Home  »  » The Silk Road

The Silk Road

Religions, Philosophies and some Major Players

Dr. Rohan H Wickramasinghe

In the first half of this brief account of the ancient Silk Road (see The Island, Midweek May 4, 2016), we looked at aspects of the roads, cities, trade and inventions. We now glance at some religions, philosophies and major players of interest to this topic.

Some religions and philosophies of the Silk Road

While commercial, political and war-related uses may have dominated the trans-Asian highway in the early days, from about 200 A.D. religious activities started assuming increasing importance. The turbulent conditions and break-up of empires and kingdoms led to increasing interest in ‘emerging’ religions and philosophies carried by wandering pilgrims down the Silk Road. Religious teachings, which traversed Asia along this route, included Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism (Parsiism), Manichaeism, Judaism, Mazdaism, Confucianism and Taoism. (Incidentally, while Khazaria state had Moslems, Buddhists, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans and even animists among its peoples around 932 A.D., it had a Jewish king and court.)

Confucianism derived from the teachings of K’ung Fu-tzu (K’ung the Master otherwise known as Confucius), who lived in the late eighth century B.C. in the age of the Warring States. The foundation of the Zoroastrian religion was laid by Zoroaster around Rhagae or Bactra (Balkh) around the 8th century B.C. and it spread along the Silk Road. Similarly, Manichaeism (a blend of Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and Christianity), which was propounded by a prophet called Mani, spread along the Silk Road to Europe and China. It is of interest to mention here a group called the fida’i of the Isma’ili sect of Shi’ite Muslims, who had settled on the Caspian section of the Silk Road. They were termed the Assassins in the West due to their using hashish (ganja) as a part of their religious observances. Mention should, also, be made of the Nestorian Christians, who were declared heretical by the Church at Rome in the fifth century. Some of them migrated to Persia and China along the Silk Road. The (Christian) Crusaders set up several small Mediterranean states in the late 11th century. Their presence resulted not only in the development of trade but also in the flowing back to Europe of the European cultural heritage, which had been preserved by Islamic scholars in the centuries of European absence from the Silk Road.

It may be mentioned here that the peaceful conditions prevalent during the Pax Mongolica (1260 to 1368; see below) made possible the hajj or religious pilgrimage to Mecca, which is required of those of the Muslim faith but which is difficult to accomplish in politically troubled times. The use of the Incense Road down the west of the Arabian Peninsula for this purpose has led to its being sometimes referred to as the Pilgrimage Road.

Some major players

A number of well-known actors on the stage of world history were associated at some point with the Silk Road. Brief notes on a few of them and their relationships or associations with the Silk Road will be of interest to students and others:

a Alexander the Great (356 to 323 B.C.)

Alexander was a Macedonian, who was educated by Aristotle in Greece. He arrived in Asia in Spring 334 B.C. His first major battle with the Persians led by Darius was in Spring 333 B.C. and was won by him. While the Greeks had long held or traded with coastal cities, Arab tribes held those inland in Syria. These inland cities and their links lay on the Incense Road from Aden, which was, also, supplied with merchandise brought on the Spice Route. Alexander was, also, interested in cities on the Mediterranean coast, which manufactured goods, such as the extremely costly Phoenician purple textile dye (made from a Mediterranean marine mollusc) and coloured glass. Having taken the coastal cities, he proceeded inland through Damascus and took Nineveh and Babylon. At Babylon he had Greek flowering plants planted in the famous Hanging Gardens. He entered the Iranian Plateau pursuing Darius, who was finally killed by his own troops to avoid his being captured by the Greeks. Alexander’s army had by then become a huge multi-racial ‘moving city’, which included specialists and families and conquered peoples. Alexander himself started wearing Asian style dress and took two non-Greek wives in trying to unite his empire. (Alexander married the Princess Roxane in the city of Bactra in northern Afghanistan. The area, Bactria, was formerly described as ‘paradise on earth’ for its fertility beside a flowing river. The river has since dried up and the site has been abandoned.) Having entered India through the Kabul Valley, he left behind Greek governors and returned to the Persian Gulf coast, rejoined the Silk Road and returned to Babylon. He died there reputedly of a fever in the Spring of 323 B.C. at a young age.

b Asoka the Great (d. 232 B.C.)

