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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Samarkand Square

Commerce

Bazaars along the Silk Road

The bazaar is a central feature of cities and towns throughout Asia, and indeed throughout much of the world. People shop in bazaars almost every day for the necessities of life as well as luxury goods for special occasions. They also come to bazaars to meet friends, exchange gossip, and catch up on news. Small bazaars are the social and economic hubs of neighborhoods, larger bazaars of villages, towns, or cities. Perhaps the most famous bazaar is the great Covered Market in Istanbul.

There is a rhythm and flow to Central Asian bazaars, which frequently run in a long strip through the center of a city or town, leading from one city gate to the town center and out again. There are sub-bazaars, too — the goldsmiths' bazaar, the vegetable bazaar, and even a storytellers' bazaar. Squares or intersections provide open spaces for rest stops, gathering points, fountains, street performers, and beggars. Radiating out from the main bazaar route are narrow alleys that lead to other points of city life — mosques, gardens, teahouses, public baths, granaries, rest houses. In many places it is the same today as it was during the days of the Silk Road.

Residents of Central Asian communities can get almost anything they need in a bazaar. They can buy fabrics of cotton, wool, and silk; foodstuffs such as tea, mutton, pomegranates, apples, and walnuts; roses and tobacco; silver, wood carvings, hides, and skins; and thousands of other items. In bazaars craftspeople work in their shops making and repairing shoes, repairing bicycles, tailoring, decorating ceramic tile, carving and finishing woodwork.

The aesthetics of display in a bazaar are important. Fruit is stacked, meat is hung, nuts are piled, carpets are folded, rolled, or hung — all in ways that invite customers. In the bazaar, everything is for sale, but you have to bargain!

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • Silk: The earliest Chinese silk in Central Asia dates back to about 500 B.C.E. (remains have been found in ancient Bactrian sites, in current-day Balkh and Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan). Regular trade in silk between China and Central Asia began in about 130 B.C.E. A rougher silk, tussah silk produced by silkworms native to India, was traded in the region much earlier, possibly dating to the Indus Valley civilization (2500–1500 B.C.E.). Central Asians mastered silk weaving and production and created luxury silks and embroideries with an astonishing array of designs and techniques. Trade and the movement of artisans along the Silk Road led to the dynamic adaptation of imagery and techniques from across Silk Road cultures.
  • Food: Foods such as pilau (rice with meat and vegetables), nan (an oven-baked flatbread), kabobs (barbecued meats), noodles, and tea were carried along the Silk Road and served in bazaars throughout Central Asia.