Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) builds their capital in Baghdad, making this Silk Road city a center of power where philosophic, scientific and literary works are cultivated. The Abbasid Dynasty was the third of the Islamic caliphates and was founded in Harran in 750 by the descendants of  Prophet Muhammad's youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. From Haran the capital shifted in 762 to Baghdad, which grew under the Abbasids for two centuries. Previously, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph Marwan II, Harran had become the seat of the caliphate government of the Islamic empire which stretched from Spain to Central Asia. During the late 8th and 9th centuries, the city of Harran was also a center of learning where translating works of astronomy, philosophy, natural sciences, and medicine from Greek to Arabic brought an exchange of knowledge between the classical and Islamic worlds.

Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–330 BCE), also known as the Persian Empire, was the largest empire by geographical extent in ancient times; at the height of its power, the empire  spanned three continents: Asia, Africa and Europe. The empire was forged by Cyrus the Great. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Thrace and Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Iraq, northern Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya.

African Trade Routes For much of history, Africa was regarded by Europe as the “Dark Continent,” because so little was known about it. Yet, for millennia, African routes existed overland, by river, and by sea. Between 3000-1000 BCE, the first extensive trade routes were developed upon the great rivers which become the backbones of early civilizations - the Nile in Africa, the Tigris and Euphrates in the Near East, and the Yellow River and the Indus in Asia (historically, the period from 1250 BCE–153 CE saw the Mediterranean, Western Asian,  Chinese and Indian societies develop major transportation networks for trade). But it was in the eastern Mediterranean where extensive maritime trade first developed -- first between Egypt and Minoan Crete (c.3000-1000 BCE) -- and later with Phoenician ships throughout the Mediterranean and along the north African coast. (See Carthage / Saharan Trade) More...

Afrosiab The name for ancient Samarkand, often called "the Heart of the Silk Road," now in modern-day Uzbekistan. One of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century, Ulugh Beg's observatory, built in the 1420's, is located here. The city is included in the UNESCO  World Heritage List.

Age of Discovery (also known as the European "Age of Exploration") was a period which began with 16th century geographic exploration, leading to European overseas expansion and the rise of colonial empires. In the late Middle Ages, transcontinental trade along the Silk Routes declined, as sea routes increased and maritime trade developed. More...

In search for the passage to India and beyond, Europeans sought to sail eastward from Europe, to fabulous Cathay (China), and the mysterious island of Cipango (Japan). The desire to trade directly with China was the main motive behind the expansion of the Portuguese Empire beyond Africa after 1480, followed by the expansion of the Dutch and British colonial empires.

Ahmedabad was founded in 1411 by Sultan Ahmed Shah on the banks of the river Sabarmati. Later, the Royal City of Ahmedabad became the commercial and cultural capital of Gujarat. When the Mughal Empire annexed Gujarat in 1572, Ahmedabad lost its political pre-eminence, but continued to flourish as a great trading centre connecting the silk route with the spice route. Through the centuries Ahmedabad remains a prosperous city, as it is India’s seventh largest city, and is also one of the subcontinent’s few medieval cities which continues to prosper. More...

Ak Han Kervansaray is a typical example of Seljuk Caravanserai architecture. It is located near Denizli along the Silk Routes of Turkey. The Seljuk Islamic decorative motifs include an ornate front portal that includes flowers, leaves, and doves as part of its stone sculpture decoration. A tower stands at each end of the main entrance hall, serving as a lookout towers. The 13th century Caravanserai was built on a flat plain that allowed travelers, enemies or robbers to be seen from a considerable distance.

Ak Han Kervansaray, Turkey built c. 1253-1254

Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1542  – 1605) the third Mughal Emperor. He was of Timurid descent; the son of Humayun, and the grandson of Babur, the ruler who founded the Mughal Empire in India. At the end of his reign in 1605, the Mughal Empire covered most of the northern and central India and was one of the most powerful empires of its age. The Silk Road brought trade and prosperity to northern India. Akbar's reign significantly influenced art and culture in India and the region. Under the The Mughal Emperors and the Islamic Dynasties of India, the city of Agra became a leading center of art, science, commerce, and culture.  More...

