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Book Review


Foltz, Richard C., Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (St. Martin's Griffin, 2000). 200 pp., $17.95

     In this short world history monograph, Richard Foltz uses the Silk Road as the geographic construct in which to examine "the movement and transformation" of all the religions that inhabited this vast region for some two thousand years.  He attempts, fortunately, to investigate this immense body of material thematically: "Taking as its theme the specific example of the spread of religious ideas, this book tells the story of how religions accompanied merchants and their goods along the overland Asian trade routes of pre-modern times" (7).  He defines the Silk Road as not one road but rather a network of many roads from East to West, with "spurs" dipping into the Indian subcontinent, southern Iran, and the northern Eurasian steppe. The book highlights linkages among the various peoples who inhabited this region until 1500 and overall provides a good, brief account of the history and interactions of Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Nestorian Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims.  Because the book condenses so much information into so few pages, undergraduates who lack a background in Near, Central, and East Asian history might get lost it the multitude of Asian, Turkic, Persian and Islamic terms and names rapidly introduced.  Therefore, this book is best suited as supplemental lecture material for instructors on topics and themes, such as Islamization, raised in the world history survey. 1
     For instance, Foltz raises an interesting question in the preface.  He succinctly points out that for centuries Central Asia was one of the most religiously diverse areas in the world and that it also served as safe refuge for unorthodox beliefs, such as Nestorian Christianity.  Yet despite this fact, this pluralistic territory became one of the "most uniformly Muslim regions" (6). How?  Foltz argues in later chapters that this phenomenon was most likely the result of early and steady contact with Muslim traders.  This argument is consistent with other studies in world history such as Jerry Bentley's Old World Encounters (1993),  Janet Abu-Lughod's Before European Hegemony (1989), and Patricia Risso's Merchants and Faith (1995).  Like these earlier works, Foltz argues that Islam attracted many converts due to its commercial appeal and this, in part, explains "the 'failure' of Christianity along the Silk Road" (137). By the sixteenth century, Islam became the dominant religion throughout Central Asia. 2
     Teachers and college instructors who are seeking to improve their understanding of the above mentioned religions, especially with respect to their relation with each other, will find several other useful examples in this book.  An excellent discussion of the Jewish merchants known as Radanites (101-102) reveals that their privileged status in the Muslim period allowed them to move back and forth quite freely along the Silk Road between the Muslim and Christian worlds.  The Radanites came into frequent contact with the Khazars, a shamanistic Turkic people north of the Caspian who controlled a northern trade "spur" to the Silk Road. Foltz points out that, "Perceiving the commercial benefits associated with the Radanites' neutral religious status, the Khazar elite eventually embraced Judaism." (p. 102). As active participants along the trade routes, the Jewish Radanites maintained vibrant diaspora communities which strengthened their religious loyalties. 3
     Yet Foltz not only links the spread of religions to trade, but also to diplomatic missions, religious pilgrimages, and missionary activity.  Sufis, for example, frequently attached themselves to trade caravans and helped to carry Islam into Inner Asia and China.  The shamanistic steppe peoples frequently believed that the Sufi masters possessed magical powers and, "like Christians and other before them, often assumed a role traditionally filled by the shamans.  Like shamans, they were sometimes believed to be able to fly" (142).  Other examples of religious syncretism emerge in this book.  Foltz suggests that the Muslims who took over Buddhist lands in Central Asia borrowed architectural designs such as the four-way arch plan of the Muslim religious schools, the madrasas.  Even the madrasas themselves may have been adopted from Buddhist schools.  The reader is certain to gain an appreciation for the considerable degree of religious syncretism that occurred along the Silk Road as a result of cross-cultural contact and encounter, and Foltz provides plenty of specific examples that could add to a lecture on religious syncretism among the various religions in the pre-modern world. 4
     Religions of the Silk Road is the result of several separate articles previously published by the author and reworked into a single monograph.  As a result, certain chapters such as chapter six, Ecumenical Mischief -- a political history of relations between Catholic and Nestorian Christians -- appear out of place. Two of the three maps in the book are also extremely difficult to read because the type is difficult to decipher against the physical background. Nonetheless, Foltz has synthesized an impressive body of secondary sources as evidence for this book, and teachers and scholars will find his bibliography extremely useful for future research topics. Moreover, the overarching theme that trade linked together the various religions along the Silk Road offers world historians yet another useful tool in constructing an analytical framework for presenting such a daunting topic. 5
Mary Jane Maxwell
Washington State University
Reviewer: Mary Jane Maxwell received her PhD in World History at Washington State University in 2004.

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