January 07, 2010

"Traveling the Silk Road" at the American Museum of Natural History

The mythical Silk Road was actually not a road at all but an ancient system of trade routes that connected China in the East to Arabia in the West and up into Southern Europe. Traveling by camel, caravan or ship, merchants and traders transported goods from one end of Asia to the other and though this was primarily a commercial enterprise the unofficial exchange of languages, religions, cultures and ideas brought benefits that last to this day.

Now on view at The American Museum of Natural History, that castle-like building covering four entire city blocks on Central Park West, is "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World". While this exhibition focus' on just one of the many routes used, overland from Xi'an to Baghdad, it is an interesting look at that part of the world about 1,000 years ago.

At that time Xi'an was one of the world's largest cities and the capitol of China. The production and weaving of silk was a major industry and with their invention of paper, information could be spread via the written word. Camels loaded with hundreds of pounds of merchandise traveled across the Gobi Desert to Turfan, the next major stop and a lush oasis with a thriving night market. Here, exotic goods such as furs, gems, ceramics, fruits, spices, medicines, aromatic oils and textiles were traded and loaded back onto camels to continue the journey through the desert and mountains to Samarkand. The Sogdian people were masters of trade and earned a reputation as great entertainers to the visiting merchants. Samarkand served as a center for services required for travelers including camel drivers, guides and guest houses and the region became very prosperous. The final stop on our journey is Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world and a meeting place for scholars, scientists and philosophers. As well as amazing scientific instruments and mechanical devices, Persia was a producer of glass which was traded to China where it was valued as a rare jewel. The journey of 4,600 miles over six months was complete.

Beside the transportation and trade of goods and objects the Silk Route provided a conduit for the practices, beliefs and artistic expressions of the many cultures along the way. Religions crossed regional lines as tradesmen practiced their faiths in the various temples and shrines that sprang up to accommodate the travelers. Ideas and inventions from the Far to Middle East expanded and spread along paths and maritime routes carried by camels, both one-humped and two, and ships blown by the trade winds through the South China and Bengal Seas.

While this current exhibition is by no means comprehensive, it does give the visitor an appreciation for the history and importance of the Silk Routes - how this ancient transcontinental trading system was actually the original global economy and lay the groundwork for our Modern civilization. A fascinating tale indeed!

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