Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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Historical Figures & their Impact on the Silk Routes

King Mu of Zhou (Mu Wang)
West Chou king and the earliest reputed Silk Road traveler. The dates of his reign are c. 976-922 BC or 956-918 BC. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, written sometime in the 4th century BC, is the first known travel book on the Silk Road. It tells of his journey to the Tarim Basin, the Pamir mountains, and further into Iran, where the legendary meeting with Xiwangmu took place. Wang returned via the southern route. The travel book no longer exists but is referenced in Shan Hai Zin, Leizi: Mu Wang Zhuan, and Shiji. More...

Wudi (Wu Di) Emperor of the Han Dynasty (206 BC- AD 220) is credited with the birth of the Silk Road. Wudi sent General Zhang Qian to form an alliance with the Yuezhi people who had been defeated by their enemies the Xiongnu and driven to the Ili valley, the western fringes of the Taklamakan Desert. Wudi's desire for making peace with the Western regions, and the two missions of General Qian (the first between 138-125 AD; and the second 119-115 AD) are known to have led to the establishment of not only diplomatic contacts and economic relations, but also to cultural exchanges between East and West. After the reports given to Wudi by Gen. Qian, concerning the products and kingdoms in the West (such as the previously unknown kingdoms of Ferghana, Smarkand, and Bokhara), Wudi sought to develop further contact. Some of the Western foreign products that were brought back to China included Ferghana horses and furs. Later, kingdoms in Central Asia also sent their own emissaries to Chang'an China.

Chang Chien (Ch'ien, or Zhang Qian) Chinese general and envoy credited with opening the Silk Road after he was sent on a mission by the Han Emperor Wudi to recruit the Yueh-chih people to form an alliance against the Xiongnu (or Hsiung-Nu, a nomadic empire of the Mongolian Steppe, along China's northern frontier). During Chien's first journey (138-125 BCE) he skirted the Taklamakan desert via the northern route, passed the Pamir, then reached Ferghana. He returned via the southern route. His second trip (119-115 BCE), which was a mission to seek alliance with the Wu-sun people, took him to Dunhuang, Loulan, Kucha, then the capital of the Wu-sun kingdom in the Ili river. His missions to the West led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia. Thus, Chien was the first envoy between the East and West. This emissary, sent by the Han Emperor who sought tranquility on China's steppe frontier, also led a diplomatic mission that brought gold and silk products to Loulan (now Ruoqiang), Weili, Huqa, Kashi, Hotan, Wusum, Dawan, Kangju, Dayuesi and a number of other regions in Xinjiang. His assistant travelled to Anxi (now Iran), India, and a number of other countries. These countries and regions in turn also sent diplomatic missions to China, which helped the region of Xinjiang to develop trade. The second expedition undertaken by Zhang Qian in 119-115 BCE enabled China to establish diplomatic relations with Fergana, Bactria, and Sogdiana. In addition to traveling himself, Chien sent his assistant to visit the Fergana Valley (Uzbekistan), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Sogdiana (Uzbekistan), who gathered information on Parthia, India, and other regions.

Alexander (also known as Alexander "the Great") (born c. 356 BC) The first major step in opening the Silk Road between the East and the West came with the expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia. In August 329 BCE, at the mouth of the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan Alexander founded the city of Alexandria Eschate or "Alexandria The Furthest." This later became a major staging point on the northern Silk Route. After Alexander's Balkan campaign, Alexander crossed into Asia where in 334 BC the Battle of the Granicus River was fought in Northwestern Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), near the site of Troy. He conquered Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Iran. After Alexander defeated the last of the Achaemenid Empire's forces in 328 BC, he began a new campaign against the various Indian kings in 327 BC. Crossing through the Amudarya, in the summer of 327, he passed through the Hindukush and began his famous Indian campaign. Alexander's goal was to conquer the entire "known world," which in Alexander's day, ended on the eastern end of India. More...

