Silk road essay questions
The nurturing landscape for the emergence of some of the great nomadic empires was often that of Mongolia and Manchuria, where the rolling hills provided ample pasturage and there was water from the melting snow. As modern studies have shown, the mix of natural vegetation in mountain pastures generally is more nutritious than domesticated animal fodder. It is no accident that when Han China began importing horses from Central Asia, it also imported the plants on which they fed.
Vast as the extent of the mountain pastures and steppe lands may seem, it is also important to realize that their potential to support herds is not unlimited. Not all the vegetation is edible for domesticated animals, and the "carrying capacity" of pastures is limited. Thus, an unusually large group of horses such as a nomadic army might not be able to remain in one location for a long time, and for most nomads, seasonal movement was important - either horizontally or vertically - to ensure that there would always be adequate pasturage for the flocks which were essential for survival.
There is a common misperception that nomads had no fixed settlements and no agriculture. In fact, as recent archaeological evidence is abundantly demonstrating, pure nomadism was probably quite rare; mixed economies were the more likely. Most nomadic pastoralists followed regular patterns of movement from summer to winter camps; at the latter they often sowed crops to be harvested on their return in the autumn. One of the interesting questions which still needs to be answered regards the degree to which even small historic variations in climate in some of the traditional regions of nomadic pastoralism might have made possible more extensive agriculture than has been practiced in those same areas in more recent times.
The geography of the Silk Roads then is a complex interaction between the physical and climate zones of mountain, steppe or grasslands, and river valleys and oases which often are bounded by uninhabitable desert. Thus populations could be dispersed in the grasslands or concentrated in the oases and river valleys.
Recent research is emphasizing the close interaction between pastoralists and agriculturalists in regions which incorporate a broad range of natural zones. While both sedentary and nomadic peoples adapted well to their natural environments, they were, nonetheless, especially vulnerable to disease and unexpected natural calamities.
Movement from one habitable location to another in pre-modern times would be possible only where water was to be found along the way and the barriers of physical geography presented no obstacles to travel on foot or on the backs of animals. From the modern perspective, where we are accustomed to the idea that one can travel almost anywhere at any time thanks to technology, the geographical limitations on travel in pre-modern times may seem formidable indeed.
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Raised as most of us have been in urban environments, it is hard for us to imagine people walking or riding hundreds or thousands of kilometers through areas largely devoid of human habitation, surviving on routes at the fringes of great deserts, or crossing mountain passes often higher than meters. Time and space were not numbered by our kind of reckoning. Navigation without the benefit of a map or today a GPS unit may be hard for us to imagine.
Indeed, our early Silk Road travelers convey some sense of the challenges. Regarding the near vertical slopes of the Indus River gorge, Faxian writes:. The way was difficult and rugged, running along a bank exceedingly precipitous which rose up there, a hill-like wall of rock When one approached the edge of it, his eyes became unsteady; and if he wished to go forward in the same direction, there was no place on which he could place his foot; and beneath were the waters of a river called the Indus.
In former times men had chiseled paths along the rocks and distributed ladders on the face of them By no means all of the routes followed precipitous paths carved out of sheer cliffs, for had travel been only on such routes, that would have limited severely the volume of trade.
Silk Road (History Essay Sample)
Many mountain passes, while difficult because of the altitude, are in fact quite easy to cross, providing one is not caught in an unexpected storm. Safe travel across steppe lands might be possible in almost any direction, providing one did not lose one's way and providing one had the protection of the nomads through whose lands one might pass. An example of one of the most important east-west routes is that which extends from the pasture lands of the Mongolian Altai Mountains through Xinjiang and on to today's Kazakhstan.
The route parallels the northern slopes of the Tienshan Mountains, starting in a rich area of grasslands and agriculture in the vicinity of Lake Barkol, a region of strategic importance linked via a narrow mountain gorge to Hami in the south, one of the major outposts on the "northern Silk Road.
