The story of The Silk Road is a fascinating one full of military conquest, fearless explorers, religious pilgrims and great thinkers, along with the humble tradesmen who risked life and limb for profit as they led their loaded caravans across dangerous deserts, mountains and steppes.
Historical figures like Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane were all familiar with The Silk Road which scholars say first became a real link around 100 BC. It lasted until the 15th century when newly-discovered sea routes to Asia opened up.
Silk was, of course, why the great highway was established in the first place. According to the Chinese, it was disovered one day when a queen accidently dropped a silkworm cocoon into her hot cup of tea, and as she plucked it out, unravelled a shiny, silken thread.
Woven into fabric and sent west, silk soon became the most coveted, and pricey, textile in Rome and some historians claim the Romans' profligate spending on the gossamer stuff helped bring about the fall of their empire, while their rivals to the east grew rich on the silk trade.
All around the Mediterranean, priests and potentates, including Cleopatra, dressed themselves in silk, especially that cloth which had been coloured by purple dyes made from mollusc shells.
More Than Silk
There were many other luxury goods apart from silk moving along the road. Heading west were porcelain, furs, spices, gems and other exotic products of Asia. Chinese inventions like gunpowder and paper first travelled to Europe in this manner, while the Chinese coveted, along with many other things, Syrian jugglers and acrobats.
Being shipped east were cosmetics, silver, gold, amber, ivory, carpets, perfume and glass from Europe, Central Asia, Arabia and Africa.
A Road of Ideas
But as merchants and other travellers traversed The Silk Road, they also carried with them culture, art, philosophies and beliefs. Buddhism came to China on The Silk Road and Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism all had their itinerant proselytisers.
Goods and ideas were exchanged in cities with exotic names like Antioch, Babylon, Erzerum, Hamadn, Bukhara, Samarkand, Kashgar and Xian, as well as in dozens of others whose names are now lost in time.
However, many remain and travellers again have the chance to visit these sites, relive the legends and capture some of the magic.