Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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Babur establishes the foundations of  the Mughal Empire in India in the late 15th century. Babur was a direct descendant of Timur through his father, and a descendant also of Genghis Khan through his mother. Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) wrote a stunning memoir of his early life and strugglesin Central Asia and Afghanistan before finally settling in northern India and founding the Mughal Empire. His "Baburnama" offers a highly educated Central Asian Muslim's observations of the world in which he lived. There is much on the political and military struggles of his time, but also extensive descriptive sections on the physical and human geography, the flora and fauna, nomads in their pastures and urban environments enriched by architecture, music, and the Persian and Turkic literature patronized by the Timurids. Babur was born into an era of dynastic struggles in Central Asia and sought rule over the Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Fergana. He was able to establish a base in Kabul and conquered much of the Indian subcontinent. More...

Bach Dang is the area where the Mongols were defeated in 1288 after they had swept across Tonkin (northern Vietnam), to the South China Sea, taking Hanoi in 1257. The Bach Dang battle took place at the Bach Dang River in present-day northern Vietnam, east of Hanoi. Not only was the the invading army of the Mongol-Yuan Dynasty defeated, but a Mongol supply fleet was also destroyed. (Vietnam was a tributary state to its larger neighbor China for much of its history, but repelled invasions by the Chinese as well as three invasions by the Mongols).

Bactria (Bactriana or Tukharistan, Tokharistan, Tocharistan) was the ancient name of a historical region in Central Asia, located between the range of the Hindu Kush and the Amu Darya (Oxus). It was a part of the northeastern periphery of the Iranian world, now part of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. (See Kushan Empire).

Baghdad Within a generation of its founding in the 8th century, Baghdad became the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and a hub of learning and commerce. The House of Wisdom was dedicated to the translation of Greek, Middle Persian and Syriac works. Scholars headed to Baghdad from all over the Abbasid empire, facilitating the introduction of Greek and Indian science into the Arab and Islamic world. Baghdad was likely the largest city in the world from shortly after its foundation until the mid-tenth century, when it was tied by Córdoba in Spain. Located along the Tigris River, Baghdad evolved into a significant cultural, commercial, and intellectual center for the Islamic World. This in addition to housing several key academic institutions garnered the city a worldwide reputation as the "Center of Learning."  In 1258, Baghdad was captured by the Mongols. When Baghdad fell as a great city, trade shifted to the successor capitals: Reyy, Balk, Bukhara, and Ghazni. More...

Tamim ibn Bahr
According to the Russian Orientalist Vladimir Minorsky, Tamim ibn Bahr is "the only Muslim traveler who has left a record of his visit to the Uyghur capital on the Orkhon, i.e., to Kharabalghasun in present-day Mongolia." The author likely was from Khorasan and was sent to the East in connection with political upheavals in Transoxiana. Only an abridged version of his narrative survives, known especially from Yaqut's geographical dictionary.

Baima (White Horse Village) Baima Village is two kilometers from Dunhuang. The White Horse Pagoda (baima ta) located here was originally built in 386 AD and boasts nine stories and seven meters in diameter. Legend has it that roughly 1,350 years ago, a prominent monk was riding to Japan to spread Buddhism. On the way, his horse died in Dunhuang. The monk was so inconsolable that he buried his horse and built a pagoda in memory of it. An historically documented period of the village is the siege of Baima c. 200 AD. Guan Yu (162–219), a general serving during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China, together with Zhang Liao led an attack on Yuan Shao's troops at Baima. Guan Yu slew Yan Liang in the battle.

Baikal Lake is the deepest lake in the world, situated in Eastern Siberia, in the Buryat Autonomous Republic and Irkutsk Region of Russia, and is the natural boundary between Russian Siberia and present-day Mongolia. It plays a momentous role in Mongol and Turkic history. The Secret History of The Mongols relates, through its ancestral myth, how the Mongol people came into being and travelled across the "inland sea." 

Balasagun (See Sogdiana)

Baliq Turkic word meaning city or town, widely used in Mongol China (examples include the winter capital of Daidu (Beijing) known as "Qanbaliq," and Zhen-ding which became known as "Aqbalik" in north central China.