Asoka, grandson of Chandragupta and last ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, converted to Buddhism around 261 B.C. Asoka sent missionaries along the Indian Grand Road and the Silk Road to make converts. Buddhist missionaries reached, among others, Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Crete and Lanka. Chinese annals record the arrival of Buddhist missionaries. Legends suggest that the Tarim Basin city of Khotan was either visited by Asoka or founded by his son.

c The Era of the Mongols (1162 to 1368 A.D.)

The era of the Mongols saw many rulers of whom Genghis Khan and Kubilai Khan are, perhaps, the most famous. Genghis Khan (1162 to 1227 A.D.) was named Temujin, which meant blacksmith and denoted strength. He lost his father at nine years of age and, despite relatively humble beginnings, was declared Genghis Khan, supreme ruler of the peoples of Mongolia, in 1196. He took Khanbaligh (Beijing) in 1215 and went on from there to build an immense empire. Genghis Khan may well have never learned to read and write (n.b. The Spaniard, Francisco Pizarro, who caused the collapse of the Inca Empire in Peru in 1533 was illiterate) but he did at an early date employ an Uighur scribe to put the Mongol language into written form and teach the letters to the royal family. He, also, brought into being a Mongol Code, called the Yasa, which encouraged religious tolerance. His strength lay in his appreciation of talent in individuals among those in the cities, which fell to him and making use of them in his service. The rest were massacred or enslaved. Of the population of the city of Merv, for instance, eighty artisans were spared for use in his empire; 700,000 citizens were killed. Both Marco Polo (around 1270) and Ibn Batuta (around 1330) have recorded the devastation wrought on the City of Balkh (Bactra) by the Mongols. Such massacres and razing of cities to the ground were motivated partly by desire for revenge and partly to persuade other cities to surrender without fighting. One ultimate outcome was the Peace that reigned over the Silk Road during the rule of the Mongols. Hulegu, the grandson of Genghis Kahn, succeeded in executing the Assassins of the Caspian section of the Silk Road (who had been there for 200 years); this was accomplished by employing huge numbers of the Mongols and the expertise of the Chinese siege engineers. Hulegu, also, conquered Baghdad, the centre of Islam and under a Sunni caliph, with the help of Christian soldiers from Georgia and Armenia and of Shi’ites; most of the Muslim population was massacred. The Pax Mongolica (Mongol Peace), which lasted from 1260 to 1368, coincided with the assumption of power by Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn, in 1260. The Mongol Peace and the continuing unity within the empire has been attributed, in part, to the advice given to Genghis Khan by skilled advisers, such as Ye’h-lu Ch’u-ts’ai, a young scholar from the Khitan or Liao royal dynasty, which ruled northern China (Cathay) before the Mongols. Ye’h-lu Ch’u-ts’ai successfully impressed upon Genghis Khan the need for a civil service, such as had benefited China for centuries. Adopting this counsel led to the development of an outstanding travel and communications network, which helped to hold the empire together for some time even after Genghis Khan’s death in 1227.

d Timur Lang (Tamerlane; 1335 to 1405)

Timur the Lame, a Turco-Mongol warrior called Tamerlane in the West and originating from the vicinity of Samarkand, attempted to control the Silk Road after the Mongol era. He took Balkh by 1369 and followed this with the taking of many towns on the northern route. He then proceeded along the Silk Road to Persia and overran Tabriz. He next siezed parts of India and later Baghdad. Samarkand was developed into a leading centre by Timur and it has been reported that, in 1404, a 800-camel caravan arrived with goods from China and envoys from Siberia and traders from Russia.

e Marco Polo

Marco Polo and his father, Nicolo, and uncle, Maffeo, were itinerant Italian traders, who set off from Venice in 1271 on an overland trip to the East from which they returned in 1295 after spending 16 years in China. Reportedly, there were very probably other Europeans, who had made the overland journey, but that of the Polos is well known since Marco, who was in his teens at the time they set out, published a detailed account of their travels. The outward journey to Karakorum, the Mongol capital, to meet Kubilai Khan took three and a half years. Karakorum itself had greatly benefited by Genghis Khan’s policy of sparing captured artisans from execution and taking them into his service. The Polos themselves travelled all over China on the king’s business, in both the northern part, Cathay, and the southern, Manzi. They, also, mention visiting the crude oil springs of Georgia near to Baku. The Polos returned to Venice by the Spice Route of the sea visiting Zeilan (Sri Lanka) on the way. (In certain respects, the journey of the Polos bore resemblances to that of Fa-hsien, who left Ch’ang-an in 399 A.D. to travel to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, travelled for 12 years in the course of which he visited Sri Lanka and returned home by sea.)

