Traveling the Silk Road - A Photo Essay of the Cities and Sites

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Map of the Silk Road

Map of the Silk Road
Map of the Silk Road. shizhao

Evidence for international trade between the far-flung civilized outposts of the vast Asian continent world dates to at least 1000 BC, when some mummies from New Kingdom Egypt were wrapped partly in silk traded from what is today China. The historical roots of the organized web of trackways which came to be called the Silk Road are traditionally thought to be the 2nd century BC, when Han Dynasty emperor Wu Di commissioned his military commander Zhang Qian to seek an alliance with Persia. Zhang eventually got all the way to Rome and back again.

On November 14, 2009, a new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History called "Traveling the Silk Road" opened, and it promises to be a terrific experience for anyone who can get to the museum in New York City. This photo essay discusses some of the displays and provides some bits of context for the exhibit that you'll see.

Further Information

Cities along the Silk Road

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Camel Caravan

Camel Caravan at the Great Wall, 1902
Camel Caravan at the Great Wall, 1902. Library of Congress

The massive network of trails called the Silk Road included 4,600 miles (7,400 kilometers) across deserts and mountains; these roads were largely traveled by one method: camel caravan. Camel caravans were groups of people and camels who traveled in convoys over long distances. In a caravan, people by and large walked alongside camels carrying goods for the markets. Camels were well-suited to the task, which included desert temperatures ranging between 122 and -50 degrees fahrenheit.

Because the substantial cities were situated far apart, people traveling in caravans were supported by caravansaries, roadside inns where water for drinking and ritual bathing was kept, as well as fodder for animals and shops for travelers.

The camel caravan illustrated in this photograph was traveling from Mongolia via the Nankow Pass, and passing through the Great Wall of China, when it was photographed in November, 1902 by C.H. Graves.

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Camel Caravan at the AMHN

Camel Caravan at Traveling the Silk Road
Camel Caravan at Traveling the Silk Road. © Traveling the Silk Road, AMNH/D. Finnin

At the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History's exhibition "Traveling the Silk Road", visitors come face-to-face with three life-size camel models decked out in full caravan regalia and loaded with trade goods. The camels and visitors are surrounded by a 120-foot-long mural depicting a landscape of sand dunes.

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Samarkand Fruit Stand

Samarkand Fruit Stand, 1905-1915
Samarkand Fruit Stand, 1905-1915. Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress)

Goods of all sorts were traded between the city centers and markets along the Silk Road, including precious objects such as jade, ivory, gold and furs; manufactured items of bronze, iron, lacquerware and ceramics; animals such as horses, sheep, peacocks and elephants; and food stuffs like pomegranates, safflowers and carrots.

Samarkand was an important connection on the Silk Road, and today lies in the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. The photo of the fruit stand and sellers in Samarkand was taken between 1905 and 1915, by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, and is on file at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Further Information

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Turfan Night Market

Turfan Night Market
Turfan Night Market. Traveling the Silk Road, © AMNH/R. Mickens

The lush Turfan section of the American Museum of Natural History's exhibition "Traveling the Silk Road" transports visitors to a re-created night market in this desert city overflowing with all the goods—sapphires, silks, jades and rubies, leopard furs and peacock feathers, and fruits and spices—that would have captivated travelers over a thousand years ago.

Turfan (also spelled Turpan) was another important node on the Silk Road: it lies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.

Further Information

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Traveling by Dhow

Arab Dhow at Suez, 1894
Arab Dhow at Suez, 1894. William Henry Jackson, photographer, Library of Congress

Some of the materials along the Silk Road traveled by boats, including dhows, a style of Arab sailing ship. Dhows were the goods carriers in the Persian Gulf: other ships along the coastlines and in India included everything from rafts to dugouts to keeled and planked vessels. Chinese medieval watercraft had six-layered hulls; that construction methodology reached the Arabian gulf via the Silk Road by the ninth century.

This dhow was photographed at Suez, Egypt in 1894, by William Henry Jackson. It was published as a half-tone in the magazine Harper's Weekly, and is available courtesy the US Library of Congress.