Balkh (northern Afghanistan) One of the oldest cities in the world, and a center of Zoroastrianism. Settled in 2500 B.C., Balkh was a wealthy trading center, once the jewel of the Kushan kingdom, its horses, gems, and sesame seeds traveled to China, along with Buddhism. It was destroyed by the Mongols after a rebellion.

Balkhash Lake A large fresh water lake in Central Asia, with nearby pastures that were inhabited by nomads.

Bamiyan (Afghanistan) The famed Silk Road city of Bamiyan in Afghanistan lies in the Hindu Kush mountain region. It was once famous for its two 6th century monumental statues of standing Buddhas, carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region, 230 km northwest of Kabul. The statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art. This section of the Silk Road was a southern sub-branch which ran between Mashad, Kabul, Lahore and New Delhi in India. (The statues were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. After the international community condemned the destruction, countries have pledged support for their rebuilding).

Giosofat Barbaro
A merchant who spent a decade and a half in the Venetian colony of Tana at the mouth of the Don River and then in the 1470s traveled as an ambassador to Persia. In his "Journey to Tana" he describes the regions adjoining the Black Sea, as well as distant Muscovy, which he never visited; his "Journey to Persia" follows closely his official report on his mission. The latter incorporates information from other travelers and presumably was influenced by the author's having seen the Persian travels of Contrarini.

Hayreddin Pasha
(c. 1478 – 1546, known as Hızır Reis before being promoted to the rank of Pasha and becoming Kaptan-ı Derya, Fleet Admiral of the Ottoman Navy) was an Ottoman admiral who dominated the Mediterranean for decades. More...

Barkol Lake is located in northeastern Xinjiang China. It is an alpine lake surrounded by mountain ranges.

Barter is the trade of goods, or services, without the exchange of money. Many items were bartered for others along the Silk Routes, and objects often changed hands several times.

Battuta (1304-1368/9 or 1377) (Hajji Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Abdullah Al Lawati Al Tanji Ibn Battuta) (Arabic: أبو عبد الله محمد ابن عبد الله اللواتي الطنجي بن بطوطة‎), was a Moroccan Muslim scholar and traveler who is known for the account of his travels and excursions called the Rihla (voyage in Arabic). His journeys lasted for a period of nearly thirty years and covered almost the entirety of the known Islamic world and beyond, extending from North Africa, West Africa, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in the West, to the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, Southeast Asia and China in the East, a distance readily surpassing that of his predecessors and his near-contemporary Marco Polo. With this extensive account of his journey, Ibn Battuta is often considered as one of the greatest travelers' ever. His initial goal was to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca (the Hajj); his interest in Muslim holy men and places dominates portions of his text, which is also part autobiography and part descriptive compendium. Among the most valuable sections are his descriptions of Anatolia, the territories and customs of the Golden Horde, and Southern India. More...

Bayanbulak Nature Reserve is located is Xinjiang, China, on the Bayanbulak Grassland in the Uldus basin of the Tianshan Mountains. It is a vast highland prairie about 270 kilometers northwest of Korla, and is the second largest grassland in China. Its Mongolian name which means "Rich Fountains" is due to the plentiful water supply that supports the luxurious grasslands, numerous varieties of flowers and animals.

Bayanchur Khan of the Turkic Uyghur Khaganate was the Tang Dynasty ally after the rebellion of An Lushan during the Tang Dynasty in 755. The Khagan helped the Chinese Tang in quelling several rebellions and defeating invading Tibetan forces from the south, who aimed at capturing the Tang capital of Chang'an. The Uyghurs received tribute from the Chinese in 757. Bayanchur Khan married the daughter of the Chinese Emperor, Princess Ningo.

Bayingolin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture (Bayin'guoleng) is situated in the southeast of Xinjiang, with neighboring provinces Gansu and Qinghai to the east. It is separated from Tibet by the Kunlun Mountains in the south. Within the Xinjiang Bayingolin Prefecture, it is bordered by city of Hotan in the west, and is near Ili, Changji, Urumqi, Turpan and Kumul with the Tianshan Mountains in the north acting as the boundary between Bayingolin and these regions. The prefecture consists of three morphologic regions: Tianshan Mountains, Tarim Basin and Kunlun-Arjin Mountains. Mountainous regions make up forty-nine percent of Bayingolin's territory. In addition, it contains the Takla Makan Desert in the center, and vast plains in the north. 

