Silk Roads

Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes
cultural connections

Silk Roads

The Silk Roads…one of my favourite topics. The importance of Central Asia as a corridor for languages, inventions, sciences, and religions has been fundamental for the world we know today. As I traveled more and more through Central Asia, I gradually learned that for several centuries, this was the centre of the universe. I visited abandoned universities of the Middle Ages, marveled at astrolabia in museums (still can’t reproduce how they actually work, though) and explored both Greek and Buddhist complexes on the Uzbek-Afghan border on the same day. I followed the Oxus river all the way to its sources in the Tajik Pamir and (after I had recovered from a bout of altitude sickness) wondered how it could be that I still found myself within the reach of a 4th century Roman road map. Here, religions, technologies and people connected. On an unparalleled scale, writings from various cultures were translated into one and the same language, shared and improved upon. It is in this vast region that the foundations for many scientific methods and processes were laid, book printing enabled the spread of literature and scientific works even further, and art styles mingled and fused. In the last decade many excellent studies have appeared into this finely mazed, interconnected system of exchange. In 2019, Thames & Hudson added the heavy volume Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, edited by Susan Whitfield. And what a volume it is!

The approach chosen follows the various landscapes over and through which the networks existed. The main framework of the book are the sections Steppe, Mountains and Highlands, Deserts and Oases, Rivers and Plains, and Seas and Skies. I like how the landscape is the binding agent in this book, instead of the ubiquitous chronology. But what I really, really like is the how the editor has unlocked the rich variety in this book by cross-referencing material culture with categories in the table of contents. The material culture is divided over the categories cities/buildings/archaeological sites, ceramics and glass, coins and money, metalware and semi-precious stones, manuscripts, books and other writings, sculptures and paintings, textiles and ‘other’. Each of these is cross-referenced with the categories religion, military, clothing and accoutrement, and science. This allows you to search and find almost anything that meets your fancy, and I feel it perfectly illustrates the interconnectivity of the Silk Roads-system itself.

On to the lay-out: you will want to keep exploring these pages, as there is so much room for illustrations. The entire book is for the most part full-colour and shows sweeping views of the various landscapes, (details of) objects and maps. Every page is another invitation to read and see, to explore and learn.  Especially in this online day and age (because let’s face it, I’m writing this on a website and you’re here reading it) when investing in visuals in a book is not as self-evident as it used to be, this is a very welcome visual feast. I particularly enjoy the maps: I can look at them for hours, tracing how it all fits together. 

And besides photographs, what does this book offer? I would say it creates a larger context for an important part of history and puts individual finds in perspective. Over 75 contributors, each experts in their fields, have provided longer and shorter entries within the landscape framework. Each of the landscape chapters mixes a total of circa 20 angles in longer texts and box texts, in which specific objects or locations are the focus of attention. These are in turn tied in with the larger framework through references to other entries. One example is a well-known helmet found in the southern part of The Netherlands, highlighted in The Steppe and the Roman World. For The Netherlands, it is a unique find, but it is placed here in the larger context of cultural contacts between the Romans and the Sassanians. A Viking tapestry, found in Oseberg, shows a Buddhist ‘endless knot’, indicating contacts with Central Asia. That these existed is illustrated by means of the Samanid coin hoards, from current-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, found in Scandinavia as well as a bronze Buddha statuette found in Helgo, Sweden. The book links back and forth internally and externally to finds, ideas, technologies, religions and people connecting through time. What I particularly like is that every single entry ends with a few suggestions for further reading. It has definitely been a major piece of work for the editors to ensure that all of these bits and pieces of information are tied together instead of forming a loose bundle of trivia.  

The only thing that I found interesting but could do without, is the short introduction in the beginning about early photography in Central Asia. As much as I like old photographs and the pioneering days of this once new documentation art, this introduction did not do much for me in the overall view on the Silk Roads network – but it does make for beautiful illustrations.

All in all, this is a book to explore. Due to its encyclopedic approach with a multitude of entries, it will not be a book that you will read in one go from cover to cover. Rather, I found myself cherrypicking topics that I wanted to read about from that wonderfully cross-referenced table of contents, and then wandering from there throughout the book. An Islamic glass dish found in China led me to Buddhist relic keeping, and from Parthian textiles on the steppe I found myself back in Palmyra.  Silk Roads allows you to explore many narratives from many disciplines. For me, this way of weaving topics, places, people and cultures reflects the multi-layered capacity of history: there is not one linear story, not one fixed set of events. A book to treasure on many rainy afternoons!

Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes. Edited by Susan Whitfield. 480 pages, 450 colour images and 200 b/w images.

See more images and views inside the book on the publishers’ website here.

The book is a gift from one of the contributors to the volume.