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The Classical Silk Road: Trade and Connectivity across Central Asia, 100 BCE–1200 CE  

Valerie Hansen

The Silk Road refers to all the overland routes connecting the major oasis kingdoms of Central Asia including Dunhuang, Turfan, Khotan, and Samarkand to their neighbors: the Chinese landmass, the Mongolian grasslands, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian subcontinent. The best-known routes ran east-west, but the north-south routes to the nomadic states of the Asian grasslands were also important. In the popular view of the Silk Road, extensive camel caravans carried goods over long distances, but this was rarely the case. Usually peddlers carried mostly local goods short distances. Government shipments to provision armies profoundly affected the region’s economy, because they involved much larger quantities than in the peddler trade. Rulers regularly exchanged envoys who carried gifts, exchanges that continued even when private trade fell off. Whatever the reason for an individual’s trip, almost everyone—whether envoy, missionary, artist, craftsman, or refugee—bought and sold goods to pay for travel along the Silk Road. Silk was not the primary commodity traded on these routes. Goods traveling east included ammonium chloride, paper, silver, gold, glassware, and aromatics such as spices, incense, and fragrant woods. Goods traveling west out of China included bronze mirrors, other metal goods, and paper, in addition to silk. Between 300 and 1000 ce, the most important function of silk was as a currency, not as a trade good, although it remained an important export throughout the period. A vibrant series of cultural exchanges occurred alongside these commercial exchanges. Technologies, medicine, plants, music, and fashion all moved in both directions across Central Asia. Multiple religions also entered China during this time. The term Silk Road may not be the most accurate term for these commercial and cultural exchanges, but, despite its flaws, the term has secured a firm place in both scholarly works and the popular mind.

Article

Commercial Structures of Ancient Central Asia  

Xinru Liu

Transactions between ancient communities across the varied ecological zones of Central Asia produced a complex commercial structure. Pastoral nomads on the steppe and farmers in the oases traded to supplement their livelihoods. Domestication of horses on the Eurasian steppe around four thousand years ago was a driving force stimulating interactions between the horse riders and settled farmers. Conflicts between horse-riding nomadic powers on the steppe and Chinese empires initiated the silk-horse treaty trade, which lasted until the end of the Tang Dynasty. Domestication of camels around 3000 bce enabled transportation across deserts and thus linked the oases to one another and to the outside world. Especially after the invention of a new saddle for the Bactrian (two-humped) camel, the caravan trade flourished as the major means of commercial interchange in the Central Asian deserts during the 1st millennium ce. Sogdian city states around the Syr and Amu Rivers prospered through farming, and the Sogdians became the agents of trade among Chinese empires, Persian empires, South Asian states, and various Turkic empires on the steppe. After the Islamic conquest of Central Asia, the Sogdians gradually submitted to Islamic rule, transforming themselves into Muslim traders and continuing to play an essential role in linking Central Asia to the wider Eurasian commercial world. Means of transportation and means of communication provided the infrastructure for trade. Governments and major trading communities such as the Sogdians were active in building trading networks, and religious movements such as the spread of Buddhism facilitated the formation of commercial networks.

Article

Earth, Water, Air, and Fire: Toward an Ecological History of Premodern Inner Eurasia  

John L. Brooke and Henry Misa

The histories of humanity and nature are deeply entangled across Inner Eurasia. Great expanses of steppe and mountain connected peoples at the far ends of the landmass and sustained unique civilizational zones of nomadic and settled societies. These are regions profoundly shaped by some of the most complex climatic regimes and by one of the most devastating disease vectors in the world. Viewed in the longue durée of the Holocene, the premodern prehistory and history of Inner Eurasia takes on new dimensions when reviewed in the context of the latest work being done in environmental, climate, and genetic science.