Further Information

Indruszewski, George. 2008 Ships and seafaring. Pp. 1985-1994 in Encyclopedia of Archaeology, Deborah Pearsall, editor-in-chief. London, Elsevier.

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Arab Dhow at the American Museum of Natural History

Arab Sailing Ship Dhow at Traveling the Silk Road
Arab Sailing Ship Dhow at Traveling the Silk Road. Traveling the Silk Road, © AMNH/R. Mickens

Visitors to the American Museum of Natural History's "Traveling the Silk Road" exhibit can walk through a 41-foot long portion of a full-sized model of a 71-foot long Arab sailing ship, called a dhow, split in half to reveal a cargo of ceramics and elaborate metalwork.

Further Information

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Astrolabes

16th Century Islamic Astrolabe
16th Century Islamic Astrolabe. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

An astrolabe is an astronomical tool, the rudiments of which were first developed by the Greeks in the 2nd century BC, in order to track the position of the stars and planets. With a stereographic projection, one could calculate the current date and time, as well as the time of celestial events such as the next sunrise. Astrolabes as mechanical devices were fully developed by the Islamic civilization in the 8th century, and diffused out from there into Europe and Asia.

Astrolabes became important to travelers on the Silk Road when they became navigation tools, including a component that could report what latitude the traveler was on. Such devices are often called mariner's astrolabes. Thus, the Silk Road's network of trails through the vast regions of Asia could be traced with their help.

Further Information

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Working Astrolabe at the AMNH

Working Model of an Astrolabe at the AMNH
Working Model of an Astrolabe at the AMNH. Traveling the Silk Road © AMNH/D. Finnin

Visitors to the AMNH's exhibit 'Traveling the Silk Road' use a working model of an ancient Islamic astrolabe to determine the hour by marking the position of "stars" embedded in the surrounding exhibit.

Further Information

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Oc Eo

Statue of Hindu god Vishnu, discovered at Oc Eo, Vietnam and dated to the 6th-7th century AD.
Statue of Hindu god Vishnu, discovered at Oc Eo, Vietnam and dated to the 6th-7th century AD. Doktor Max

Oc Eo is a Funan culture site in Vietnam, and it was discovered ca AD 250 by explorers from the Wu Dynasty emperors who described what was to become the Angkor Wat civilization as a sophisticated culture with a walled settlement, a king, and a taxation system.

The Angkor civilization, also called the Khmer civilization, dominated southeast Asia including Cambodia, Vietnam and parts of Thailand between between 800 to 1300 AD. Its rituals and symbols included an amalgam of cultural traits from Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

Oc Eo and Angkor Wat

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Mawangdui and Silk Textiles

Silk Tapestry from the Tomb of Lady Dai
Silk Tapestry from the Tomb of Lady Dai. Pericles of Athens

Mawangdui is a Han dynasty capital located in a suburb of modern-day Changsha in Hunan Province in China. Three rich tombs were discovered at Mawangdui, dated to the 2nd century BC. They belonged to Li Dang, the Marquis of Dai (died 186 BC); his wife Lady Dai (died after 168 BC); and their son (died 168 BC). Lady Dai's tomb was in an astonishing state of preservation. On top of Lady Dai's tomb was found this remarkable tapestry; nearly 200 silk manuscripts were also found, including seven treatises on ancient medicines.

More on Lady Dai and Mawangdui

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Chang'an at the Eastern End of the Silk Road

Tang Dynasty Agate Vessel from the Hejiacun Hoard
Tang Dynasty Agate Vessel from the Hejiacun Hoard. Kougo

Chang'an was the capital of the Han Dynasty, located near the modern town of Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. The rulers of Chang'An set the explorer Zhang Qian out on his way westward.

Founded about 200 BC, Chang'an was the capital for the Sui and Tang dynasty leaders, and was destroyed in AD 904. Important structures still intact in the site include a pounded earth wall enclosing an area of some 84 square kilometers, and the Temple of Heaven. The Temple of Heaven, a circular p was built of pounded earth in the 15th century AD.

In 1970, a Tang Dynasty collection of jade artifacts called the Hejiacun Hoard was discovered at Chang'An, including this fabulous agate vessel.

Chang'an is considered the eastern terminus of the Silk Road.

More on Chang 'An