f Emperor Mu

Emperor Mu is said to have ruled during the Chou Dynasty around 1000 B.C. and to have visited Central Asia. The legends say that the emperor left China through the Yu Pass (the famous Jade Gate), climbed the mythological K’unlun Mountain and visited the palaces of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Ti), who ruled from 2697 to 2597 B.C. Huang-Ti was the legendary founder of the Chinese people, while Emperor Mu was descended from Ho-tsung, the god of the Huang (Yellow) River. On the journey to Western Asia, Emperor Mu, also, met the ‘Royal Mother of the West’, who has not been positively identified as yet but may possibly have been the Queen of Sheba, who oversaw trade on the Incense Road at the time of Emperor Mu. While such ‘contacts’ made by persons, such as Emperor Mu, may, in part be legendary, a tribe-to-tribe relay trading network would have accounted for the introduction into China of, for example, wheat, which was not indigenous to the country.

g Some other travellers/ explorers and archaeologists

Travellers and explorers from European countries and archaeologists had visited Middle Eastern sites from some centuries ago. An account by certain European merchants described the unfriendly reception they encountered when visiting some ruins in the Syrian Desert in 1678. They were robbed of even the clothes they were wearing; as were others, who had to return dressed only in old newspapers. A report entitled ‘The Ruins of Palmyra’ by Robert Wood and James Dawkins in 1751 aroused much interest in Europe. The frequency of visits by travellers, explorers and archaeologists increased greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries. Names such as Albert Grunwedel (Germany), Sven Hedin (Sweden), Albert von LeCoq (Germany), Paul Pelliot, Nicolai Prejalevsky (Russia), Marc Aurel Stein (Hungary/Britain), Ferdinand von Richtofen (Germany) and Francis Younghusband (England) are among those which come to mind. Their efforts contributed immensely to the knowledge of these incredible civilisations of the Silk Road of the past. However, it must be noted that mention of the work of the archaeologists bring to mind that an immense number of archaeological treasures of the Silk Road ended up in museums and other collections in the West. Some sites rich in archaeological treasures included Borasan, Dandan-uilik and Loulan; however, especial comment may be made of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (see R H Wickramasinghe, "The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", The Island SATmag 20 March 2015 ) near Tunhuang. Here an immense number of ancient manuscripts and art, which had been sealed for centuries, had been discovered by a monk, Abbot Wang, in 1904. Stein is recorded as having bribed the Abbot to take away thousands of printed and other documentary material. One of the silk rolls was the Diamond Sutra, which is the oldest dated book known; having been printed in 868 A.D. Subsequent visits by Stein and, also, Pelliot to Tunhuang saw several thousand more manuscripts and other items of archaeological value being ‘taken’. Several archaeologists worked on sites along the Silk Road ‘taking’ archaeological treasures and sending them back to Europe. Most of those ‘taken’ back to Berlin were destroyed during the Allied bombings of World War II. It must, however, be noted that this ‘taking’ of archaeological treasures was for the benefit of their countries collections and not for sale for their personal profit.


In many ways, it is more difficult to travel on the Silk Road today than in the past. Political tensions are often present and obtaining visas for all the countries through which the nearly 5000 mile route passes would not be a task one would like to contemplate. However, on the other hand, motor vehicles travel very much faster than the earlier forms of journeying. (One would not need the three and a half years the Polos needed to get to Karakorum.)

Perhaps, the greatest value one can derive from the Silk Road today is to realise the transient nature of great empires. Also, when one considers the changes, which have occurred in cities like Balkh (Bactra), which was once described as ‘paradise on earth’ but is now deserted as it lacks the river it depended on, the importance of environmental conservation becomes strikingly evident.

References and Acknowledgements: Sources for the information in this article include the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I.M. Franck and D.M.Brownstone, The Silk Road: A History, Facts on File Publications, New York, N.Y. (1986) 294 pp. and S. Bandaranayake et al. (Eds.) Sri Lanka and the Silk Road of the Sea, Sri Lanka National Commission for UNESCO and the Central Cultural Fund, Colombo (1990) 291 pp. All these sources provided valuable information and are recommended. The staff of the PGIAR and Colombo Public Libraries are thanked for their ever-willing help.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...