Lesson 4) The Silk Road

The professor stands and surveys the empty desks in front of her, carefully placing her notes and book on the desk in room 302B. She takes a calming breath, smiling at the students whose chatter and whispers begin flooding the classroom. After her hurried run to the classroom, she is ready to jump into the lesson and put the organized chaos of the past few weeks behind her.

Glancing up from her book again, she notes that the noise level has increased. Certainly this means that he has allowed enough time for the students to file in by now. Stepping forward, the woman holds up her hand to silence the mutterings of students. 


A Brief History of the Silk Road

Today we will be discussing the importance of an ancient and, in fact, still extant series of trade routes through many parts of Asia. This interconnected conglomerate, known as the Silk Road, had an enormous influence on the history, economy, society, and culture of not only Asia, but other continents as well.

The very earliest beginnings of the Silk Road actually date back to roughly 2,000 BCE between China and other Central Asian countries. But this was a far cry from the Silk Road as most know of it. The trade route underwent a few millennia of development to be what it is today. Over the years, and throughout many successive empires that controlled Asia, the original trade route was improved and expanded by each empire in the area including Herodotus of the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire.

The Silk Road is not actually a single road, but a series of connected trade routes and roads to and from various countries and continents. In its earliest conception it connected the Arabs, Armenians, Bactrians, Chinese, Georgians, Greeks, Indians, Persians, Romans, Somalis, Syrians, and Turks. As you might expect, the rulers of each of these respective countries (and those that came later) did their best to develop the pre-existing routes for their benefit and that of their countries.

But as far as main points in the Silk Road’s history go, it makes the most sense to start with the Han Dynasty. Spanning from 207 BCE to 220 CE, this dynasty took existing paths and, through military campaigns (which required soldiers to travel far and wide in a time when many never left their own village), made them into the true “beginning” of the Silk Road as we know it today. In addition to military campaigns, there were various officials and envoys sent out to explore, catalogue and expand the routes. The foremost of these was Zhang Qian, a Chinese diplomat who encountered no fewer than five nations and kingdoms during his travels! After their explorations were at an end, the diplomats and envoys cataloged and reported their findings and it is because of this the Silk Road was able to grow further. Because of this exploration, the people now knew the borders of the existing routes, what they were working with and therefore could figure out how and where it could be improved and expanded.

The next milestone -- pardon the pun -- in the Silk Road’s development occurred during the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 CE to 907 CE. In the time between these two Chinese dynasties, much of Asia had come under Turkish rule. In the lapse, the road had fallen largely into disuse. However, with a reconquering of land, the Silk Road saw a new period of growth. In fact, this period was considered a high point not only for the Silk Road, but for Chinese and Asian history in general. In this time, the road was expanded into the Mongolian Plateau to the north (northern regions of modern China), the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the south (southern regions of modern China) and the “Western Regions”, or what is now today parts of India and Central Asia.

The last peak we will note here -- though there were others, to be sure -- was during the formation of the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan’s rule. The Empire lasted generally from 1206 CE to 1368 CE under various Khans, but as you might expect, Genghis Khan was the most notable. We will talk about this particular empire more in depth during the next lesson, but it bears mentioning that this empire, as large as it was, did great things with respect to creating a large, unified nation instead of many separate countries. Because of this, trade along the Silk Road flourished.


Trade

Now, as you might have guessed, the Silk Road got its name due to the enormous amounts of silk that made its way across the routes. Of course, silk was not the only thing that exchanged hands along the Silk Road. After all, the very definition of trading implies that one thing is exchanged for another. The trade on the Silk Road was incredibly varied. Nearly anything even remotely valuable at the time exchanged hands at one point or another. Gold, silver, and other metals were a common sight alongside precious gems like jade, sapphire, and pearls. Additionally, other expensive commodities like fur and other textiles as well as porcelain were traded. There was even food transported along some of the routes, particularly pomegranates, wine, and spices.

But, being that we are magical beings, we are also interested in the less mundane items that made their way across country borders along these trade routes. It would be unwieldy to list an entire catalogue-- and likely impossible, as written records like you might find in stores today have been difficult to recover. But, I will endeavor to give you a snapshot of the width and breadth of the magical products that traveled along those dusty roads.

Obviously, we must first start with Acromantula silk. As you know, Acromantula are native to the rainforests in the Southeast of Asia. While the Roman Empire was busy coveting Asian silk, they had no idea that its higher quality was due to the mixing of silk from ordinary silkworms with that of Acromantulas. Of course, it is extremely difficult to obtain any amount of Acromantula silk without the creature’s knowledge, and usually friendship. I will not go into how the silk is collected as we have not the time, but suffice it to say that the benefits were well-worth the price. Asian silk of medieval times typically contained anywhere from five to fifty percent pure Acromantula silk. In the present day, Acromantula silk has become slightly less difficult to come by, but it is no less coveted.

