Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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Travelers on the Silk Routes

Story of the "Silk Road" is fascinating and full of historic accounts of military conquest, fearless explorers, religious pilgrims, great thinkers, and humble tradesmen who risked their lives as they led their loaded caravans across dangerous deserts, mountains and steppes. Historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Confucius, Marco Polo, and Timur (Tamerlane) have also left there imprints along Eurasia's routes. Although the Silk Routes were more actively used until the 15th century (when newly-discovered sea routes to Asia opened up), it was after the increased ease of travel at the end of the 18th century, and after the invasion of North Africa by Napoleon and the consequent British Protectorate over Egypt, that a greater number of Europeans travelled to the Ottoman Empire and Far East, known to Westerners as "the Orient."

Throughout the centuries artists shaped the image of the East in the Western world. As more artists traveled to the East and began representing numerous scenes of Oriental culture, their works portrayed the Orient as exotic, colorful, mysterious and sensual. However, the Western perception of "The Exotic Orient" also created lasting negative portrayals of Orientals and Muslims. Due to previous Western fears of powerful nations and historic figures from the East, stereotyping is still evident today. Built on the legacies of the past, the use of the Orient as an exotic backdrop, along with the use of Eastern villains, continues to be portrayed in the media, films, advertising, and in educational institutions (popular themes include the Muslim terrorist, now a common villain figure in Western movies).

The 19th century Orientalist artistic movement began when artists, many with limited knowledge of the East, started depicting their experiences as they traveled to the Near East and Far East. The movement lasted about a century and captivated many of the major artists of the 19th century, who created detailed and realistic paintings of their new subject matter, though many did not travel east. While some artists were immersed in artistic pursuits, others had undisclosed motives for using art as a tool for conveying heroic scenes for propaganda purposes, promoting religious ideologies, depicting negative and prejudiced images of Easterners, or creating arousing nudes for odalisque seeking European audiences. Therefore, not all accounts of the East were accurate. The first evaluation and critique of the Orientalist movement were presented by Edward Said in his book Orientalism in which he states: "The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." As argued by Said, the imaginary Orient is more preferable "...for the European sensibility, to the real Orient."

Since the 19th century, the word "Orientalist" has been the traditional term for a scholar of Oriental studies, however the use in English of "Orientalism" to describe academic "Oriental studies" is rare. "Orientalism" was more widely used to refer to the works of Western artists in the 19th century, including those who traveled East as well as those who did not. In many cases the subjects depicted were known for their beauty and exoticism, sensuality, or violence and subjugation. Orientalist works and pictures not only played a significant role in the development of 19th century European painting, but also constructed the world of the Orient according to Western eyes. Over the last few decades, in order to understand how these images have made a lasting impression on Western perceptions of the "Orient," Orientalism has been re-evaluated by historians and art critics. While underlining the importance of Orientalism in the development of European art, it is important to remember that artists who depicted the Orient often did not have first hand observations, unlike a great deal of  travelogue writings that provided first-hand accounts.

The history of Eastern and Western encounters, however, dates back to the early days of the East-West network of trade routes, which developed over centuries. The routes were a vehicle for cross-culture exchange that began to be used in the second century BC. According to historical records, one of the first traveler's of the "Silk Road" was Zhang Qian, who began his politically motivated journey westward in 138 BC in order to make contact with the Yüeh-chih ruler. During the time of the Chinese Han Dynasty, this 5,000-mile stretch of trade routes can be described as the foundation of Eurasian transport and communications (see Entry: Zhang Qian of the Han Dynasty).

After this mission, for centuries various diplomatic missions and emperors sent envoys to advance and secure their interests, as well as to help develop trade. It was only in the 1870s that the geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, gave the name by which we now know this East-West network of routes as the "Silk Road" -- the network of multiple routes that stretched from Xi'an in China, to Istanbul in Turkey (and which extended by sea routes to Rome and Venice).