Atilla (also known as Atilla "the Hun") The most famous of the Huns is "Attila the Hun" (the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453). Attila was leader of the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from Germany to the Ural River and from the Danube River to the Baltic Sea.  The Huns were a group of Eurasian nomadic pastoral people who, appearing from beyond the Volga, who migrated into Europe c. AD 370 and built up an enormous empire. They were possibly the descendants of the Xiongnu who had been northern neighbors of China 300 hundred years earlier to the emergence of the Huns, and may be the first expansion of Turkic people across Eurasia. The origin and language of the Huns has been the subject of debate for centuries. According to some theories, their leaders at least may have spoken a Turkic language. The French Orientalist and sinologist De Guignes linked them with the Xiongnu (assumed to be Mongolic-Turkic). Considerable scholarly effort has been devoted in investigating such a connection, however, there is no evidence for a direct connection between the Xiongnu and the Huns. Very little evidence has survived of the language of the Huns, and their ethnic identity has been a subject of debate for centuries. According to many theories, it was a Turkic language. Nor can the Huns be ascribed a territory of origin. The Steppe region of Russia, and further east, is generally referred to as the homeland of the Huns. More...

Marco Polo
  The most famous of the Silk Road travelers (1254-1324), traders and explorers was Marco Polo was a merchant from the Venetian Republic who wrote Il Milione, which introduced Europeans to Central Asia and China. He learned about trading whilst his father and uncle, Niccolò and Maffeo, travelled through Asia and met Kublai Khan. In 1269, they returned to Venice. The three of them embarked on an epic journey to Asia, returning after 24 years to find Venice at war with Genoa. Marco was imprisoned, and dictated his account to a writer who was also imprisoned by the Genoese. He was released in 1299. He died in 1324, and was buried in San Lorenzo. Il Milione was translated, embellished, copied by hand and adapted; there is no authoritative version. It documents his father's journey to meet the Kublai Khan, who asked them to become ambassadors, and communicate with the pope. This led to Marco's quest, through Acre, into China and to the Mongol court. Marco wrote of his extensive travels throughout Asia on behalf of the Khan, and their eventual return after 15,000 miles (24,140 km) and 24 years of adventures. By his own account, Marco worked for Qubilai Khan. He traveled overland through Persia across the Pamirs and south of the Taklamakan. His return was by sea from China around South Asia to Hormuz, from where he went overland to the Mediterranean. Although some of the descriptions not based on direct observation, many of his observations are precise and verifiable.. His main associations seem to have been with the Mongol rulers of China and with the Muslim merchant community. Their pioneering journey inspired others, such as Christopher Columbus. Marco Polo's book became well-known in Renaissance Europe, serving as a stimulus for further discovery and travel. More...

Buddha (The Buddha), the founder of Buddhism, a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Prince Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha ( "the awakened one"). He was born the son of a king of the Sakya clan of the Kshatriya, or warrior caste,  in the Himalayan foothills in what is now modern-day Nepal. Buddha lived and taught in the northern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE (it is often stated the Buddhism was founded in c. 520 BCE). He is recognized by adherents as an awakened teacher. The earliest written accounts about Buddha date 200 years after his death. After his awakening, it is said that two merchants became his first disciples. The last 45 years of his life, the Buddha traveled in the Gangetic Plain, in what is now Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and southern Nepal, teaching a diverse range of people. Many Buddhist monks travelled with traders and in diplomatic missions along the Silk Routes helping to spread Buddhism.

Confucius (c. 551 BC – 479 BC) was a Chinese thinker and philosopher from whose teachings Confucianism developed. Confucius was born in 551 BC in the Lu State (south of modern-day Shandong Province). Confucianism is a Chinese ethical and philosophical system developed from the teachings of Confucius. It is a complex system of moral, social, political, philosophical, and quasi-religious thought that has had tremendous influence on the culture and history of East Asia. In Confucianism, human beings are teachable, improvable and perfectible through personal and communal endeavor, especially including self-cultivation and self-creation. A main idea of Confucianism is the cultivation of virtue and the development of moral perfection. Some of the most important principals of Confucianism were established centuries before Confucius was born. More...

Muhammad (Prophet Muhammad) (born jn Mecca c. 570 / 571, died 632) is regarded by Muslims as a messenger and last prophet of God  (a.k.a. the founder of the religion of Islam), and the greatest law-bearer in a series of prophets. Muslims consider him the restorer of an uncorrupted original monotheistic faith (Islām) of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets. He was also active as a diplomat, merchant, philosopher, orator, legislator, reformer, military general, and, according to Muslim belief, an agent of divine action. The revelations — which Muhammad reported receiving until his death — form the verses of the Holy Qur'an, and are regarded by Muslims as the “Word of God.” Prophet Muhammad’s teachings and example in life (what he said and his deeds were recorded in the form of  hadith), and the Prophet's traditions (sunnah), are also upheld in the lives of Muslims. The holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is considered the center of the Islamic world, and it is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Each day, millions of Muslims from all over the world face Mecca to pray. Many Muslims, since the early days of the birth of Islam in the 7th century, travelled with traders along the Silk Routes, and helped to spread Islam in the East.

