Blog Connections

Silk Road(s)

In memory of my recent trip to Kyrgyzstan, I decided to pimp up our Silk Road connection. We gathered no less than 51 connected sites over the years, most of them lacking proper explanations. However, when I tried to apply a structured approach to it I failed miserably. I got lost in the muddy waters of scientific definitions, ancient legends, and modern tourism marketing surrounding the ‘Silk Roads’ brand. So my goal became to make sense of it all, explain more, and judge less. The updated connection contains 69 WHS.

The issues

Finding the ultimate resource for this ‘WHS and Silk Road’ subject was already a quest. I started with the ICOMOS thematic study dating from 2014. However, it also struggled with setting boundaries and took a narrow approach to end up near its own goal (find a subdivision of Silk Road Sites for serial nominations). On the other side of the spectrum is the UNESCO Silk Roads Programme: a broad initiative where it seems that if you think you belong here, you can join. Of great help was this older Silk Road topic at our Forum. I also checked the AB evaluations of the long list of sites that I ended up with.

Attaching the Silk Roads label to a WHS one must consider:

  • The geographical scope: most sources will have Chang’an (called Xi’an nowadays) as the starting point in the East. But where did it end/start in the West? Antioch is often named, together with other sites at the Mediterranean coast of the Levant (eg. Tyre, Aleppo). But what about Bursa or Istanbul? In the end, I found this map that shows how the whole system interacted. Essentially it was a core corridor plus feeder systems.
  • The timeframe: it began around the 1st century BC when the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han empires started to develop long-term connections. Some sources (such as ICOMOS) let it end with the break-up of the Timurid Empire in the early 16th century CE. Others choose the collapse of the Safavid Empire in the 1720s,  or the earlier 1453 when the Ottoman Empire closed off trade with the West.
  • The number and exact track of routes: even in the narrowest sense geographically and historically, there wasn’t one route. So it’s better to refer to the plural Silk Roads as does the only Silk Roads WHS so far. And to think of it as Corridors instead of roads from A to B.
  • The function of a WHS: it’s a ‘route’, so one should look out for roads, bridges, caravanserais. Goods were exchanged, so we need bazaars. And ideas as well, introducing Buddhism and Islam for example.

The variety of Silk Roads

This all leaves us with at least 8 different Silk Roads. There is the Classic Land Route, which covers sites within the narrowest geographical and historical definitions of the Silk Roads, such as the Mogao Caves, Samarkand, and the bazaars of Tabriz and Aleppo.

In addition, there are at least the following, "feeder" routes that were connected to the Classic Route:

  1. Mongolian: the routes connecting modern-day Mongolia and the steppe. Includes Xanadu and Orkhon Valley
  2. Caucasus/Black Sea: including sites such as Derbent;
  3. Turkey/Aegean: the routes through Turkey to the Aegean (Bursa and Istanbul);
  4. North African: the routes from the eastern Mediterranean down to modern-day Egypt and North Africa (I didn't find a WHS for this route, Cairo could be a possibility);
  5. Southern: this includes what is known as the Tea Horse Road (southwards from Yunnan (Lijiang) and Sichuan, into Myanmar, India, etc), but also a more western Himalayan loop across Nepal/India/Bhutan;
  6. Eastern: this route covers Eastern China plus Japan (Nara) and Korea (Gyeongju), and includes both land and maritime aspects.

Finally, there is the Maritime Silk Road which seems to be a whole story of its own. It includes for example Quanzhou and Hoi An but reached as far as Qalhat and the Land of Frankincense.

Notably missing among the defined routes in the sources is a clear route into Western Europe, it all becomes fuzzy after the goods leave Asian Turkey.

Debatable sites

In the restructured Silk Roads connection I have incorporated all WHS that fit into the views explained above. Although I tried to be as inclusive as possible, I dropped a few WHS as well. The Lonja de la Seda (Valencia) is at the very western end of the spectrum. With a construction date of around 1500, it is late, and its OUV lies essentially in its gothic architecture. Sheki – it fits the region but its foundation was late by any means (1743) and more focused on the manufacture of silk. A funny one also is Regensburg, which claims without any modesty: “Regensburg was an important transition point on continental trade routes to Italy, Bohemia, Russia, and Byzantium. It also had multiple connections with the transcontinental Silk Roads”.

Els - 14 November 2021

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Jarek Pokrzywnicki 17 November 2021

While visiting Armenia I found a road sign with description of Armenia's Silk Road. As far as I remember it was located near Yegegnadzor (southern part, main road from Erevan). So probably all Armenian sights can be somehow linked to Silk Road (at least Armenians as renown merchants had to take part in it).

Els Slots 14 November 2021

The Khoja mausoleum is there (with a "Near" qualification), I will add Kilwa.

Solivagant 14 November 2021

Interesting rationalisation of a complex subject which needed it (I liked the identification of those "near" to the route). Not that I am much clearer on what UNESCO is ultimately going to finish up with!
I see that the UNESCO Programme only has 33 sites - and you have removed many of those whilst finishing up with a much larger list! I guess the others just haven't bothered to "join". Only 2 "removals" which I was a bit surprised at
a. Kilwa - its Chinese porcelain finds are famous and Web sites generally recognise it as part of the Maritime Silk Route
b. Mausoleum of Khoja - I guess that, if a wider site in Turkestan City were to be inscribed there would be no argument (just in the near buffer zone Archaeological site are many such silk route related monuments)....but I can imagine the Mausoleum being well frequented by Camel train traders and the significance of the city it is constructed in derived from its Silk route location.

Clyde 14 November 2021

Very interesting and shows that a single serial WHS would be much better unlike the Frontiers/Limes approach