And thus, from the days of travel by camel, to the Orient Express and 19th century indulgence at the luxurious Pera Palace Hotel, technological developments transformed trade and travel. To the many merchants, armies, and adventurers of ancient civilizations, the silk routes served as important means of communication between cultures and economies. The civilizations of today are indebted to the cross-cultural impact of the Silk Road's influences on China, Central Asia, the Near and Far East, Africa, and the West. The historical relationship between the "Orient" and "Occident" should be better examined by modern-day scholars in order to promote greater understanding of today's civilizations and cultures.

Categories of travelers on the Silk Routes


Nomads, guides...


Religious figures and learned scholars

Military and political leaders

Rulers, administrators...

Diplomatic missions, emissaries, envoys...

Bandits and robbers



Intellectuals and travelogue writers






Secret agents (spies of the Great Game)

Passengers of the 19th century "Orient Express" to Istanbul

Artists that shaped the image of the East in the Western world

List of principle Artists who Travelled to the Ottoman Empire and "Orient"

Pieter Coecke van Aelst Belgian 16th century
Thomas Allom English 1804-72
Albert Aublet French 1851-1938
William Henry Bartlett English 1809-1854
Marius Bauer Dutch 1867-1932
Gentile Bellini Venetian 1429-1507
Carlo Bossoli Swiss 1815-84
Frank Brangwyn English 1867-1943
Germain-Fabius Brest French 1823-1900
Jean Brindesi Italian  
Karl Pavlovich Bryulov Russian 1799-1853
Johm Lewis Burckhardt Swiss 1818-97
Armand-Charles Caraffe French 1762-1822
Charles-Emile Callande de Champmartin French 1797-1883
Georges de la Chappelle French  
Stanislas Von Chlebowski Polish 1835-84
Benjamin Constant French 1845-1902
Louis-Amable Crapelet French 1822-67
Gabriel-Alexandre Decamps French 1803-60
Ferdinand-Victor-Eugene Delacroix French 1798-1863
Louis Devedeux French 1820-74
Edouard-Jacques Dufeu French 1840-1900
Louis Dupre French 1789-1837
Henri Duvieux French 2nd half 19th century
Edouard Ender Austrian 1822-83
Jean-Leon Gerome French 1824-1904
Marc-Gabriel-Charles Gleyre Swiss 1806-74
Constantin Guys French 1802-92
Jean-Baptiste Hilaire French 1753-1822
William Hogarth British 1697-1764
Edward William Lane English 1801-76
Jules-Joseph-Antoine Laurens French 1825-1901
Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouy French 1842-1923
Lucien Levy-Dhurmer French 1865-1953
Frederick Christian Lewis English 1813-75
Jean Etienne Liotard Swiss 1702-1789
Melchior Lorichs Danish c. 1527-1583/6
Alexandre Lunois French 1863-1916
Nicephorus Lytras Greek 1832-1904
Antoine-Ignace Melling French 1763-1830
Carl Muller Swiss 19th century
Nicolas de Nicolay French 16th century
William Page English 1811-1885
Alberto Pasini Italian 1826-99
Amadeo Preziosi Maltese 1816-82
Theodore Ralli Greek 1852-1909
Ilya Yefimovich Repin Russian 1844-1930
Camille Rogier French first half 19th century
Charles Emile de Tournemine French 1812-72
Jean-Babtiste Vanmour German 17th century
Theodore Vryzakis Greek 1814-78
Elijah Walton English 1832-80
David Wilkie Scottish 1785-1841
Johann Michael Wittmer German 1802-80
Felix Ziem French 1821-1911
Fausto Zonaro Italian 1854-1929

Note: Orientalism as an art movement can not be associated with any particular European country, nor encapsulated in any of the local “schools” of painting, as throughout the centuries it was exercised by different Western cultures, documenting their experiences or interpretations. For a number of centuries, Orientalism influenced the fine arts, literature, theater, architecture, music, poetry and philosophy. Its impact on academic fields and knowledge is a subject of debate. Although the Orientalist art movement was predominantly a 19th-century phenomenon, the variety of representations started during the Renaissance and continued into the twenty-first century with new forms and techniques, spanning the geographical area of the artists’ interest in the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia.

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