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History of the Silk Roads 

Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbours. Thus, through the ages, the immensity of Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads. Maritime Routes or Spice Routes, linking East and West by sea were also developed. 

These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilization of the Eurasian peoples. Many travellers ventured on to the Silk Roads drawn by the attractions of trade, adventure and also knowledge and, in the nineteenth century, by new archaeological discoveries.

Nevertheless, these ancient roads, used for thousands of years and considered to have been 'opened up' by the Chinese General Zhang Qian in the second century BC, had no particular name. 'Silk Road' is a relatively recent designation dating from the mid-nineteenth century when the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road). The term, also used in the plural, has remained to stir our imagination with its evocative mystery.

Travellers on the Silk Roads

The Chinese were among the first intrepid travellers who, often risking their lives, ventured on to the Silk Roads, a vast network of routes linking East and West. Their uncontested hero was Zhang Qian. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor 'Wudi' to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them.

Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Appreciating the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighbouring peoples. The successful mission opened the way for future ambassadors and travellers from the East and the West.

Buddhism having spread as far as China, several Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts. Their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. For example, the diary of 'Fa Xian' (describing a 14-year voyage between 399 and 414) has made a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the history of Central Asia in the fifth century. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654) not only has an enormous historical value but also inspired a comic novel of the sixteenth century, 'Pilgrimage to the West', which has become one of the great Chinese classics.

During the Middle Ages, European monks and traders travelled in the opposite direction. Noteworthy among them were Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a voyage lasting from 1245 to 1247, William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by Saint Louis on a voyage lasting from 1253 to 1255, and Marco Polo, whose travels stretched over more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292.

With the nineteenth century a new type of traveller was born: archaeologists and geographers from the West, enthusiastic explorers looking for adventure. Coming from France, England, Germany and Japan, these researchers traversed the Taklamakan desert in western China, in what is now Xinjiang, to explore the ancient sites along the Silk Roads and look for traces of Buddhist influence. This explains how museums in the West acquired many frescoes and art objects from ancient Buddhist sites of China, buried in the sand and brought back, with or without the permission of the Chinese, by Sir Aurel Stein (British, 1862-1943), Paul Pelliot (French, 1879-1945), Albert von Le Coq (German, 1860-1930) and others.

In 1988 UNESCO launched a ten-year project entitled 'Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue'. As part of the project, several were organized to retrace, by land and by sea, some of these routes, with the participation of experts from all the countries involved. The purpose of the project, which uses a multidisciplinary approach, is to carry out field studies of the scientific, technological and cultural exchanges which took place between the East and the West along these routes with a view to stimulating further research at the international and national levels and promoting the concept of multiple identities and a common heritage.

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