Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers...silk was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.

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The Greatest Gap Year Ever: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

A Hajj – you got to look good when you’re this holy.

You get a lot of talk nowadays about living a connected world. We’re connected by social networking and connected by globalisation and connected by a shared fear of how exactly how much of our Internet history the American government can find out. Connectivity is a good thing (I’d say “We’re better connected” but I’m not really a fan of shameless advertising unless it gets me free texts) but everyone bands it about like it’s a totally new thing. As if the people 100, even 500 years before us wouldn’t go as far as to leave their little villages to see if the beer really was sweeter over in the next hamlet. In this post, I’m going to try and disprove that idea by foraying into one of my rare (but fun!) articles about one person’s life. It’s usually difficult to get a sense of the holistic with a biography, but with this guy…well, you’ll see. Because the person I’m going to talk about was, for about 400 years, the most well-travelled man in existence. In fact, would be right up until the 1800s, when steamships and railroads made his journeys possible in less than a lifetime. This is a guy who crossed three continents and four seas, saw the Mongol Empire at its peak and Constantinople in its final days.  He saw every great holy site of Islam and met everyone who was anyone in an extraordinary world of sultans, khans and imams. His name, to use the heavily shortened version, was Muhammad Ibn Battuta. And his story is the best testament to a connected, global history that you’re ever going to find.

To concur: One lifetime. One freaking lifetime.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304 – Tangier’s that pointy northern bit of Morocco and pretty much as far west as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. He was a devout Sunni Muslim and a trained judge of Sharia (two misconceptions here: it’s not Sharia Law, because Sharia is Arabic for…well, law. It’s also not as evil and bigoted as the Daily Mail might have you believe and for most of the medieval era it was much fairer to women, peasants and nonbelievers than anything the Christians came up with. As ever, it’s the way it’s interpreted that can lead to the ridiculous Taliban stuff and its application to the modern world). So, at some point in 1326, Ibn Battuta began his Hajj – his obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, which would take him all across Northern Africa and along Arabia. Travelling was slow and so he stopped at famous towns, settlements, and sights along the way. But something in that awoke a travelling bug in young Muhammad, and he promised to spend the rest of his life travelling through the rest of the Muslim world – and some countries beyond it, too. In fact, he was to travel three times the distance of his contemporary Marco Polo, seeing Greece, Iran, Egypt, Arabia, even India and China, and some of Indonesia. He would go on to record stories, memories of people and places in his literary masterpiece, “A Gift to Those Who Appreciate the Wonders of Cities and the Joys of Travelling”, or, for short, “The Travels”. It’s a book that – translated and shortened, admittedly – I own myself, and it’s that which I’m going to talk about (with geeky joy, naturally) from here on.

Islamic Turkestan? Been there, done that, played the newfangled horse game.

There’s a lot to love in The Travels. It’s perfectly balanced between Ibn Battuta’s boundless enthusiasm for new things and his endless bigotry that only the Muslim things are really the best things. He’s essentially a massive geek about his religion – he goes to Egypt but states that he didn’t have time to visit the Pyramids or the Great Library of Alexandria because he was too busy looking as mosques. He goes to Jerusalem, where the Dome on the Rock is, in his words, “endowed with a plentiful share of loveliness”, while the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (the one partially ruined in the Syrian Civil War earlier this year) is “the most exquisite in beauty, grace and consummate achievement” in the world. It’s not just the architecture he finds extraordinary – his travels through India introduce him to the rhinoceros, which he thinks has a hilariously large head but is basically, when it comes down to it, just a new sort of elephant. In Uzbekistan, he is introduced to watermelons, which in his words “have no equal in any country of the world”, and he proceeds to order melons wherever he goes. Of course, as a conservative Muslim scholar, he also looks down on the practice of everywhere and anywhere “pagan” – he can’t pass through a village in India without making reference to “idol worshippers” and in Mali, he’s shocked to fainting by the women with their chests uncovered and – even worse – without veils on their heads. By far the most adorable part (if that’s really possible for a 700-year old man) is when he finds one of his heroes, a great ascetic holy man. The man tells him that he will bless Battuta and pray to God for his one strongest wish. By this point, Ibn Battuta has been lost, robbed, abandoned and mistreated countless times across the globe. But all he can wish for is more travel. It’s that passion, that enthusiasm to see and do and feel every continent known to man, that makes The Travels such a good read. It’s not, however, the only reason to study Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Islam: Generous doesn’t even cover it.