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The route continues west, flanking Bogdo Ula, the largest mountain massif of the eastern Tienshan, whose glaciers feed the streams which make irrigated agriculture possible. Another of the important military and administrative centers from the T'ang period down to the end of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was at Beiting, east of the modern capital of the Uighur Autonomous Region, Urumqi. A broad valley enters from the south just west of Bogdo Ula and connects the well-watered northern slopes of the mountains with the irrigation-dependent Turfan oasis in the south.
Both sides of the Eastern Tienshan were important for the Uighur kingdom which flourished here between the 9th and 13th centuries. As the route continues west, it rises to a plateau occupied by beautiful Lake Sayram. Its surrounding pasture lands are still important for the herding families of the region; it was near here that Chingis Khan mustered his forces on his way to conquer Central Asia.
Beyond Sayram, the route drops down through a winding mountain gorge into the Ili River valley, a region of historic importance from well back in the Bronze Age. The Chaghatayid branch of the Mongol Empire had its capital here. The Ili Valley provides an unobstructed passage into the steppes of Kazakhstan. Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, the economic resources of the Ili region and its strategic importance as a communications highway made it a focal point of international politics in Inner Asia. As this example has shown, of itself the geography of Inner Asia was not always the most important obstacle to travel and exchange in pre-modern times.
More important would be the political landscape. Key points could be fortified and control communications - places where valleys between steep mountains narrowed or where the only route connecting wells or other sources of water might pass. The most famous of such points were the "Jade Gates" located at various moments in the history of the Silk Roads either at the edge of the desert in what is now Western China or in the narrow Hexi corridor, where mountain and desert constrict the normal route of passage.
These these "gates" - physical fortresses - were parts of the Great Wall system, whose remnants today may be seen in many places along both the northern and southern routes of the Silk Roads in western Gansu and Xinjiang. To emphasize only the difficulties of travel and communication as seen from the modern perspective seriously underestimates the capacity of pre-modern people to adapt to their environment.
The New Silk Route and the effects on Indian Economy
They acquired or hired the expertise to be able to travel safely in difficult conditions. Travel might extend over long periods of time, broken by intervals where weather or local political conditions dictated that one stop. Most travelers covered only a portion of the "Silk Road" - those like Xuanzang or Marco Polo who went thousands of kilometers were the exception.
Just as governments and local communities could control passage, they could also facilitate it by building bridges or caravan sarais, installing garrisons, or erecting markers to define a route though otherwise featureless terrain. To a considerable degree, habitation and the flow of communication on the Silk Roads depended on ephemeral conditions of war or peace.
The same Mongols who might in one area destroy irrigation systems and thus render certain areas uninhabitable would in a different region extend irrigation as a means of promoting economic prosperity. Even the period when the Mongol Empire had largely disintegrated, the Italian merchant Pegolotti observed that travel all across Asia to China was safe, except in periods of civil war. There is a persuasive argument that the apparent decline of the overland trade in Inner Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries was less a consequence of the opening up of sea routes connecting East Asia with Europe and more a consequence of political instability which made the cost of safe overland travel prohibitive.
Our current concerns over global warming remind us that any examination of human history over a period of millennia and also much shorter periods must take into account climate change. As the authors of an important recent study relating the flourishing of the Scythians in Eurasia to climate change have pointed out, "Prehistoric communities living in marginal areas of food production may react in a very sensitive way to environmental changes, because such changes can have an enormous impact on their way of life and even survival.
Before we turn to longer-term trends in pre-history, we might look at one short-term modern example. In Mongolia even today a substantial percentage of the population still relies on herding for their livelihood. Understandably then, livestock mortality is a critical concern. A recent study has demonstrated that the critical factor which can substantially increase livestock mortality in any given year is a dzud , that is, a particularly bad winter which may consist of heavy snow or melting and freezing to create such a hard crust of ice that the animals cannot break through it to get at the dried grass underneath.