Aksu (Akesu) is a city in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. It was an important stop on the Northern Silk Road that runs along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin between Kucha and Kashgar. Aksu was positioned on a junction of trade routes: the northern-Tarim route of the Silk road, and the dangerous route north via the Tian Shan's Muzart Pass to the fertile Ili River valley. Aksu Prefecture shares a boundary to the northwest with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the south, it is separated from Hotan by the Taklamakan Desert. It is northeast of Kashgar. Aksu lies at the south foot of Tianshan Mountain on the north edge of the Tarim Basin. The Tianshan Mountains are in the north while the Taklamakan Desert lies to the south.

Aksum (Axum) Much of of the wealth of Axum derived from its control of the Incense trade. The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum challenged Rome's monopoly of Eastern trade by way of the Red Sea. With the economic decline of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century, Greco-Roman trade in the Indian Ocean declined. Thanks to the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire, the demand for Oriental goods prospered under the Byzantines, whose capital Constantinople, now Istanbul, replaced Rome as the the leading city in Europe. Greco-Roman commerce with India reached its peak during the reigns of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian emperors, 31-96 AD. More...

Aksumite Kingdom (or Axumite Empire) was an important trading nation in northeastern Africa (modern Ethiopia), which achieved prominence by the 1st century AD. The Aksumite Kingdom and other civilizations of Eurasia were involved in various commercial activities, such as the spice trade, since ancient times. More...

Ala Shan a desert in Central Asia, in northern China, between the Ala Shan Range (Heilungkiang) and the Hwang Ho River in the east, the Jo Shui (Etsin Gol) River in the west, the foothills of the Nan Shan in the south, and the Gobi tectonic depression at the border between China and Mongolia in the north. It has an area of about one million sq km. The altitude ranges between 820 m in the northwest to 1,660 m in the south. The Ala Shan is a stratified plain with small isolated ranges of a relative altitude of 150–200 m (Bayan Ula, Hara Ula, and others) and areas of low rounded hills. There are numerous closed depressions with fresh or salt subsoil waters not far from the surface and salt lakes that are sometimes dried out (Hara Nur, Zhalatai Daws). There are large tracts of moving sands: in the southwest, Badan Zhareng; in the south, Kholalis; in the southeast, Tengri; and in the northwest, Ulanpukho. The Badan Zhareng tract has the largest sand ridges, attaining heights of 300–400 m. The river system is rich in seasonal streams, which flow only in the summer—during monsoon or other heavy rains. The biggest rivers are the Jo Shui and Shuihe. There are many lakes but most of them are very small, except the Sogo Nur and Shara Burdu lakes.

Alaqa-Beki Daughter of Genghis Khan who by the 1220's was a major figure in Mongol China representing Onggud.

Al-Athir (1160 -1233) An Arab historian whose works are extremely important for the early years of Mongol expansion to 1231.

Sa'd Aldaulat of Abar
Jewish physician and vizier to Ilqan Arghun during the 13th century.

Aleppo (Hallab) was a large trading city, like Hamidiye, located in Syria at the western end of the Silk Road. Equidistant from the Mediterranean and the Euphrates, Aleppo rivals Damascus in its claim as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. After Islamic rulers conquered it, in A.D. 636, Aleppo succeeded Antioch as the most important Western destination for Silk Road caravans. The city’s souk (market) still occupies its original Silk Road site. More...

Alexander the Great (born c. 356 BC) The expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia contributes to opening the Silk Road between the East and West. Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of Macedon or Macedonia. By the age of thirty he was the creator of one of the largest empires in ancient history, stretching from the Ionian sea to the Himalaya. He is considered one of the most successful commanders of all time. Alexander was tutored by the famed philosopher Aristotle. In 336 BCE he succeeded his father Philip II of Macedon to the throne after he was assassinated. The Macedonian Empire stretched from the Adriatic sea to the Indus River. Following his desire to reach the "ends of the world and the Great Outer Sea," he invaded India in 326 BC, but was eventually forced to turn back.

