothes: a Phrygian hat, conical with the top turned forward; a knee-length, belted over-jacket of deep-blue silk brocade woven with decorative roundels enclosing two deer facing each other, a Sasanian design (see figure 3); and narrow trousers tucked into calf-length brocade boots with leather soles. His dress and heavily bearded face distinguished him from the Chinese, Turks, and Tibetans in Chang'an's Western Market, but he was not the sole representative of his community in the Chinese capital. The Sogdians were the recognized traders of the eastern Silk Road, and Sogdian communities had existed in all its sizeable towns for several centuries.

Nanaivandak profited handsomely from the sale of his cargo of musk, silverware, and gems in Chang'an, despite having had to pay a considerable bribe to customs officers at the Chinese frontier. Samarkand was a center for trading in gems—rubies, emeralds, and lapis—many of them mined in the mountains to the south, and he was an expert in these. He had traded some of the gems en route for sal ammoniac, manufactured from animal dung, and musk, from the glands of deer in Tibet, and both were in demand in China. He had not intended to carry the bulky silverware but heard from a countryman that there was demand for finely made wares by the Turkic-Sogdian general Rokshan, who was defending China's northeastern border, and so he added a few fine pieces, including a gilt silver ewer with a relief of a Bactrian camel (see figure 4).

Nanaivandak sold these pieces to his agent in the capital, who had already made contact with one of the general's buyers to the northeast. Th rough his agent, Nanaivandak also bought the fine silk beloved of his countrymen and of the Turks who lived on the northern borders of his homeland to whom he would sell it on his return to Samarkand. Some silk would go to the Byzantine court to the west. (The Chinese had been producing silk for many millennia before their neighbors finally mastered the technique of delicately unwinding the gossamer-fine thread from cocoons produced by silkworms reared on the tender young leaves of the white mulberry tree. By Nanaivandak's time, silk was being made by China's neighbors and exported west, but a market still persisted for the Chinese silks.) While Nanaivandak was in Chang'an, Chinese prisoners-of-war captured after a recent clash between the Arabs and the Chinese were being escorted east to Damascus, the site of Arab silk production, where their silk-weaving skills would be exploited. Prisoners from the same battle with paper-making skills were sent to Samarkand, providing the impetus for the transformation of the Arab book, long written on parchment or papyrus.

Nanaivandak had brought with him a piece of unworked lapis lazuli from Bactria that he now took to a Tibetan silversmith to be mounted into a necklace for his wife. Then, having completed his business, he joined his agent and others for an evening of dining and entertainment: there were many fine Sogdian singers and dancers in the restaurants and wineshops of Chang'an. Nanaivandak had been traveling the Silk Road for twenty years and knew the city well.

They went to one of the many restaurants lining the 500-foot-wide avenue leading south from the imperial city. After some discussion about what sort of food they wanted, they chose a place renowned for its spicy noodles, mareteat grape wine, and dancers. Three girls, heavily made-up with elaborate coiffures and smelling of jasmine, leaned over the second-floor balustrade and beckoned them in. Nanaivandak's group removed their shoes and were shown upstairs to the most expensive area of the restaurant. It was divided into compartmentalized seating areas. The floor was covered with reed matting, and they sat on low benches (another Central Asian import to China) at a lacquered table. Waiters appeared with silver trays bearing wine and the delicacies of the house.

Mare-teat grapes were grown in Kocho and made into the finest wine. Both the wine and the grapes were imported into China, the grapes packed with ice into thick leaden containers to keep them fresh. The wine was expensive, but Nanaivandak and his fellow merchants had no trouble affording it with the profits from their trade. Drinking was an accepted part of social life in both Samarkand and Chang'an, and it was not unusual to see parties of drunken men and their attendant courtesans staggering out of the wineshops and restaurants late at night.

After they had eaten their fill, they called for dancers. Two girls appeared to the rapid beating of the musicians' drums and, left hands on hips and their bodies bent slightly like lotus stems, they twirled around, keeping their left legs almost straight and their eyes firmly fixed on the men. They wore tight-sleeved blouses of fine silk and long flowing skirts of gauze, embroidered in many colors and held at their waists with broad silver belts, and peaked hats decorated with golden bells whose jingling provided a contrast to the rhythmic, deep drum beat. The men shouted encouragement and clapped in time with the music, and the girls' red-slippered feet moved more and more quickly. Suddenly the drummers stopped, the girls stood still facing Nanaivandak's table, and both pulled down their blouses from their shoulders to reveal their small breasts. After this, one of the girls sat on Nanaivandak's lap and persuaded him to order more wine, which he drank while fondling her breasts. She was from Chach, and they spoke together in Sogdian, but he was soon too drunk to remember much.

Nanaivandak was a Manichaean, a follower of Mani, the third-century prophet from Babylon, though he did not always strictly adhere to the prohibitions on alcohol. The Manichaeans had once formed a strong community in Sogdia and broke ties with the mother church in Babylonia, later turning their attention to evangelism farther east. They considered Mar Ammo, the disciple of Mani who had brought the faith to Transoxania, as the founder of their sect, and they called themselves "the Pure Ones." By the eighth century, the center of this eastern diocese was Kocho in the northern Tarim, and Manichaean monasteries could be found all the way from Samarkand to Chang'an. The schism with the mother church was healed in the eighth century, and the votaries of the eastern diocese recognized the jurisdiction of Mihr, head of the Babylonian community.