Chinese Dynasty rulers The ancient era includes the: Xia Dynasty (ca. 2100-1600 BC); Shang Dynasty (ca. 1700-1046 BC); Zhou Dynasty (1066-256 BC); Spring and Autumn Period (722-476 BC); and the Warring States Period (476-221 BC). The Imperial era includes the: Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC); Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220); Wei and Jin Period (AD 265–420); Wu Hu Period (AD 304–439); Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420–589); Sui Dynasty (AD 589–618); Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907); Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (AD 907–960); Song, Liao, Jin, and Western Xia Dynasties (AD 960–1234); Yuan Dynasty (AD 1271–1368); Ming Dynasty (AD 1368–1644);and the Qing Dynasty (AD 1644–1911). More...

The height of the importance of the Silk Road was during the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907), however, the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220) is credited with the cultivation of the Silk Routes after 138 BCE. The Central Asian sections of the Silk Routes were expanded around 114 BCE by China's Han Dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian (Chang Chien /Ch'ien). The capital of the Han Dynasty was Chang'an (modern-day Xian), the starting point of the famed Silk Road. Zhang Qian is known as the first man to bring back a reliable account of the lands of Central Asia to the court of China. This Chinese envoy is credited with opening the Silk Road after his mission from the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi (Wu) in 138 BCE, a mission which sought to establish relations with the Yueh-chih (Yuezhi) people of Central Asian and to recruit them to form an alliance with the Chinese against the Xiongnu. It is often stated that the Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141-87 BC). The missions of Zhang Qian to the West led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia. Diplomatic missions from Central Asia were also later sent to China, which helped the region of Xinjiang to develop trade.

Giovanni da Pian del Carpine
(or John of Plano Carpini, c. 1180 - 1252). In addition to Marco Polo, other lesser-known European Silk Road travelers reached China before Marco Polo, such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine. This traveler and explorer was one of the first Europeans to enter the court of the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire. He is the author of the earliest and invaluable Western account of northern and central Asia, Rus, and other regions of the Tatar dominion. He was the Serbian Primate and Archbishop of Antivari from 1247 to 1252. The group of Franciscan monks sent as envoys of Pope Innocent IV to the Mongol Khan, traveled through the dominions of Khan Batu (ruler of the "Golden Horde") to the vicinity of Karakorum, where they witnessed the proclamation of Güyüg as the new Great Khan. The Friar's account titled "History of the Mongols"/Historia Mongalorum) is one of the first direct authentic descriptions of Asia, and one of the most detailed accounts of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The writings are widely known in Europe through excerpts in an encyclopedia compiled by Vincent of Beauvais, the Speculum Historiale. More...

Genghis Khan (or Cengiz Han) was born in Mongolia and was the founder of the Mongol Empire, an empire which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. Genghis Khan created a unified empire from the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia. Before Genghis Khan died, he assigned Ögedei Khan as his successor and split his empire into khanates among his sons and grandsons. He died in 1227 after defeating the Tanguts. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mongolia. His descendants went on to stretch the Mongol Empire across most of Eurasia by conquering and/or creating vassal states out of all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asian, and substantial portions of modern Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors effectively connected the Eastern world with the Western world, ruling a territory from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. The Silk Road, which connected trade centers across Asia and Europe, came under the sole rule of the Mongol Empire where security and stability was provided along the Silk Routes in the middle of the 13th known as Pax Mongolica.

Timur (also known as Tamerlane) was the founder of the Timurid Empire. Timur belonged to a Turco-Mongol tribe, and was the great great grandfather of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. In the 14th century he settled in Transoxiana from where his empire grew to include the whole of Central Asia, Iran, modern Afghanistan, as well as large parts of Pakistan, India, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Caucasus. The Timurid Dynasty emerged from the Central Asian Steppe, and in 1370 established Samarkand as the capital of the empire. The Timurids conquered Asia from Egypt and Syria to the borders of China. Within thirty-five years, the empire included all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. To the west, Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria, and that of the Ottomans at Ankara (1400–2). In 1405, while preparing to invade China, Timur, the founder of the empire, died. More...

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