Beiting The site of the ancient city of Beiting is located in Hubaozi, about 12 kilometers north of Jimusaer County in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China.

Gentile Bellini
(c. 1429–1507) born in Venice was an Italian painter who was sent to Istanbul by the Venetian Senate. Because Venice was a very important city where trade and cultures merged on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, it provided gateways to Asia, Africa, and beyond. As the most prestigious painter in Venice, Gentile was chosen in 1479 by the government of Venice to work for Sultan Mehmed II in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Gentile was sent by the Venetian Senate to the new Ottoman capital Constantinople as part of the peace settlement between Venice and the Turks. His role in East-West relations was not only in the capacity of a visiting painter, but he also served as a cultural ambassador for Venice.

The well-known 1480 portrait of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, by the Italian painter Gentile Bellini

Benedict the Pole (c. 1200 – 1280) was a Polish Franciscan friar, traveler and explorer who accompanied Giovanni da Pian del Carpine in his journey as delegate of Pope Innocent IV to the Great Khan Güyük of the Mongol Empire in 1245-1247. He was the author of the brief chronicle De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros (On the travel of Franciscan friars to the Tatars), published only in the 1839 in France (and a year later in Poland) and a longer work Historia Tartarorum (The history of the Tatars), discovered and published only in 1965 by the academics of Yale University. This journey preceded that of Marco Polo. The report of Benedict is important because it includes a copy of the letter of the Great Khan to the Pope. (See Carpine) More...

Bering (Behring) Strait has been the subject of scientific speculation. It has been proposed that humans migrated from Asia to North America across a land bridge at a time when lower ocean levels exposed a ridge beneath the ocean. This would have allowed humans to walk from Siberia to Alaska, thus populating North and South America (see History of the Americas). It is about 53 miles (85 km) wide, with the USA on one side, and Russia on the other. A Russian explorer of Siberia, Semyon Dezhnyov (1648), was the first recorded European to pass through the Bering Strait. There are numerous theories that the Native Indians of North and South America are related to Mongol, Turkic and/or and other ancient nomadic Asian peoples. More...

Beshbalik (Beshbaliq, Beshbalyk, Jimsar) Uighur capital in eastern Turkistan at the time of the Uighur submission to the Mongols (1209). The name Beshbalik first appears in history in the description of the events of 713 in the Turkic Kul Tegin inscription. It was one of the largest of 5 towns in the Uyghur Khaganate of Mongolia. Jimsar city was established in the south of the ruins of Beshbalik in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and is under the administration of the Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture in the People's Republic of China. (See Karabalghasun, Gaochang) More...

Beypazari an old town in Turkey, meaning "Marketplace of Lords," on the silk road near Ankara.

Bezelik Thousand Buddha Caves are a complex of Buddhist cave grottos dating from the 5th to the 9th centuries between the cities of Turpan and Shanshan (Loulan) at the north-east of the Taklamakan Desert near the ancient ruins of the ancient Uyghur and Han capital Gaochang (located in the Mutou Valley, a gorge in the Flaming Mountains of China). Turpan became a center of Buddhism on the Silk Road owing to its geographic location. More...

Bingling Temple  is a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns in a canyon along the Yellow River in Gansu province in China. The caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 CE at the end of the Western Jin Dynasty. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can be connected to the artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang. More...

(973-1046) From Khorezm (or Khwarazm) was the world's foremost astronomer of his age, who knew 500 years before Copernicus that the earth rotated and that it circled around the sun. He estimated the distance to the moon to within 20 km. In the 9th to 11th centuries Samanid Central Asia produced some of history's most important thinkers. Biruni was a polymath with an interest in various practical and scholarly fields that relate to what nowadays is described as physics, anthropology, comparative sociology, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, history, geography, mathematics, medicine, psychology, philosophy, and theology. He is well-known for his scientific work, as well as his world map of the distribution of land and sea (1029), and the "Chronology of the Ancient Nations." More...

Black Death (Bubonic plague) is a general term for a series of epidemics that struck Europe after 1347. The earliest incidence of the disease seems to have been in Central Asia (there is no evidence of any outbreak in China preceding that of Europe). The Bubonic plague which devastated Europe in the 14th century is believed to have come via the Silk Road. Of the many theories, one theory is that garments were contaminated with plague-bearing flea eggs, and were brought from somewhere in Central Asia. Once the eggs hatched into fleas, they infested local rodents (and perhaps some rats eventually went on ships and were carried to port cities in Italy). There the plague spread, via fleas, to other rats, and then to people.