It was after Alexander's Balkan campaign in Europe that Alexander crossed into Asia where in 334 BC the Battle of the Granicus River was fought in Northwestern Asia Minor near the site of Troy in modern-day Turkey. 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. 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. More...

Altai Mountains are a mountain range in central Asia, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together, and where the rivers Irtysh and Ob have their sources. The Altai Mountains are known as the original locus of the speakers of Turkic as well as other members of the Altaic language group.

Alma Ata (Almaty) The largest city in Kazakhstan (it was also the capital until 1997 when Astana was made the capital of Kazakhstan). In 10–14th centuries, the area was a popular destination as part of the trade routes of the Silk Road. At that time, Almaty became one of the trade, craft and agricultural centers on the Silk Road and possessed an official mint. The city was first mentioned as Almatu in books from the 13th century. After the 15th–18th centuries, trade activity decreased on this part of the Silk Road.

Amazons are a nation of all-female warriors in classical and Greek mythology. Herodotus (5th century BC, born in Halicarnassus modern day Bodrum, Turkey). placed them in a region bordering Scythia in Sarmatia (modern territory of Ukraine), while other historiographers place them in Asia Minor or India.

Amber Road was an ancient European trade route for the transfer of amber. As one of the waterways and ancient highways, for centuries the road led from Europe to Asia and back, and from northern Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. An important raw material, amber was transported from the North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts overland by way of the Vistula and Dnieper rivers to Italy, Greece, the Black Sea, and Egypt thousands of years ago. In Roman times, a main route ran south from the Baltic coast in Prussia through the land of the Boii (modern Czech Republic and Slovakia) to the head of the Adriatic Sea. The Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun had Baltic amber among his burial goods, and amber was sent from the North Sea to the temple of Apollo at Delphi as an offering. From the Black Sea, trade could continue to Asia along the Silk Road, and network of ancient trade route.

Amu Darya (Oxus) River is a major river in Central Asia. It is one of  the two major rivers running into the Aral Sea. A substantial part of the irrigated agriculture and civilization of western Turkistan was located along this region. The river's total length is 2,400 kilometers (1,500 mi). More...

Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey) The Silk Road between China and Europe ran right through Anatolia. Some Caravans proceeded to Europe through the Thrace region (the territory of Turkey which rests in Europe). There are many "Kervansaray's," found throughout Anatolia, which served as major stopover points of the Silk Road. Beginning in Anatolia, Alexander the Great swept across the Persian empire and beyond to conquer a territory that stretched from “Gibralter to Punjab.” Although his empire did not last beyond his death, in 323 B.C., Alexander the Great’s influence is evident in Central Asia’s Hellenistic Buddha statues. More...

Andalusia This region of Spain is south of the Iberian peninsula and is divided into eight provinces: Huelva, Seville, Cádiz, Córdoba, Málaga, Jaén, Granada and Almería. The name Andalusia traces back to the Arabic language Al-Andalus. As well as Muslim or "Moorish" influences, the region's history and culture have been influenced by the earlier Iberians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Roman Empire, Vandals, Visigoths, all of whom preceded the Muslims, who ruled from 711 to 1492. The geostrategic position of Andalusia in the extreme south of Europe, together with Morocco provided a gateway between Europe and Africa. In addition to Andalusia's position between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Andalusia has figured prominently in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean due to its links to the trade routes between Europe and North Africa. Berber traders played a vital role. (See Saharan Trade Routes) More...

Andrew of Perugia Franciscan bishop of Zaiton or Quanzhou, in Fujian, during the early 14th century.

Animism refers to the belief that non-human entities are spiritual beings, or at least embody some kind of life-principle. Animistic beliefs were widespread in Central Asia, and exist today. More...