Ibn Battuta also manages – intentionally or not – to stumble across some of the most important figures of his day. He flits between the courts of Sultans, Khans and Emperors, impressing them all with stories of travel in exchange for food and board. He finds a job working for the Sultan of Dehli, who calls himself slightly presumptuously “King of All the World”. He meets the Byzantine Emperor in his home and travels with his daughter to marry her to the Khan of the Mongols. He also meets the Emperor of freaking China. He gives one of the best impressions of the world as it was at that time – from his point of view, a huge Muslim expanse of bazaars, mosques and traders, covering a route called the Silk Road that ran all the way from Constantinople to China. The Silk Road was for about 1000 years the most important road in the world. He sees Indian Ocean trading at its height and how the same spices can be grown in the Maldives to be sold in markets in Mecca. He sees the devastating effect of the Black Death as it crosses the steppes of Asia to infect Europe and the Middle East, returning at one point to his home town to see it ruined and half-empty from the plague. But everywhere he goes, he sees faith and goods and kings and peasants who wouldn’t look that out of place in his home in Morocco. He goes to China and meets Muslim families willing to take him in. He goes to Indonesia and sees the same dried fish and nuts that he saw sold 10,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean and the same silk he saw in the Silk Road. To paraphrase the man himself, he went to the land of the Christians, but the girls were still pretty. That is the legacy of Ibn Battuta – of connectivity all across the world centuries before the telephone and the internet. And, of course, of travelling for the love of it, without knowing where to go but liking where you end up. So there you have it – Ibn Battuta, proprietor of possibly the best gap year in history and one of the few people who might actually have had a girl in every port (seriously…90 wives, following an odd custom to marry your daughters to important-sounding guests). He’s not likeable but he’s loveable, a slightly stuffy old cleric with an admirable taste for travel in a world that’s all at once varied and familiar. You don’t have to like him but his legacy – of travel, and of interconnectivity – is one you should never forget.

Holistic History Extra: The Greatest Timelapse Ever Built

In my last post, I tried to argue the case that history is still in the making and the world is still changing rapidly. With that in mind, take a look at the new Google Earth Engine – something which I swear is the most amazing, beautiful and terrifying proof of that you will ever find. Because where Google Earth on its own (other Earths are available), allows you to skim through the entirety of the globe in detail…the Engine allows you to skim through history itself.

Here’s a little context: In 1972, NASA (it would be NASA, wouldn’t it?) launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. The beautifully named ERTS (it’s now called the Landsat) had a simple task – photograph as much of the globe as possible, in detail and in high quality.  The result – the “high quality” of the 1970s and the 2010s are not always compatible, except of course in terms of amazing hairstyles – is a collection of low-res images of everywhere you can think of from every year from 1972 to 2013. And this is where the Google Earth Engine comes in. Because the idea is simple – Google obtained the images from 1984 onwards, put them into a simple timelapse, allowed people to access it for free online – but the result is amazing. Because while the Landsat…well, sat, taking pictures idly in the upper atmosphere, it unwittingly captured 29 years of history on the earth below.

The Vlogbrothers have already covered the extraordinary environmental impact that you can observe over the time period, so I’m not going to bother telling you that. But there’s history at play here, and the most amazing part if that you can see it. Landsat captured the end of the Cold War and the subsequent urban growth – and rural decline – of the former USSR.  It captured globalisation with sprouting supermarkets, urban growth with ever-sprawling cities. It captured Haiti’s earthquake and Chernobyl’s explosion. In places, it manages to be beautiful, but in others it is absolutely terrifying – as cities expand and forests shrink, it gives off a powerful message about how much we realistically have left. I’m going to suggest you look through it yourself to get a sense of it – the little details seem to be by far the most powerful and amazing to me – but if you can’t get started let me offer you some suggestions -some mine, some Google’s – and a little context:

(Link here, then search with the bar at the top)

RONDONIA, BRAZIL – FOREST FELLING

Rondonia sits right at the heart of the Amazon rainforest, but might not forever. This timelapse – one of the most worrying – shows the extent of the strip-cutting of the forest to make way for farmland. Look around, and all you can see is more cuts, more tears, less forest. From a political or economic point of view, this is fantastic – Brazil’s economy has grown massively in recent years, and is fast becoming one of the strongest and most stable in the world. But history forces us to look at the future as much as the present.

DUBAI, UAE – THE ISLANDS THAT OIL BUILT

Dubai, while it had been rich since the discovery of oil in 1966 and its great market for Indian gold had developed later, really exploded in growth from the mid nineties onwards, when the city started to develop its tourism and high-wealth industry and cash in on the strict immigrant labour laws it maintained. You can see the city slowly develop from 1984 until – boom! – it starts building ridiculous skyscrapers and green parks and freaking artificial islands off its coast. It’s an amazing expansion to see condensed into a  few seconds.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM– EASTENDERS GO UPMARKET

London’s amazing just to look at, but scroll east to check out its docklands. They’ve been a site for urban development since 1988, when work on Canary Wharf began to turn the disused docklands into a commercial centre. Look a bit further and you can see The Millenium Dome  spring up, and even catch the beginnings of the Stratford Olympic Park.

BERLIN, GERMANY – THE FALL OF THE WALL

This one, while subtle, is amazing. This is a map of the Berlin Wall – the circular wall that enclosed West German-alligned West Berlin with East German East Berlin. In 1984 it was standing. In 1989, it fell. Not only can you see a green patch emerge where the no-man’s land once stood, you can almost see the huge growth that both parts of Berlin experienced after reunification.