Another textile-based magical product that was readily found along stops on the Silk Road were magic carpets. Most often, these carpets served as forms of transportation, particularly after Ali Wabishni’s discovery of the Take-Off Charm (for more information, see your third year of Magical Transportation). However, there were some interesting modifications that made everything on top of the carpet disappear, a stain-repellant version, and one that undulated rapidly to serve as a foot massage.

Potions and potions ingredients saw excellent trade along these routes as well. Ingredients only found in the rainforests of modern-day Borneo were peddled alongside magical cacti from Gobi Desert. Similarly, there was a good deal of trade in magical creatures both as a way of harvesting fresh potion ingredients from live animals, but also simply in terms of animal trade. There were limits to what could be transported -- you wouldn’t see anyone leading their adult dragon on a leash -- but eggs, the young of certain creatures like Acromantula, and other, more docile (and less enormous) magical creatures were shipped along the trade routes alongside everything else.

Unfortunately, we do not have time to go into any more specific details today, but suffice it to say that Diagon Alley has nothing on the Silk Road!


Cultural Diffusion

Obviously, in magical terms, the Silk Road offered many benefits. But one easily overlooked benefit is a less tangible one than beauty potions and Kappa scales. Just as it did with the general Muggle population, the Silk Road allowed for an increased flow of ideas between borders. Collaboration between people of different nations was markedly improved and magical practitioners from all walks of life and ethnicities were able to learn from each other. Witch doctors, weather manipulators, and dragon tamers shared their various talents and magical knowledge expanded greatly.

One such example of this that is easy to visualize is the jump in potion creation that the Silk Road helped to bring about. Along these trade roads, many different local variations of the same goods existed. For example, one vendor might share their recipe for their fertility potions with a colleague. Noting the similarities and differences the two might become aware of some variants in separate versions of the potions. This could have led to a discussion or consideration of the properties of various ingredients and also improve, expand, or refine the recipes of specific potions.

However, this is just one facet of how magical disciplines intertwined and expanded due to these trade routes’ influence. Spell creation saw a similar jump. Accuracy in astronomy and transfiguration surged, information regarding magical creatures -- and, in truth, much more than can be covered here -- was made more complete.


Safety in the Streets

If you will think back to the first lesson, I mentioned that, on the whole, the East both was and is more tolerant and accepting of magic as part of their culture as well as magical practitioners in general. However, that does not mean everything was roses and sunshine across the board. In addition to being an enormous economic and cultural boon, the Silk Road was an escape route in worst-case scenarios. Should a magical person be born or otherwise find themselves in a country, culture, or subculture that put them in danger, they were able to remove themselves to find a place where they were more accepted.

Here we have a primary account of a merchant, known by the name of Ma Kang, which depicted just such a situation. In this snippet, Ma Kang describes his experiences passing through a town on the Silk Road. Be warned, however, that as this is a near direct translation, and at times the writing may seem slightly cumbersome or confusing.

I walked through town today, and seeing what was there astonished me. I kindly surprised! There were performers street-taken of sorts, dancers and tricksters, and those who could show many things at once. I caught sight of a magician even, in the corner by a shop who was showing off tricks. This caused me to smile and I left him a silver. I said to him ‘Nothing to hide from me, dear friend,’ he smiled. At once it happened to me that I could stay here easily to keep hidden my magic. I do fine by my lonesome when on the roads, but am glad that others find refuge among these vendors and artists.”

This particular account occurred at the very beginning of the Tang Dynasty, which followed the Sui Dynasty, the latter of which was characterized by its use of magical persons as little more than slave laborers for the emperor. Understandably, many chose, or at least attempted, to conceal their magical ability rather than be discovered. The account shows that, on the Silk Road, there was less of a need to “keep hidden your magic”, as it was easy to blend in amongst the vibrant patchwork of people and cultures that traveled there.


Modern-Day: Where Are We Now?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, time is a cruel mistress. The Silk Road no longer functions due, in a large part, to improvements in sea travel, which allowed for goods to be transported more quickly and cheaply. Once it began to decline, disuse and warring nations made it difficult to bring it back to its full glory. Many of these routes still exist, particularly in small towns and pure wizarding communities, but it has more or less lost its importance and prevalence.

However, there is another benefit that the route has left behind, apart from general infrastructure. All over Asia, the countryside and cities are littered with various magical areas and towns as well as magical monuments. Some notable examples include the Nisa Necropolis in Turkmenistan (where curse-breakers are still digging up ancient secrets), small magical hospitals (or more accurately, informal centers of healing) and the mixed magical and Muggle city of Kashgar, China.

 

For now, that is all the time we have. Before next week, be sure to complete your assignments: a quiz regarding general information, an essay asking you to do some research on what other magical items could have been sold along the Silk Road, and an extra credit “choose the prompt” essay regarding the Tang Dynasty.

 


Original lesson written by Professor Venita Wessex
Additional portions by Professor Vienna Kyrkos
Image credits here, here, and here
 

Known as the largest continent in the globe, Asia is home to many mysterious cultures and beliefs that are unfamiliar to us, but no longer! Come explore the many wonders of the continent to the East and its rich history.
Course Prerequisites:
  • HOM-301
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