Article

Indus Valley: Early Commercial Connections with Central and Western Asia  

Dennys Frenez

The study of the commercial and cultural connections between the Greater Indus Valley and other regions of Central and Western Asia occupies a pivotal role in scholarly research on the Indus Tradition. Interregional trade was already established in the Indus River basin during the Neolithic period in the 6th millennium BCE. However, from the early 3rd millennium bce, the Indus (Harappan) merchants and craftspeople contributed to defining, promoting, and regulating long-distance, cross-cultural trade exchanges throughout this region. Indus-type and Indus-related artifacts have been found over a large and differentiated ecumene, encompassing Central Asia, the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and the northern Levant, the Persian Gulf, and the Oman Peninsula. The discovery of Indus trade tools (seals, weights, and containers) in all of Middle Asia, complemented by information from Mesopotamian cuneiform texts, shows that entrepreneurs from the Indus Valley regularly ventured into these regions to transact with the local socioeconomic and political entities. However, Indus artifacts were also exchanged beyond this core region, eventually reaching as far as the Nile Valley, Anatolia, and the Caucasus. In contrast, only a handful of exotic trade tools and commodities have been found at sites in the Greater Indus Valley. The success of Indus trade in Central and Western Asia did not depend solely on the dynamic entrepreneurialism of Indus merchants and the exotic commodities they offered. Specific products were proactively designed and manufactured in the Indus Valley to fulfill the particular needs of foreign markets, and Indus craftspeople moved beyond their native cultural sphere, adapting their distinctive productions to the tastes of foreign elites or reworking indigenous models. The adoption of specific seals and iconographies to regulate external trade activities suggests a conscious attempt to implement a coordinated supraregional marketing strategy adopting shared rules and procedures, with observable globalizing impacts in various contexts of Central and Western Asia.

Article

Reframing Ancient Afghanistan: Pre-Historic and Early Historic Spatial Connections to the Saka-Yuezhi Period (1st Century CE)  

Henri-Paul Francfort

Afghanistan has remained a crossroad of civilizations since its origins. Despite having no access to the sea, Afghanistan, in both the north and south of the high mountainous range of the Hindu Kuch, benefits from large fluvial arteries from the Amu Darya system in the north and the Helmand system in the south, along with their tributaries. This benefit brings opportunities for irrigation and for communications. The mountains, especially the Badakhshan and Pamir mountainous nodes, contain important mineral resources, including gold and lapis lazuli. Because Eurasia is an open space, Afghanistan had relations with external regions, groups, nations, cultures, as early as the Paleolithic and Neolithic (especially Kel’teminar) periods. During the Chalcolithic period (ca. 3000–2500 bce), the maps of exchange networks encompassed Iran, Pakistani Baluchistan, Tajikistan, and the steppe world. This is the period of pottery, metallurgy, and glyptics related to economic and social development: a proto-urban phase. This broad network strengthened and grew during the Bronze Age (ca. 2500–1400 bce) with the Oxus civilization, covering the north of the country (Bactria and Dashly) and neighboring regions (parts of Northeast Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), and connected to the southern regions (Pakistani Baluchistan). During this period, Indus colonies settled in northeastern Afghanistan (Shortughaï). The territories of Afghanistan were developing as “urban” settlements where arts and crafts reached international high standards, but in a specific socioeconomic model without large cities and no writing system, and with an enormous network of trade and exchanges (semiprecious stones, metals, and possibly camels), connected to Elamite, Akkadian-Ur III, and Levantine arts. It was a sort of twin of the Indus civilization. It collapsed around 1800–1500 bce possibly because of the effect of climate change and coming of steppe peoples. During the Iron Age (ca. 1400– 500 BCE), changes in pottery and craftsmanship indicate an economic decline, when Iranian tribes of horsemen may have migrated coming from the steppes and early phases of Zoroastrianism appear (in Bactria, Chorasmia, or Sistan). “International” trade possibly continued (lapis and metals). A new “imperial” phase occurred with the inclusion of the Afghan territory in the Persian Achaemenid empire by Cyrus the Great (ca. 545–540 bce). A number of satrapies with capital cities were located in Afghanistan (Bactria, Arachosia, Aria, etc.). The ancient trade and administrative roads functioned and were controlled by the imperial power. With the conquest of Alexander the Great (ca. 330 bce), the empire fell into new hands. An important Greek colonization, especially in the north, expanded to the north of Amu Darya with the Seleucid and Greco-Bactrian kingdoms, founding cities and establishing their cultures. India, after the establishment of strong ties with the Indian Maurya dynasty, came also under Greek rule: the Indo-Greeks emerged after 180 bce. Around 145–130 bce, the Greek power disappeared in Bactria and newcomers from the steppes, the Saka (Scythians) and Yuezhi (other nomads, predecessors of the Kushans), installed their domination, preparing the advent of the Kushan empire’s stabilization in the 1st century ce. The dialectics between external and local archaeological remains is a difficult question to tackle; often the research focuses on the external origins of cultural elements. For example, the languages and the scripts (Aramaic, Greek, and Indian) belong to the external ruler groups rather than to the autochthonous cultures. Indeed, in the Early History of Afghanistan, it is almost impossible to clearly define any “autochthonous” archaeological remains, unless we consider the preceding period as being localadmit . In sum, without being the center of these “empires”, except during the two centuries of the Greco-Bactrian, but even then not, if we consider a larger “Hellenistic koinè”, Afghanistan was, from its origins, a meeting place for many cultures and civilizations, and it remained an important part of external politico-cultural entities for millennia—the crossroads of Eurasian civilizations.