We take the Golden Road to Samarkand

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further; it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lies a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.

(From The Road to Samarkand by James Elroy Flecker)

My text here has only 2 illustrations but each shows powerfully the links created by The Silk Road which with its global reach seems to me to be a kind of living metaphor for the human experience of our planet. It deserves scrutiny, not least as we look for the way to treat our planet respectfully through understanding between cultures, among other ways.  In 2019 we held a symposium with several eminent speakers who have spent their lives studying, traveling in and sharing their knowledge of this subject, one of the great stories of human history.

Blue and white plate with a scene depicting the destruction of a house during the Rotterdam Riots of 1690, China, Qing Dynasty, Kangxi reign, 1662-1722. ©National Museums Scotland

In a recent book by Valerie Hansen ‘The Year 1000' the stage is set for it was in that year that evidence shows that trade routes existed effectively joining up almost every continent of the planet. But restless humanity had long, long before, been exploring planet earth.

Traders in antiquity along what we know as The Silk Roads included Bactrians, Sogdians, Syrians, Jews, Arabs, Iranians, Turkmen, Chinese, Indians, Somalis, Greeks, Romans, Georgians and Armenians. The extent of the routes both geographically and chronologically, was extraordinary. In the last millennium, Europe, Africa and even the Americas were directly or indirectly transformed by the heart beat of this great highway. Peter Frankopan in The Silk Roads; A New History of the World’ shows how a common thread linking huge, often global changes, resulting in the formation and dispersal of countless empires, religions and cultures, was often rooted in what flowed along these arteries of our planet since around 400 BCE. Another example is Japan’s ancient 8th century capital, Nara, which was the final destination of the less well known Eastern Silk Road; ‘Artefacts originating as far away as in ancient Persia and Arabia ended up in [Nara] after traveling thousands of miles across the Eurasian Continent. One can even observe the influence of ancient Greece on one of the city's oldest temples. (Notes from a Unesco sponsored Silk Road symposium in Nara in 2001).

Beijing was once the pivot on which the Silk Road turned. Today China continues its ascent of the world stage with other South East Asian countries; technology and goods are increasingly flowing Westwards from points East, as they once did long ago. Beijing is reported to be pouring a staggering $4 trillion dollars into its Belt and Road Initiative; a gargantuan plan to create a modern version of the old Silk Roads including a tunnel under the Himalayas and a daily train service from Beijing to London!

Silk gave the Silk Road its name, however it wasn’t just silk and other goods that passed up and down these trading routes; there were ideas, religions, technologies and trading systems. The ceramic traditions of the Ottoman Iznik and Safavid dynasties were hugely influenced by porcelain brought from China (and lets not forget our own use of that word china). And the Silk Roads brought tragedy; the Black Death, which decimated and utterly transformed Europe, originated from the maritime Silk Routes. Much of the inspiration behind The Nomads Tent comes from the oldest of human urges, wanderlust. This is particularly true of Rufus Reade who started ‘Out of The Nomads Tent’ and ‘Rufus Reade Tours’ out of a love of people, history and travel. Rufus barely lets the dust settle after one tour before he is preparing in great detail another, and is soon off again, usually with an intrepid group in tow.


'This is a detail from the 'Kinghorne Table Carpet', woven in England in 16th century. It is now housed in the National Museum of Scotland and illustrates European fascination with oriental carpets which were traded along the silk road, from the far East via Venice, to grand homes and palaces of Europe. but even to wealthy people, they were often too expensive so domestic workshops began to cop them. ©National Museums Scotland

This vast subject of the Silk Roads was the ambitious back drop for our symposium in March 2019, which included four lectures (and some good cake with tea afterwards).

Professor Carole Hillenbrand, ‘The nomadic way of life’

Dr Peter Andrews: ‘Nomadic tents’.

Professor Robert Hillenbrand: ‘On Central Asia as a bridge between East and West’

Dr Noorah Al Gailani: ‘The social perspective of Uzbek suzani craft’.

Friederike Voigt took a small group on a mini silk road tour in the National Museum, Edinburgh


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Andrew Haughton.