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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road


Geography & History


The area covered by the Silk Road is one of the largest landlocked regions of the world. It has deserts, mountains, few navigable waterways, and soil that does not lend itself to extensive crop agriculture. This is all we need to know to understand that for nomads in this region, migration with livestock is the only means of survival. It also helps us understand the importance of horses in nomads' lives. Horses were used for transportation and were also the mainstay of nomad commerce, as they were traded to the settled nations that bordered the area.

The relationship between nomads and the settled civilizations that surrounded this vast land was one of commerce as well as warfare. The nomads' trade was not based on gain but rather on providing themselves with goods they did not produce. In exchange for much-prized horses necessary for their internal and external defense, the settled civilizations provided textiles (silk and linen), tea, and quite often grain. But political alliances and empire building by various dynasties within the settled civilizations also led to conflict between the nomads and their neighbors. Nomads would forge shifting alliances with one another and engage in raids against settled civilizations, primarily to acquire goods and booty. It is a paradox that, in order to resist the attacks of the nomads, the settled civilizations needed the horses that only the nomads could provide.

Nomads form two distinct cultural groups: Turkic and Mongolian. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks, among others, are Turkic-language-speaking nomads. For centuries, they traveled the riverine valleys and grasslands with their animals: horses, Bactrian camels and dromedaries, yaks, oxen, mules, and donkeys. Certain Turkic nomadic groups moved into Anatolia and by the 15th century were strong enough to defeat the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople (Istanbul) and establish the powerful and long-lived Ottoman Empire.

The Mongols journeyed across Central Asia from their homeland in Mongolia with their herds of horses, horned cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Under Genghis (Chinghis) Khan the Mongols built a nomadic empire that in the 13th and 14th centuries stretched from the Black Sea at the edge of Europe to the Pacific coast in China. Within this empire, the need to transport people, goods, and information resulted in a system of roads, rest houses for travelers, and a pony-express-like communication system. Genghis Khan's descendants later formed empires in South Asia, Iran, Central Asia, and China.

Besides the Turkic and Mongolian nomads, other nomadic groups have traveled along the Silk Road region and continue to do so. Romany (Gypsies), thought to have originated in India, have moved across Asia to Europe, with their distinctive language, music, and other traditions reflecting cultures they have encountered. Tibetan nomads moved among the highest Himalayan valleys and passes.

For the nomads, the redrawing of the maps of Europe and the Middle East following World War I and II, the independence of former British and French colonies, and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that many of their migration routes were cut off by the creation of new national boundaries. Government policies of these new nations have encouraged nomadic communities to settle in fixed locales and to change their way of making a living. In addition, while natural disasters have always been a part of the nomads' world, ecological pressures of the 20th and 21st centuries have introduced new hazards. These include industrialization (leading to air pollution and water contamination), the encroachment of settled communities on formerly nomadic areas (soil erosion being one result), and global warming. These new hazards are forcing nomads to travel increasing distances with their herds in order to graze them successfully, to find alternate ways of supporting their nomadic existence, or even to abandon it altogether. Those nomads who have settled give new form to old practices: for example, their houses, although no longer portable, may be shaped like yurts.


Genghis (Chinghis) Khan and the Mongol Empire
In the early 13th century the Mongol Genghis Khan consolidated most of the nomads on the steppe, put together an extraordinarily well-disciplined army, and created an empire greater than any that had existed before. His Mongolian empire encompassed north China, Central Asia, much of Russia, especially Siberia, and extended to today's Eastern Europe and parts of Iran.

Saying that an "empire is conquered on horseback but it cannot be governed on horseback," Genghis Khan used local officials of his conquered territories such as Uyghur Turks from Turpan and Chinese from north China to advise him on the governance of his new territories.

After Genghis Khan's death, Mongolian nobles met to elect his successor. They chose his son, who was not a universally popular choice and did not rule for long. After the son's death there was a struggle for the Great Khanate, and by the 1260s the empire broke into four autonomous, and powerful, Mongol empires: 1) the Golden Horde in Russia; 2) the Chaghadai Khanate in Central Asia; 3) the Ilkhanate in Iran; 4) the Yuan dynasty in China, whose first emperor, Kublai Khan, was Genghis Khan's grandson.

During the latter half of the 13th century and into the middle of the 14th century these four empires controlled the area covered by the Silk Road and brought stability to it, creating a period called Pax Mongolica (Mongolian Peace). The Mongols during this period were cosmopolitan in their outlook and tolerant of many religions, and they encouraged trade with Europe. It was to Kublai's court that Marco Polo traveled, as did the first papal envoys. And Rabban Sauma (a Chinese Assyrian Christian) traveled from the capital in Dadu (present-day Beijing) to Paris. During the Pax Mongolica the different parts of the empire were influenced by the religions of the regions they had conquered. The Mongols in China and Mongolia adopted Buddhism, while those in Central Asia and Iran adopted Islam.

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • Language: The Mongols used the script of the Turkic-speaking Uyghur merchants of Turkistan (present-day Xinjiang in China). The Uyghurs, too, were nomadic, and they had adopted their script from the Sogdians from Central Asia (near Samarkand), who were among the most active traders along the Silk Road, especially during the 8th century. The Sogdians in turn had taken their alphabet originally from Aramaic, the language of Southwest Asia (the region around present-day Syria, Iraq, and Iran). Aramaic is still used by the Assyrian Christian Church.
  • Commerce: The Mongols used a nationwide system of paper currency long before such money was used in Europe.
  • Travel: The Pax Mongolica was a time of extensive travel between Europe and the various Mongol empires. There are many written accounts by travelers of the period — one by the papal envoy John of Plano Carpini in the mid-13th century gave one of the first reports of the Mongolian ger. Russian soldiers, French jewelers, and Italian monks wrote of their travels across the Silk Road all the way to the Yuan dynasty capital of Dadu (present-day Beijing), as did Rabban Sauma, the first from China to travel the complete distance between there and Europe.
  • Religion: While Islam and Buddhism were the most prominent religions during the Pax Mongolica, other religions were practiced and for the most part tolerated. Assyrian Christianity, which was introduced to China in the 7th century in Chang'an, had many followers, including Kublai Khan's mother.