Antioch (Antakya) Under the Romans, the Silk Road ended at Antioch, the final destination for caravans coming from the west, and the last stop for good traveling to Rome. The city is located north of Palmyra and Damascus.

Anxi (Guazhou) is located between Jiayuguan and Dunhuang in China. The Yulin Grottoes and the ruins of the ancient city of Suoyang are located nearby.

Anxi (Parthia, or Arsacid Empire) The merchants of Anxi monopolized the trade between China and Rome c. 100.AD. Anxi was a key transit station on the Silk Road, also known as the Arsacid territories. The Parthian Empire (247 BC – 224 AD) was a major Iranian political and cultural power in the Ancient Near East. It was founded in the mid-3rd century BC by Arsaces I of Parthia. The empire, located on the Silk Road between the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean Basin and the Han Dynasty in China, became a center of trade and commerce. In 97 AD, in order to establish trade relations with Rome directly, China sent a military ambassador, Gan Ying, to cultivate relations with the Roman Empire. However, because the merchants of Anxi monopolized the trade between China and Rome and profited by selling Chinese silk to Romans at very high prices, the Anxi merchants exaggerated the hardships of crossing the sea and persuaded Gan Ying to give up his travel. As a result Gan Ying returned to China. He brought back reliable and detailed information about Central Asia and is known in historical records as the first Chinese who went the furthest west during antiquity.

Chinese silk from Mawangdui, 2nd century BC, Han Dynasty.
Silk from China was perhaps the most lucrative luxury item the Parthians traded at the western end of the Silk Road.

Apak Hoja Tomb in Kashgar, Xinjiang was built around 1640 for Yusuf Hoja, the father of Apak Hoja, who was a well-known sage and teacher of a branch of Sufism. Apak Hoja died in 1693. Many generations of their descendants have also been buried here. The tomb consists of buildings that include the dome shaped Tomb Hall, a Teaching Hall, the Great Hall of Prayer, and the gate tower.

Arabia Many kingdoms emerged in southern Arabia based on the monopoly of two prized goods of ancient times: frankincense and myrrh. These two resins only grow in eastern Yemen and southern Oman and in some parts of Somalia. Important trade routes, known collectively as the "Incense Route" were mostly controlled by the Arabs, who brought frankincense and myrrh by camel caravan from South Arabia. The incense trade flourished from South Arabia to the Mediterranean between roughly the 3rd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The kingdoms included the: Saba kingdom, c. 950 BC–3rd century AD; Ma'in kingdom, c. 4th–2nd century BC; Qataban kingdom, c. 4th–1st century BC; Hadhramaut kingdom, c. 4th century BC–3rd century AD; and the Himyar kingdom, c. 2nd century BC–6th century AD.

Aral Sea Large semi-saline sea in Central Asia which is fed by the Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya Rivers.

Architecture of Central Asia has been influenced by a diverse array of architectural traditions such as Russian architecture during the eras of tsarist and Soviet rule, Islamic architecture which came earlier, Persian architecture, and Chinese architecture. More...

Ascelinus and Simon of San Quentin Dominican envoys of the Pope to the Mongols (1245-1248), who went from the Levant into the southern Caucasus and returned (accompanied by Mongol envoys) via Tabriz, Mosul, Aleppo, Antioch and Acre. There is information about the embassy in Matthew Paris's chronicle as well as in an account written by Simon of San Quentin.

Ashgabat The capital of Turkmenistan, and the ancient capital of the Parthian Empire, located near Nisa among the ruins of the Silk Road. The city arose from the ruins of the Silk Road city of Konjikala, which was known as a wine-producing village in 2nd century BCE, and was leveled by an earthquake in 1st century BCE. Konjikala was rebuilt because of its advantageous location on the Silk Road and it flourished until the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century CE. More...

