The silk road: An important landmark of human activity

Arabic News, 30 March 1999

Syria has been called the crossroads of Oriental civilization, influenced as it was by the Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Mediterranean civilizations, then going on to develop a rich culture of its own.

The result is an incomparable legacy of thousands of years of human enterprise. Sculptures, murals, and magnificent artwork of gold and ivory have been excavated from the palaces and temples of Ebla, Mari and Ugarit, cities which flourished in the period from 3000- 2000 BC.

Unearthed in the ancient caravan city of Palmyra have been sculptures that portray the unique mixture of Eastern and Western civilization at the height of the silk road trade.

Moreover, human culture is indivisible both in time and space. It represents the fruit of all mankind and the memory of all peoples. It encompasses man's efforts and style as well as man's thought and handiwork. It is the embodiment of his social and historical creation and the fruit of his intellectual and manual efforts, that which pours into the greater flow of civilization from one end of the globe to the other joining between the temporary and the eternal cultural and commercial exchange between the Arabs and their neighbors as well as far states is as old as the silk road.

Today, it is yet richer and more varied.

The cultural treasures of Eastern cities were brought to the cities of these neighboring countries. Great centers of civilization Ugarit, Mari and Ebla, tablets have revealed, each possessed its own laws and each with its own creation story.

Syria hosts the oldest human dwelling, going eleven thousand years back, the oldest alphabet ever at Ugarit, the oldest treaty, and the first musical scale, a heritage to be proud of and to share with humanity at large.

The words silk road were first used by a 19-century German geographer, Ferdinand Richthofer, when he pointed out to an ancient trunk road crossing and penetrating Central Asia, connecting China in the east and the Mediterranean region in the west. Today, however, the term is generally used to mean the region where commercial routes formed in ancient times connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the Eurasian continent.

Included in this term is the so-called Oasis Route, connecting caravan cities in the desert and semi-desert areas of Central Asia; the Steppe Route, the commercial route controlled by nomadic equestrian tribes who lived in the Eurasian steppe region extending to the north of the Oasis Route; and the Southern Sea Route, which linked the China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.

The story of the silk road is usually the focus of great interest from archaeologists and scientists working in the field of antiquities. Among the famous people in this field is the well-known Japanese researcher, who was also the director of the Ancient Orient Museum in Japan, Mr. Namio Egami.

However, among the aforesaid routes, the Oasis Route is the most popular, not only because of its historical significance in terms of East-West trade and cultural exchange, but also because it exerts a strong attraction to people by reason that the Oasis Route did not form naturally, but was developed by consistent human efforts. For nearly a thousand years countless people traveled along this road, even risking their lives and often for the ultimate realization of their dreams. The ties between humanity and this road, therefore must have been stronger than in the case of the other routes.

From the viewpoint of historians, the Oasis silk road, along which people traveled from one oasis to another, is a gigantic landmark of human activity, in which natural dangers were conquered for a distance of thousands of kilometers as shortest trunk road between the East and the West passing through Central Asia.

At the same time, however, the Oasis silk road was an artificially developed road, as it underwent certain changes paralleled to other events in human history. In particular, it was strongly affected by the development of the major civilizations which then existed at both ends of the Oasis Silk Road, namely the Chinese and Mediterranean civilizations, as well as the migration of nomadic equestrian tribes of Northern Eurasia to the north of the road.

The traffic along the Oasis Road fluctuated considerably in such an environment, and the Oasis caravan city-states along this road inevitably experienced periods of both richness and decline.