However, by Nanaivandak's time, few of his faith resided in Samarkand and Panjikant. Nanaivandak was brought up as a Zoroastrian but had been converted to Manichaeism by his uncle, who learned about the religion from followers who had fled east to escape persecution in their homeland. Apart from the Zoroastrian and Manichaean communities, there were also communities of Buddhists, Jews, and Nestorian Christians in Panjikant and Samarkand. One of his uncle's friends was a devout Buddhist, though he had brought his faith from India when he settled in Samarkand with the Sogdian wife. However, this friend had since died, and his son, Amoghavajra, had left for China where, the uncle heard, he had become famous as a Buddhist master in the Chinese court. Nanaivandak's uncle was glad the son had left because, since the Arab conquest of Sogdia, Islam had become dominant, and many of his countrymen had already chosen to convert.

Before the advent of the Abbasid caliphate in 750, the Arabs had been ruled by the Umayyad caliphate, their capital the city of Damascus. Their armies had crossed the Amu Darya as early as the 670s, but it was not until the first decades of the eighth century, after a long period of internecine strife, that Arab leaders turned their attention seriously to the east. Thereafter, their armies moved steadily eastward, exploiting rivalries among the kings of the semi-independent city-states to turn their enemies into allies. They reached Samarkand in 712 and besieged the city for a month until the residents were forced to surrender and agree to a peace treaty. Then the Arab armies continued their eastward invasion, reaching Chach and Ferghana, the lands to the northeast of Samarkand, in 713 and 714, respectively.

The land to the north and northeast of Sogdia had long been ruled by alliances of Turkic tribes, sometimes with the support of the Chinese or the Tibetans. In the western part, bordering Sogdia, the Türgesh had taken control at the start of the eighth century and established twenty tribal leaders, called totoks, to rule over the areas that owed allegiance. Their lands extended from Chach eastward along the lands north of the Tianshan mountains into the Dzungarian basin, the southern edge of present-day Mongolia. Each totok could muster several thousand warriors, mounted and armed, and, at the height of their rule in the 720s, the Türgesh could raise 200,000 troops through their totoks. This army was essential for the Türgesh, who were constantly fending off attacks from the west by the Arabs, from the south by Tibetans, and from the east by pretenders to their throne from other Turkic tribes, supported by Chinese troops. Other groups of Turkic tribes had already migrated westward by this time, escaping conflict, and had formed the Khazar and Bulgar states around the Volga river.

When the nomadic Arab nobles reached Transoxania, they were encouraged to settle in these lands and promote Islam. The rewards for conversion were not just spiritual: converts were exempted from the poll tax. Th is inducement proved so tempting that large numbers of Sogdians converted, thereby drastically reducing the tax revenue. In consequence, the exemption was withdrawn, and a new law stipulated that converts also had to be circumcised and were expected to be familiar with Islamic scriptural texts. The changes provoked anger among a population already resentful of their Arab rulers and convinced that the Umayyads protected only the interests of their own aristocratic elite. Between 720 and 722, several major rebellions took place in Sogdia.

Nanaivandak's father and uncle were among the rebels. With the help of their northern neighbors, the Türgesh, the Sogdians succeeded in destroying the Samarkand garrison and driving the Arabs out of the city. The defeated Arab governor, unable to regain control, was replaced by a man infamous for his complaints about the leniency with which his Arab countrymen had treated their Sogdian subjects. Determined to retake the rebel cities, the new governor advanced from the west with a large army, and, realizing that they would probably not be able to hold out, the rebels retreated. Nanaivandak's uncle and his fellow rebels from Samarkand negotiated refuge in the valleys of Ferghana to the east, unaware that the Ferghanan king had already betrayed them. There they were forced to surrender to the Arab army, and most of the nobles and thousands of commoners were executed. A few nobles escaped and fled north to Chach, where they established themselves as an elite corps in the Türgesh army. Otherwise, only 400 merchants, among them Nanaivandak's uncle, survived, spared because of their great wealth, which their captors hoped to exploit. Indeed, loans from Sogdian merchants to the Arabs had made earlier Transoxanian campaigns possible.

Nanaivandak's father had fought with a second band of rebels under Devashtich, the ruler of Panjikant. This group took refuge in the fortress of Mount Mug in the mountains to the southeast of Panjikant and, in the same year, 722, the Panjikant Sogdians advanced to meet the Arab army at a nearby gorge, hoping that geographical advantage would give them victory. But they were heavily defeated, and their ruler was killed. Nanaivandak's father did not return from the battle.


Excerpted from Life along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield. Copyright © 2015 Susan Whitfield. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Richard Foltz
A series of ten fictionalized representative 'biographies' of different types of individuals who lived along the eastern Silk road during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries…the pseudobiographies are a refreshing and novel device for conveying a great deal of historical information.
—Richard Foltz, Columbia University

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