Astana-Karakhoja Ancient Tombs are part of the underground museum of Turpan, and are considered the living archives of Gaochang. Astana means capital in Uyghur. Karakhoja is the name of a legendary hero of the ancient Uygur Kingdom who protected his people from evil by killing a vicious dragon. The tombs are located 42 km southeast of Turpan city and 6 km from the Ancient City of Gaochang. The tombs and area served as the cemetery of the ancient Gaochang residents, both aristocrats and commoners. Among the excavated 456 tombs, the Gaochang king's tomb has not yet been found.

Astrakhan A Russian Silk Road city located north of the Caspian Sea. After 565 AD, Turkic groups who had started to expand their empire formed their own direct trade route to the north allowing goods to pass via the Caspian Sea to Baku or Astrakhan, and on towards the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The Kazakhs became so powerful during this period that they effectively controlled the Caspian Sea trade. Merchants therefore had a choice of routes which seriously challenged the Persian role as middlemen. The name Astrakhan, once a capitol of the Golden Horde, began to appear in texts as Xacitarxan in the 13th Century. In 1395 the city was sacked by Timur, but it was reborn as an important city along the northern branches of the Silk Road and the capitol of the Astrakhan Khanate between 1459 and 1556.

Astrolabe An astrolabe is a historical astronomical instrument used by astronomers, navigators, and astrologers. Its many uses include locating and predicting the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars; determining local time; surveying; triangulation; and to cast horoscopes. Astrolabes were used in Classical Antiquity and through the Islamic Golden Age and the European Middle Ages and Renaissance for these purposes. In the Islamic world, they were also used to calculate the Qibla and to find the times for Salah prayers. More...

Astronomy Detailed records of astronomical observations began during the Warring States period (4th century BC) and flourished in China from the Han period onwards. Some elements of Indian astronomy reached China with the expansion of Buddhism during the Later Han Dynasty (25–220 AD), but the most detailed incorporation of Indian astronomical thought occurred during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when numerous Indian astronomers took up residence in the Chinese capital, and Chinese scholars like the great Tantric Buddhist monk and mathematician Yi Xing mastered its system.

Islamic astronomers, collaborated closely with their Chinese colleagues during the Yuan Dynasty. In the history of astronomy, Islamic astronomy or Arabic astronomy refers to the astronomical developments made in the Islamic world, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age (8th–15th centuries), and mostly written in the Arabic language. These developments mostly took place in the Middle East, Central Asia, Al-Andalus in Spain, North Africa, and later in the Far East and India.  More...

Avars The Avars were a nomadic people of Eurasia who established an empire centered in southern Hungary, and area of Europe, in the early 6th century.

Avicenna  (Abu Ali Ibn Sina) Born around 980 in Bukhara (Uzbekistan), Avicenna was the greatest philosopher and physician in the medieval world, whose Canon of Medicine was the standard textbook for Western doctors until the 17th century. He was a traveler (1002-1021 CE), polymath of Persian origin, and the foremost physician and philosopher of his time. He was also an astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, Islamic psychologist, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, Maktab teacher, physicist, poet, and scientist. Ibn Sīnā studied medicine under a physician named Koushyar. Avicenna created an extensive corpus of works during what is commonly known as Islam's Golden Age, in which the translations of Graeco-Roman, Persian and Indian texts were studied extensively. The study of Quran and Hadith also thrived. During the days of Avicenna , the great libraries of Balkh, Khwarezm, Gorgan, Rey, Isfahan and Hamedan also flourished. As various texts, such as the 'Ahd with Bahmanyar show, Avicenna debated philosophical points with the greatest scholars of the time. As Aruzi Samarqandi describes in his four articles before Avicenna left Khwarezm he had met Abu Rayhan Biruni (a famous scientist and astronomer), Abu Nasr Iraqi (a renowned mathematician), Abu Sahl Masihi (a respected philosopher) and Abu al-Khayr Khammar (a great physician). In the 9th to 11th centuries Samanid Central Asia produced some of history's most important thinkers. More...

Axum (See Aksum) The Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum, or Axum.

Ayaz Qala One of the many castles found in the desert areas of ancient Khorezm, in Uzbekistan.