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The Silk Road in World History


Forum Introduction: The Silk Road

Timothy May


     The Silk Road remains as one of the most intriguing aspects of world history. The very name stirs an image of exotic allure and mystery, of caravans and camels, luxury and adventure. Even in the twenty-first century when goods are transported via air freight and on massive cargo container ships, the Silk Road still captivates the world's attention as evinced by riveting headlines when a Chinese train recently reached Teheran. China even unveiled a plan to develop a New Silk Road that will eventually reach Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Coincidentally, just as Indian Ocean studies has gained much needed attention in world history, China also announced a New Maritime Silk Road, aptly demonstrating why world history should and must be a required course for all students.1

     Three of this Forum's articles originated as research papers presented at my Colloquium in World History, a part of the University of North Georgia's Master of Arts in History program, which includes a concentration in World History. A key component of the colloquium was to have weekly discussions on articles from the The Silk Road Journal, whose interdisciplinary approach includes the most recent archaeological studies, discussions of art history, history, and those who explored the silk road, making it an excellent historiographical tool for anyone exploring the subject.2 A bibliography I prepared for this iteration of the colloquium can be found in the notes section for this article.3 Since then, a few other significant works on the Silk Road have been published, including Peter Frankopan's The Silk Roads: A New History (2016) and a second edition of Susan Whitfield's Life Along the Silk Road (2015). Non-specialists may also find Jacqueline M. Moore's Teaching the Silk Road (2010) very useful.

     It is well established that the Silk Road facilitated the spread of religions, particularly Islam and Buddhism.4 Other universal religions also experienced success, albeit on a lesser scale. In this Forum, Silvia Mantz explores the history of Manichaeism and how it traveled along the Silk Road. She examines how the religion was received in various locations and what factors influenced its reception. She then explores the direct relationship of that religion with the Silk Road. As merchants and missionaries who traveled the Silk Road assisted in not only spreading this religion, but also supported it, when commercial activity declined, Manichaeism could not meet stave off the challenges and persecution from other more established world religions. For those unfamiliar with Manichaeism, this will serve as an excellent introduction to the religion's history.

     Robert Klemm's contribution to this Forum also examines religion in the context of the Silk Road. Here we see why the Silk Road was aptly named, as Klemm delves into the conflict of austerity and luxury in religion. In this, he examines ṭirāz or embroidered silk and its function during the Umayyad dynasty along with changing views on silk during the growth of Islam. Klemm explores how silk underwent prohibition to becoming an almost ubiquitous item in the Islamic world. Furthermore, his researches reminds us that silk was not always just a fashionable fabric for garments, but also was commodity that held interest for its artistic and even religious potential. This article serves as useful tool to show how religions change over time and should never be viewed as static.

     In the Forum's third article, Donna Hamil explores how Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, and the socio-cultural processes associated with nomadic state formation influenced perceptions of commerce as a profession. She argues that although intercultural, political, and power struggles existed and caused tension between powers, the need for goods (both luxury and ubiquitous), encouraged a variety of cross-cultural frontier exchanges. These interactions often transcended other differences and were framed in connection of how societies viewed commerce as an honorable or dishonorable profession. Furthermore, often the most functional systems of trade emerged with political powers. The value in this article is found not only as an excellent example of world history, but also how societies adapt cross-cultural encounters to fit their social constructs.

     When discussing the Silk Road, one can never ignore the Mongol Empire. The final contribution to this forum comes from John Maunu of Cranbrook Kingswood High School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He is also World History Connected's Digital/Internet Resource Editor. It is a valuable and timely resource for teachers and students of all levels interested in not only the Mongol Empire but also in the Silk Road. Maunu's collection will be of use to anyone who teaches any aspect of the Mongol Empire, including the Silk Road. It is a nice mix of scholarly work, primary sources, and websites that can be easily integrated into the curriculum of a course on the Silk Road, the Mongol Empire, or a survey of world history.

Timothy May is Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Letters and Professor of Central Eurasian History at the University of North Georgia. When not practicing the dark arts of administration, his research focuses on the Mongol Empire and steppe empires in general and is the author of several books and articles on these topics. He may be reached at


1 For an early study of these developments, see Alice-Catherine Carls, "Central Asia: The New Silk Road's Gordian Knot?" World History Connected, Vol. 6, no. 1 (March 2009), Accessed April 20, 2016. Other sources include Shannon Tezzi, "China's 'New Silk Road' Vision Revealed", The Diplomat. May 9, 2014, at Accessed April 20, 2016. Catherine Putz, "First Direct Train from China Arrives in Iran", The Diplomat, February 16, 2016, at Accessed April 20, 2016. For the Indian Ocean in world history see Edward A. Aplers, The Indian Ocean in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

2 The Silk Road Journal. Accessed April 20, 2016

3 Alfred J. Andrea, "The Silk Road in World History: A Review Essay", Asian Review of World Histories 2:1 (2014), 105–127; Christopher I Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); David Christian, "Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History," Journal of World History. Vol 11, no. 1, (2000), 1–26; Nicola Di Cosimo, "Black Sea Emporia and the Mongol Empire: A Reassessment of the Pax Mongolica", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 53 (2010, 83–108; Stephan F. Dale, "Silk Road, Cotton Road or…Indo-European Trade in Pre-European Times," Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43, no. 1 (2009), 79–88; Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010); Mathew P. Fitzpatrick, "Provincializing Rome: The Indian Ocean Trade Network and Roman Imperialism," Journal of World History, Vol/ 22, no. 1 (2011), 27–53; Richard Foltz, Religions of the Silk Raod: Premodern Patterns of Globalization (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd ed., 2010); Valerie Hansen, The Silk Raod: A New History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Xinru Liu, "Migration and Settlement of the Yuezhi-Kushan: Interaction and Interdependence of Nomadic and Sedentary Societies," Journal of World History, Vol. 12, no. 1(2001), 261–291; Craig A. Lockard, "'The Sea Common to All': Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, ca. 1400–1750," Journal of World History, Vol. 21, no. 2 (2010), 219–247; Janet Martin, "The Land of Darkness and the Golden Horde. The Fur Trade under the Mongols XIII–XIVth Centuries," Cahiers du Monde russe et sovietique, Vol. 19, no. 1 (1978), 401–421; James A. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); James A. Millward, The Silk Road: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Roxann Prazniak, "Siena on the Silk Roads: Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the Mongol Global Century, 1250–1350," Journal of World History, Vol. 21, no. 2 (2010), 177–217; Bin Yang, "Horses, Silver, and Cowries: Yunnan in Global Perspective," Journal of World History, Vol. 15, no. 3 (2004), 281–321.

4 Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

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