Bohemond Vi of Antioch and Tripoli
Crusader ruler and ally of the Mongols who provided the only Western troops ever to fight with the Mongols during an attack on Baghdad. He was the brother-in-law of Het'um of Lesser Armenia.

Book of Silk The Divination by Astrological and Meteorological Phenomena (Chinese: 天文氣象雜占; pinyin: Tian Wen Qi Xiang Za Zhan), also known as the "Book of Silk," is an ancient astronomy silk manuscript compiled by Chinese astronomers of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) and found in the Mawangdui tomb of China in 1973. It lists 29 comets that appeared over a period of about 300 years. It is now exhibited in the Hunan Provincial Museum.

Bortala (Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture) The name of the prefecture, Bortala, was derived from Bolatuoer which was recorded in the history of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Located in the northwest of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Bortala Mongol Autonomous Prefecture neighbors Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture in the south and is bordered by the Republic of Kazakhstan in the north and west. Bortala was once an important passage on the north path of the ancient Silk Road.

Bosphorus (Bosporus) Strait which divides the city of Istanbul located in Turkey, connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It also separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey (Trace), and therefore separates the two continents of Asia and Europe. Bordered on both sides by the city of Istanbul, the strait is one of the world's most strategic waterways. Crossed by two large suspension bridges, the strait is just over 2 miles across at its widest point. (Note: The Sea of Marmara is sometimes considered a part of the Mediterranean Sea since it opens onto the Aegean Sea which is a part of Mediterranean).

The Bosphorus, was not only a major point of trade for the network of overland and maritime Silk Routes, it is also a location where major civilizations of the world have overlapped and intermingled for 8,500 years. The Strait, not only bridges seas, but also cultures and religions, in short the east and west, north and south. This is one of the reasons Istanbul is often referred to as "the crossroad of civilizations." (According to recent excavations, archaeologists have discovered several 8000-year-old cremation urns and found settlements and burial grounds dating back 8000 years).  More...

Brahmi The ancient script from which most Indic scripts and the Tibetan script developed. In Central Asia a late form of Brahmi is found in many manuscripts in the Sanskrit, Khotanese and Kuchean languages.

British East India Company (a.k.a. East India Company, East India Trading Company, English East India Company) was a 17th - 19th century English trading company that was formed initially for pursuing trade with the East Indies, but that ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and China. The East India Company traded mainly in silk, cotton, indigo dye, saltpetre, tea, and, into China, illegal opium. The Company also came to rule large swathes of India, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions, to the exclusion, gradually, of its commercial pursuits. More...

Bubonic plague (See Black Death)

Buscarello De Gisolf Genoese merchant and Ilqanate envoy to Europe. He helped establish contacts between the Papacy and the Ilqanate of Arghun in the 13th century, and presented the latter's letter to Edward I of England. His retinue probably included the first Mongol to reach Europe.

Buddha (The Buddha) The name used in all Buddhist schools for the founder of the religion, the prince who renounced the world, attained enlightenment and taught the Dharma. Buddha is 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. More...

Buddhism Like other great religions, Buddhism thrived and was spread for hundreds of centuries along the Silk Road. Buddhism (Pali/Sanskrit: बौद्ध धर्म Buddh Dharma) is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha ( "the awakened one"). Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. He is recognized by adherents as an awakened teacher. Two major branches of Buddhism are recognized: Theravada ("The School of the Elders") and Mahayana ("The Great Vehicle"). Theravada—the oldest surviving branch—has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, and Mahayana is found throughout East Asia and includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon, Tendai and Shinnyo-en. In some classifications Vajrayana, a subcategory of Mahayana, is recognized as a third branch. While Buddhism remains most popular within Asia, both branches are now found throughout the world.

Buddhism spreads beyond India
According to the edicts of Aśoka, emissaries were sent to various countries west of India in order to spread Buddhism (Dharma), particularly in eastern provinces of the neighboring Seleucid Empire, and even farther to Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean. This led, a century later, to the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and to the development of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. During this period Buddhism was exposed to a variety of influences, from Persian and Greek civilization, and from changing trends in non-Buddhist Indian religions—themselves influenced by Buddhism. It is a matter of disagreement among scholars whether or not these emissaries were accompanied by Buddhist missionaries.

