The Silk Road Reached the Highest Mountains of Tibet
The contemporary image of the Silk Road dictates that it was a straight path over the flatlands and steppes of Asia, moving into Europe through sea travel. Mountain ranges and cliffs seem to be natural barriers against conducting trade safely and efficiently, but a second-century tomb in Ngari, Tibet dating back to the second century proved that items from the Silk Road reached mountainous regions about 15,000 feet above sea level.
Initially uncovered by Tibetan monks in 2005, an excavation of the tomb in 2012 revealed many goods from China: silk labeled with Chinese characters, a gold mask, and vessels made of bronze and ceramics. The discovery of tea leaves also baffled the researchers; the earliest evidence of tea in Tibet is from the seventh century, but the tea leaves found in the tomb are from the second century. After testing the tea leaves, the archaeologists connected its chemical composition to another example of tea found in the tomb of an emperor from the Han dynasty in China.
After further study, the scientists believe that the tea, grown in southern China, was traded throughout the country, eventually making its way to Tibet via a lost route of the Silk Road. Before this discovery, there was no evidence linking the Silk Road to the isolated parts of Tibet. The Ngari tomb proves that traders of the 2nd century moved into high-altitude areas. Other finds along mountain ranges in China dating back to 3,000 BCE also support the theory that mountains were not obstacles to ancient world trade.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, a major discovery of fourth century Sogdian letters found in an old watchtower in Dunhuang in the northwestern Gansu Province of western China became some of the earliest examples of Sogdian writing ever recovered. Known as the masters of the Silk Road, the Sogdian language was the language of trade along the trade routes beginning in the fourth century. The Sogdians grew in influence, eventually dominating the central Asian stretch of the Silk Road between the sixth century and the tenth century.
The Sogdians were a nomadic Iranian people from modern-day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Cyrus the Great conquered the lands that the Sogdians lived in on his Central Asian campaign in the mid-6th century, and they remained under the control of the Achaemenid Empire until the following century. At this time, the Sogdians engaged in long-distance trade, contributing to the spread of goods and religion along central Asian trade routes. They never officially formed their own empire, choosing instead to spread out along central Asia and maintaining their trade contacts.
In the second century BCE, the Sogdians engaged in trade with China, at the suggestion of the Chinese diplomat and explorer Zhang Qian. China sent many diplomatic missions to Sogdian lands, and the Sogdians created a monopoly on the trade between China and India by the 4th century. Their influence also spread to the West, forming a trade agreement with the Byzantine empire.
The Sogdians dominated the major trading towns of Suyab and Talas in present-day Kyrgyzstan, and they controlled the northern caravan routes along the Silk Road until the 8th century. By the 10th century, the Sogdian lands were conquered by the Uighur Empire; the Uyghurs learned the trade techniques from the Sogdians and eventually replaced them as the mediators of Silk Road trade after the 10th century.
The Dunhuang letters offer both a glimpse into everyday life of the Sogdians and demonstrate their knowledge of the trade markets. Two of the letters were written by an abandoned Sogdian wife, while two others complain of the threat of attack by the Huns along their areas of influence. In one letter, Sogdian merchants write to another merchant in Samarkand that political instability in Luoyang, a major hub of Chinese trade, greatly reduced the trade opportunities there.
Some of the primary items traded along the Silk Road were silk and spices, but a discovery in the northwestern Chinese city of Turpan proves that another commodity was making its way through the trade highway. Turpan was a very popular stop along the Silk Road for travelers and traders before they made their journey west. Over 200 graves have been excavated there to learn about this city’s inhabitants and the city’s significance to the Silk Road. In 2016, evidence from the Jiayi gravesite indicated that marijuana was a precious commodity along the trade routes of the Silk Road.
In the tomb dated to about 2,500 years ago, a young man’s body was covered with thirteen well-preserved cannabis plants, covering his body from his pelvis to his face, with his head resting on reeds in the shape of a pillow. He may have been part of the Subexi people who lived in the area in the first millennium BCE. Archaeologists have never found whole leaves in a tomb, nor have they found them in the shape of a burial shroud. The plants were about three feet in length, and they covered his body diagonally from below his waist on the right to his face on the left.
The marijuana was in whole leaf form with buds still attached, which means it was probably locally harvested at the end of the summer specifically for this particular burial. Cannabis plants were highly valuable in the ancient world; their fibers were woven into cloth items, and their seeds were highly nutritious and served many medical purposes. As researchers haven’t recovered any clothing or potions using marijuana products from the graves, they believe that the people of Turpan used cannabis plants for medicinal purposes or its mind-altering qualities. Other marijuana products, such as cannabis seeds and powder, have also been recovered from other grave sites along the Silk Road, so marijuana was possibly a high-demand trade item.
There is much evidence that shows the spread of material culture along the Silk Road, but the trading network also contributed to the movement of ideas and religion. There are many Buddhist temples along the path of the Silk Road, including the Kizil Thousand-Buddhas cave in Xinjiang, China. The Kizil location is considered to be the earliest Buddhist temple complex, dating back to between the third and eighth century.
Buddhism spread from India into China through trade contacts between the first and second century. By the end of the second century, Buddhist monks from India traveled to major Chinese cities where they worked to translate Buddhist texts into Chinese. By the fourth century, the Chinese government sent Buddhist monks to India to study the religion more closely at its source, and they helped facilitate the spread of Buddhism throughout China.
Built by the Tocharians, an Indo-European people who lived in the oasis cities near Xinjiang, the temple complex has 236 cave temples carved into the sides of the cliff. Most of the temples were looted, but many of the wall paintings remain intact. Some of the images were removed to museums all over Europe and Asia in the twentieth century. Historians have divided the paintings into categories, based on their influences.
The earliest paintings have Greek and Indian artistic influences, while later paintings have Persian artistic influences. The latest dated paintings, closer to the seventh and eighth centuries, are the only ones that include elements of Chinese artistic techniques. The Kizil Cave Complex provides evidence of the spread of Buddhism along the routes of the Silk Road and analyzing the paintings completed over multiple centuries can also help historians and archaeologists understand the movement of cultural and artistic ideas into China via the trade routes.