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From the silk route to the spice route ...(English version)

Dernière mise à jour : 10 avr. 2020

The Silk Road: 2000 years of exchanges

The Silk Road designates the set of paths, paths and caravan tracks which the merchants of antiquity used until the middle of the Middle Ages to trade from the Asian continent to the European continent. It was therefore a network of trade routes between Asia and the Orient from Chan-An (present-day Xi'An) then capital of the emperors of the Han dynasty to Antioch in Syria (present-day Turkey) or from Tire (now Lebanon). At its height in the middle of the 12th century, the Silk Road stretched for more than 7,500 km connecting central Asia to the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, passing through Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. The capital of China Chan-An then had more than two million inhabitants (ten times the population of Constantinople at the same time). The Silk Road contributed in particular very strongly to the birth and development of trade, cultural and religious exchanges. Origins: when the East opens to the West   The Silk Road is considered to be the heir to the jade road, the remains of which date back 7000 years, a period when the Chinese sought out the precious jade outside their borders. However, historically, it is considered that the Silk Road was opened by the emperor Wudi in the 2nd century BC who wanted to fight his enemies the Huns sent his general Zhangqian to go and find alliances with the countries of the Where is. Traveling far beyond the great wall, the general established relationships with more than thirty kingdoms including Samarkand and Persia to name a few. The expedition thus traced a route, which later became a route that the merchants adopted to transport silk, fabrics, spices and various goods ... During his Zhangqian wanderings, he discovered a breed of horses which was the cause of many Chinese caravans seeking to obtain them by bartering them for other goods. This is how Chinese silk, a state monopoly, began to be traded and that China first linked to the Western world. The legendary Silk: a jealously guarded secret   The expression "Silk Road" is recent, since it appeared in the mouth of the German geographer Ferdinand Von Richthofen in the 19th century. This notion however takes on a historical, geographical and cultural reality of which silk is simply a symbol, because it was considered as one of the most precious goods which traveled from Asia to the Mediterranean basin. In the 2nd century BC when the Middle Kingdom opened to the west, the Chinese emperors jealously guarded the secret of sericulture and surrounded it with a thousand secrets. They also kept exclusive production for three millennia. The Greeks and then the Romans believed that silk was growing on the leaves of trees, also called "wool tree". In ancient times, they also called the Chinese "Seres" literally silk people. From the journey of silk to the spice route: the genesis   - It is certain that as early as the 4th century BC the Greeks already knew of the existence of silk, which they considered then as a mysterious fabric coming from the regions of the Far East. Indeed, the silk highly prized at the Persian court was also appreciated by Alexander the Great (-356 to - 323 BC) when he conquered this empire; conquests which he extended to Central Asia.   - His successors the Ptolemies who reigned over Egypt (-323 to -30) kept this trade very lively. At that time it was the Parthians (-247 BC to -226 BC) and the Sodgians, nomadic Iranian people of Uzbekistan founder of Samarkand who became the main intermediaries of trade between East and West. Thus in the 2nd century BC when the Chinese general Zhangqian went to seek allies in the west, they became the privileged partners of trade towards the west: they bought from the Chinese the precious Silk, transported it to resell to the Syrians and then to the Greeks.   - In the first century, the Romans, fond of exoticism and goods as luxurious as fabrics and spices, did not stop ceasing to acquire them. They also used spices as well in their daily uses (Apicius, famous cook speaks in his recipes of cumin, coriander, thyme, savory, sumac, bay leaf) as in medicine or in their rites funeral.   - The birth of the Byzantine Empire (395 AD) during the split of the Roman Empire into two testifies to the influence of great metropolises such as Byzantium, future Constantinople. This influence, which lasted over a thousand years, demonstrates the importance of trade, cultural and religious exchanges and the impact that the Silk Road had on this future.   - Although the transactions remained lively between the Middle East, the Indies and China, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (in 476 AD) followed by barbarian invasions undermined the road to silk by land for some time.   - However, from the 7th century under the Tang and until the 10th century, trade also became maritime. It seems moreover that in the 9th century the Radhanites (we do not know if this term designated a caste or a corporation), Jewish merchants, played a primordial role in the development of luxury commercial exchanges between the Christian and Muslim worlds. . They will even be the only ones to travel between the West and the Muslim world during this period. Their routes, both land and sea, covered Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India.   - In the 13th century, the establishment of the largest continental empire of all time, the Mongol empire of Genghis Khan (which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific and from Siberia to India and Indochina) gave back a time at the Silk Road its letters of nobility. It was around this time that the first descriptions of China came to the West, notably reported by the famous Venetian Marco Polo. He remained in the service of Emperor Kublai Khan for 20 years (1275-1292), a Mughal emperor and the grandson of Genghis Khan, and then recounted his travels in his book "The Book of Wonders". From the silk route to the spice and perfume route   After the dislocation of the Mongol Empire in the 14th century and the collapse of the Byzantine Empire (taken by Constantine people by the Ottomans in 1453), the Silk Road lost its appeal. It preferred the sea routes which developed in particular under the influence of Westerners. This maritime route is called: the spice route or the perfume route. From the 15th century, the disaffection with the Silk Road in favor of the Spice Road did not stop growing. In the 18th century, the sea routes between China, Europe and the Middle East ended up being established and the merchants definitively abandoned the silk route. The spice route now ensured a faster and safer supply of precious commodities.   Other factors explain this disinterestedness:   - The extreme harshness of the climate of the countries to cross, often torrid in summer and freezing in winter. - The slowness of the transport of products which could last from several months to a year on the back of yaks or in caravans… and few were those who made the entire trip which lasted more than six years. - The lure of profit encouraged the brigands to attack more and more frequently the known circuits, making them insecure. Thus the missions became extremely perilous and the travelers hesitated to take the road. - Goods passed through numerous intermediaries and reached such exorbitant prices that this prompted Europeans to seek other less expensive supply channels, in particular by sea. A multitude of exchanges   Silk was obviously only a small part of the trade. The caravans which left for the East carried precious stones and metals, gold, ivory, texts, coral while those which went to the West were loaded with ceramics, furs, spices coming from India, jewelry, amber, fruit, carpets from Persia, bronze weapons. Obviously many were the stops in the oases or the caravanserai cities (vast courtyard surrounded by buildings where the caravans stopped). The transported goods were then sold at gold prices or bartered for others.   These exchanges between East and West were also of a philosophical or artistic nature. They have played an important role in spreading beliefs, notably Buddhism from India to China, but also Christianity, Judaism and Islam.   We should also add technological contributions such as iron casting, papermaking, the invention of the compass, gunpowder, printing.   Thanks to this proliferation of meetings of peoples as diverse as the Turks, the Persians, the Byzantines, the Chinese, the Westerners, all were able to enrich each other. The Silk Road was also taken by the religious in their pilgrimages, by diplomats, spies and of course the marauders. epicetoo

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