The Theravada school spread south from India in the 3rd century BC, to Sri Lanka and Thailand and Burma, and later to Indonesia. The Dharmagupta school spread (also in the 3rd century BC) north to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria (Afghanistan). In the 2nd century AD, Mahayana Sutras spread from that general region to China, and then to Korea and Japan, and were translated into Chinese. During the Indian period of Esoteric Buddhism (from the 8th century onwards), Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and Mongolia. However, by the late Middle Ages, Buddhism had become virtually extinct in India. Various sources put the number of Buddhists in the world at between 230 million and 500 million, making it the world's fourth-largest religion. More...

Giant Buddha, Leshan, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism in Southeast Asia is mostly Theravadin. Vietnam however had in pre-Communist times a Mahayana majority due to Chinese influence. Indonesia was Mahayana Buddhist since the time of the Sailendra and Srivijaya Empires, but Mahayana Buddhism in Indonesia is now largely practiced by the Chinese diaspora, as in Singapore and Malaysia. Southeast Asian countries with a Theravada Buddhist majority are Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Mahayana Buddhism with traditional Chinese religions, such as Taoism and Confucianism (Ancestor Worship), is the predominant religion of mostly Chinese communities in Singapore where it's the largest religion; while in Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Indonesia it is a strong minority. In Vietnam, the predominant religion is Mahayana Buddhism, however, there is also a unique Vietnamese form of Buddhism which evolved in the southern provinces, and is a combination of Theravada and Mahayana.

Bukhara (city in modern-day Uzbekistan) The region around Bukhara has been inhabited for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for half that time. Located on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and study of religion. The historic center of Bukhara, which contains numerous Muslim historic sites, such as mosques and madrasahs, has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Sites. Bukhara has also been known as the heart of the 'Great Game.'

Phoenix on the portal of Nadir Divan-Beghi madrasah which is part of the Lab-i Hauz complex

One of the most impressive monuments in Bukhara, the 12th-century Kalon Minaret

Bursa One of the capitals of the Ottoman Empire, Bursa is famous for sericulture and elaborate silk textiles. There are several ancient commercial buildings, known as "Kervansaray" in Bursa, which was a major stopover point along the Silk Routes of Turkey.

The Koza Han is a two-story Caravanserai in Bursa, Turkey (Koza means "cocoon" in Turkish)

During the summer months, silk farmers from various regions arrived in Bursa, the center of the Silk trade in Turkey. With them they brought huge bales of silk cocoons, turning the historic Koza Han into a great silk market, where buyers sought to purchase cocoons. Buyers included manufacturers of silk carpets from Hereke and Kayseri (known to produce some of the best quality silk carpets in the world). More...

Byzantine Empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) The Byzantine Empire (or Byzantium) was the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman Empire throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Centered around the capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), it was ruled by emperors in direct succession to the ancient Roman emperors after the collapse of Western Roman Empire. The distinction between "Roman Empire" and "Byzantine Empire" is largely a modern convention (it is not possible to assign a date of separation, but the impact of an important historic event was Emperor Constantine I's transfer of the capital in 324 from Nicomedia in Anatolia, to Byzantium on the Bosphorus, which became Constantinople -- alternatively "New Rome").

The Byzantine Empire existed for more than a thousand years (c. 306-1453 AD). During its existence, the Empire remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces in Europe, despite setbacks and territorial losses. The Empire recovered during the Macedonian dynasty, rising again to become a pre-eminent power in the Eastern Mediterranean by the late 10th century, rivaling the Fatimid Caliphate. After 1071, however, much of Asia Minor, the Empire's heartland, was lost to the Seljuk Turks. The Empire received a mortal blow in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade, when it was dissolved and divided into competing Byzantine Greek and Latin realms. Despite the eventual recovery of Constantinople and re-establishment of the Empire in 1261, under the Palaiologan emperors, successive civil wars in the 14th century further sapped the Empire's strength. Most of its remaining territory was lost in the Byzantine–Ottoman Wars, culminating in the Fall of Constantinople and its remaining territories to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. More...