The Silk Road’s Enduring Romance, and Eternal Influence

Last May, when our known world was one way, we began planning these stories. By last month, when we were finishing work on this issue, the world was another way.

ImageAn 18th-century map from China purporting to be a copy of one drawn there in 1418, based on the explorer Zheng He’s travels around the globe. While some have claimed that it proves Zheng He arrived in the Americas before Christopher Columbus, scholars have questioned the map’s authenticity.
Credit...Universal Images Group/Getty Images

LIKE OUR JOURNEY from the womb, or through millennia of evolutionary changes, the Silk Road is a trip that feels elemental to the human condition. We cannot remember, often, how we learned of it, only that knowledge of it seems to be a birthright: It may not be the first story of human movement, recorded or otherwise, but it is the most abiding.

At its most prosaic, the Silk Road was a series of trade routes that began thousands of years before the Common Era and lasted until (depending on who you ask) the 15th or 16th century (though many scholars argue that it continued for much longer). Over the decades, as kingdoms rose and faltered and conquerors redrew broad swaths of what is now Central Asia, the Middle East and Southern Europe, the route swerved and shimmied, calving tributaries that crossed mountains and deserts and eventually even the sea. A map, for much of civilization, was a mere suggestion, a diary of conquest written in pencil, and one of the victor’s privileges was the right to remake the world to his liking. Heading west from the ancient city of Chang’an (now Xi’an) in China trundled caravans of silk, tea, paper and spices, inching toward their terminus in Rome or Constantinople; heading east came glass, gold, silver and horses. The route was some 4,000 miles, and dangerous; the people who plied it did so knowing that they could be felled by perils both human and climatic, that at any moment, the lands they traversed could become hostile territory.

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Credit...Map by Daniel Wagner

And so why did they persist, these early travelers? For one thing, there was their curiosity, their craving for the new, as fundamental to our condition as hunger or thirst. It wasn’t just new objects or technologies that they encountered on the route, either: It was new ideas, new religions, new philosophies. Buddhism and Islam were both conveyed eastward on the Silk Road. To travel was to risk not only physical danger, but a different, headier kind of risk as well — the chance that you might discard what you’d always believed for some other ideology altogether. This was a tribal age, and the road could change you so profoundly that you might never again be welcomed back home.

For another, there was the allure of adventure. Yes, the path was dangerous. Yes, you might never see your family again. But movement is also intrinsic to the human experience. It is why the romance of the Silk Road endures all these years later: Although you can interpret it as the first, most durable experiment in capitalism, you can also see it as a testament to not just our desire, but our need to explore. Every traveler who leaves home therefore follows in the spirit of our Silk Road forebears, stepping out of our known world in the hopes that we might be dazzled.

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Credit...Richard Mosse
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Credit...Zhang Xiao

I HAD ALWAYS wanted to create an issue that follows the old road. And so last May, when our known world was one way, we began planning these stories. By last month, when we were finishing work on this issue, the world was another way.

Yet as I read these pieces, I realized that the Silk Road has more lessons to offer us in this moment than I’d previously thought. Because while it is a reminder of our desire for interconnectedness, it is also a reminder that although open borders and movement bring wonder and awe to our lives, they can also bring war and disease. Over the course of the Silk Road’s operation, humanity had to face some of the worst illnesses in recorded history, from the Justinian plague of the sixth century to the Black Death of the 1340s to a global syphilis outbreak in 1495 to a tuberculosis epidemic in the 1500s to the second cholera pandemic of 1826. The Justinian plague killed up to half of the global population at the time. Eight hundred years later, the Black Death killed as many as 100 million — nearly a quarter of the global population.

But through all of these horrors, through all of these sorrows, the road continued. Trade continued. The need to discover new things and new people, to look down the road ahead, continued. What else could they do, those long-dead travelers? They could no more ignore what they desired than they could unlearn what centuries of exploration and interaction had taught them. The only way through was forward.

It is the same for us now, too. The only way through is forward. Let us find some comfort, though, in the knowledge that we are preceded by centuries of human endurance, those travelers who remind us that every journey, no matter how difficult, ends with our finding our way back.