“The World of the Ancient Silk Road”, edited by Xinru Liu


The World of the Ancient Silk Road describes what once represented the epicenter of civilization, before being swallowed up and forgotten, like the Library of Dunhuang, by invading sands. In the last thirty years or so, researchers have increasingly brought this world back to light. The operative word in the title is “world”, for it is really on an expansive scale that editor Liu Xinru has structured this volume. 32 different academic papers cover topics as varied as the merchandise of an ancient caravan. Fittingly, many of these papers use the dispersed manuscripts of Dunhuang as their sources.

At over 600 pages, this is a volume to dip into for research, not to be read cover to cover. Readers will find a combination of articles summarizing broadly the underlying phenomena of the Silk Road, with very detailed examination of narrow topics. An example of the former is Bruno Genito’s “The invention and spread of the horse chariot around Afro-Eurasia”; an example of the latter is Kazim Abdullayev’s analysis of cavalry armor “Images of Knights on the Great Silk Road”.


The World of the Ancient Silk Road, Xinru Liu (ed) (Routledge, September 2022)
The World of the Ancient Silk Road, Xinru Liu (ed) (Routledge, September 2022)

One strength is the inclusion of many non-Anglophone researchers, from Russia, Japan, Kazakhstan, along with many Chinese contributors. This exposes English-language readers to some new points of view. The Chinese contributors show a mastery of China’s rich historical literature, enriched via field work in China and surrounding countries. For example, Zhu Yanshi and Liu Tao’s description of the site of Mingtepe in Uzbekistan argues convincingly that this site was the home of the famous blood sweating horses, the objective of the Han Wudi emperor’s vast military campaign in 14 BCE. Ling Yin’s “The Western Lord of Treasures” explains what the Chinese knew about the Byzantine empire, and how they fit it into the view of the world, which was not as Sino-centric as one might have thought.

As befits a book about the Silk Road, there is a worthwhile discussion of the all-important horse-silk trade, with a detailed analysis of pricing, by Li Jinxiu, and the role of silk in the Roman empire. The latter essay, by Berit Hildebrand, offers a view of silk not just as an object of sybaritic desire in the west but as a complex market with traders, spinners and dyers working together across the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Nile and Beirut.

A constant theme of researchers here is the difficulty of translation.  Travelers had to master many languages, including Aramaic, Tokharian, Soghdian and Turkish, as well as many scripts.  The Dunhuang Library manuscripts exemplify the variety of linguistic traditions. We struggle now to interpret these documents, just as the Silk Road travelers struggled to make themselves understood in foreign lands.  Sadly, even the readers of this volume may find it difficult to follow some of the papers translated here into English, which just goes to show that the problem of translation remains.

Otherwise, the volume is a useful addition to the already expansive field of Silk Road studies. Despite the several decades of work, archaeology and textual analysis are still bringing to light more threads of the rich, dense and colorful fabric that connected so many parts of the old world together, before being strangely forgotten.

David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.