The fodder herders store at their winter camps is largely an emergency supply and by itself insufficient to supply all the needs of the flocks until the next summer grazing season. There were successive winters of dzud in ; in general one can expect such conditions to recur every two to three years. Now, in these circumstances, it is easy to see how prosperous herders could, almost overnight, become desperate.
It is entirely possible then that they might be compelled to move to other areas in order to find more favorable conditions for their herds and to recover; or, in a pre-modern situation, they might find themselves submitting to the control of other groups, within which they would be able to survive. Climate change over large areas of Eurasia seems to have encouraged major population movements in conjunction with fundamental changes in the ways of life of those involved. Of particular interest for what some term the pre-history of the Silk Roads was a signficant warming which occurred across much of Eurasia around BCE.
Studies of lake sediments in the Enisei River basin in Siberia just to the west of Lake Baikal have shown that the combination of rising temperatures and precipitation led to significant changes in vegetation.
The Silk Road
Areas that had formerly been too cold or desert-like now could support grazing and some agriculture. Conditions developed which favored the expansion of herding and the development of nomadic pastoralism in areas where it previously had not existed. The earliest known royal tombs of the Scythian nomads have been found precisely in this remote northern region and date to a period soon after these favorable changes in climate. There is a reasonable hypothesis that the spread of mounted nomadism across Eurasia and thus the wide range of "Scythian" culture from the region of the Black Sea to Mongolia and possibly beyond may be explained by climate change.
The more favorable economic conditions coincided with an increase in population; this in turn put pressure on the natural resources to the extent that out-migration became necessary. The period of favorable climate conditions for nomads in southern Siberia continued for several centuries, as the rich burials in the Tuvan region of the Altai Mountains attest.
Thus, well before the traditional date of the "beginning of the Silk Roads" the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE , conditions favored long-range exchange connecting the homeland of the Altai nomads with both the Middle East and with China. It seems possible that there is a connection between climate change and the developing interaction in the late 3rd century BCE between the nomadic Xiongnu and China, normally seen as the stimulus for the opening of the silk roads. While much of the area of what is now southern Mongolia and Inner Mongolia today is arid, the boundary between desert and loess soil suitable for grazing or agriculture has fluctuated over the millennia.
The rise of the Xiongnu seems to correlate with a period when desertification was less than its historic maximum; thus the region north of and within the bend of the Yellow River was suitable for the kind of mixed economy which we think the Xiongnu practiced. There is an impressive concentration of archaeological evidence about human settlement in this region in the last centuries before the common era.
It was likely that the populations and economic resources were sufficient to encourage Chinese expansion to the north, which put them on a collision course with the nomads. As Nicola Di Cosmo has argued, it was not so much to keep the nomads out of China but rather to control the non-Chinese in these northern territories that the first sections of the Great Wall were built. By virtue of encouraging settlement in these somewhat marginal lands which could not support large numbers of people, the Chinese then may have created a situation where the capacity of the environment to support human activity was exceeded.
Thus a reversal of the favorable natural conditions was accelerated, and a competition for scarce resources resulted. It is generally recognized that even in pre-modern times, the human impact on the environment could have very negative consequences. For a final example of climate change of particular importance to the history of the Silk Roads, we go to the Tarim Basin - that is the large area bounded by the Tienshan, Pamir and Kunlun Mountains, where the major river, the Tarim, is located just south of the Tienshan.
The Taklamakan Desert dominates the Tarim Basin, but all along its edges the snowmelt from the mountains made possible flourishing agriculture in a chain of oases through which ran the historic trade routes. The late 19th and early 20th-century explorers and archaeologists who documented the historic silk roads in the Tarim Basin encountered abandoned cities way out in the desert.
The Silk Road: Connecting People and Cultures | Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Their remains suggested that they once had been supported by intensive agriculture and that they had extensive international trading connections. Documents found at some of the sites along the "southern Silk Road" suggested that they had flourished into the 4th century, but then declined sharply. By the time the famous traveler-monk Xuanzang passed through the region in the 7th century, some of the important towns had already been abandoned.