The Silk Road is well-known as one of the world's earliest trading routes, enabling goods to flow from China to Europe via Central Asia. Buddhism started expanding into China from India along the Silk Road as early as the first century AD. With it came the concept of hollowing out rock faces to construct temples and holy sites: Buddhist caves and mural art spread through China in this way.
Hundreds of these spectacular cave art sites, or grottoes, still pepper China's mountainsides and rock faces, housing thousands-year-old sculptures and vibrant murals. These sites not only demonstrate their creators' commitment to their religion, but they also provide a fascinating insight into the multicultural community that flourished for a thousand years along the once-powerful Silk Road trade route that linked east and west.
Stories of The Silk Road
Traveling monks who had visions at a specific spot or were drawn by its mystical aura often chose China's Buddhist caves for their scenic beauty. Monks and other followers would carve thousands of Buddhas, bodhisattvas (spiritual beings on the way to becoming Buddhas), apsaras (heavenly nymphs), and celestial musicians into the excavated caves, which would take years to hollow out. These will be decorated and highlighted in brilliant hues made from precious materials such as lapis lazuli, indigo, and genuine gold traded along the Silk Road.
More mundane details, such as Central Asian traders, Indian monks in white robes, and Chinese peasants working in the fields, were depicted alongside these celestial beings. These grotto portraits of ordinary travelers from the past have sat quietly in grottoes throughout western China, preserved for future generations.
Buddhist caves in China became places of worship and meditation
Many Buddhist caves in China became places of worship and meditation for not only the monks who lived there, but also for pilgrims and traders passing by. Indeed, traders used many of the Silk Road's temples and holy sites as banks and warehouses. They'd be important stopping points on the long, dangerous routes through central China, as well as centers of religious activity and cultural exchange. Over time, more and more cave sites will be excavated and painted, extending further away from the Silk Road and deeper into China, closely corresponding to the spread and acceptance of Buddhism across the country and demonstrating an amazing growth and chasm.
Many of the caves were abandoned or fell into disrepair as the centuries passed and trade along the Silk Road dwindled (thanks to increased sea transportation). Others were lost as China's cultural changes led to the dominance of new religions and modes of worship in many parts of the world. Many Silk Road caves were robbed for their valuables or forgotten about, eventually being buried by the desert sands from which they were carved. The caves weren't opened up again until the 19th century, when explorers and archaeologists from China and around the world began to rediscover their lost treasures.
The History Behind the Silk Road
The Silk Road was a network of trading routes that started thousands of years before the Common Era and lasted until the 15th or 16th century, depending on who you ask (though many scholars argue that it continued for much longer). The path swerved and shimmied over the decades as kingdoms rose and fell and conquerors redrew vast swaths of what is now Central Asia, the Middle East, and Southern Europe, calving tributaries that crossed mountains, deserts, and eventually the sea. A map was nothing more than a suggestion for much of humanity, a conquest diary written in pencil, and one of the victor's rights was the freedom to remake the planet to his taste.
Many people are familiar with the Silk Road, a long, expansive route that has aided the silk industry for centuries and enabled trade between Asia, the Middle East, and Europe to flourish. It was also listed in one of our previous blogs about silk's past.
The Silk Road stretches through most of Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and finally Africa, and is just under 6,500 kilometers long. When the Persians and then the Italians entered the sericulture industry to produce the much sought after material: Silk, it gradually became a popularized path. By the 13th century, the Silk Road, or Silk Route as it was also known, had gained widespread recognition and had become permanently established.
Despite the fact that the route was not formally developed until the 2nd century BC, ancient Egyptian remains show that Silk was traveling along its various tributary routes much earlier than commonly believed, perhaps as early as 1070 BC. Some Egyptian mummies, probably royalty, were buried with silk as well as other important or essential objects that they would need in the afterlife, according to evidence.
Effect on the spread of papermaking
The route had an effect on the spread of papermaking. As a direct result of the road, this manufacturing method spread across much of Central Asia. The Silk Road transported architecture, town planning, as well as music and art from many different cultures. East Asian actors acted in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). Buildings such as Timur's structures in Samarkand and Timurid tombs at Gur-Emir have strong architectural influences from various countries such as Iran, Georgia, and India, while music from Eastern Turkestan and Central Asia became common in China.
The Silk Road continues to have economic and cultural importance for many people today. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the UN World Tourism Organization has established the route as a means of "fostering peace and understanding." After visiting a number of the countries that the Silk Road passes through (which I'll write about in another post), I can confidently say that traveling along this path is incredible and well worth the long journey.
The Silk Roads' extensive trading networks held more than just goods and precious resources. Indeed, continuous population movement and mixing resulted in widespread diffusion of knowledge, ideas, traditions, and values, all of which had a significant effect on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travelers were drawn to the Silk Roads not just for the trade, but also for the intellectual and cultural exchange that took place in cities along the route, many of which became cultural and educational hotspots.
Along the lengths of these paths, science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technology, were shared and disseminated into communities, and languages, religions, and cultures evolved and influenced one another.
Silk is an ancient Chinese fiber made from the protein fibre formed by the silkworm during the cocooning process. Sericulture, or the cultivation of silkworms for the purpose of producing silk, was invented about the year 2,700 BCE, according to Chinese legend. Silk was considered such a valuable commodity that it was only used by the Chinese imperial court for the creation of cloths, drapes, banners, and other high-status objects. For over 3,000 years, China's manufacturing method was a closely guarded secret, with imperial decrees punishing anyone who exposed the process to a foreigner with death.
The first full silk garments, as well as excellent examples of silk work, such as brocade, gauze, and embroidered silk, can be found in tombs dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE in Hubei province.