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Life Along The Silk Road

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Life Along The Silk Road

During the outward-looking rule of China's Tang dynasty (seventh-ninth century C. E. ), sophisticated people in northeastern Iran developed such a taste for expensive, imported Chinese pottery that they began to imitate it in great quantity for sale to people who could not afford the real thing. And in northern China there was a vogue for beautiful pottery figurines of camels laden with caravan goods or ridden by obviously non-Chinese merchants, musicians, or entertainers. Non-Chinese camel figurines found in Mesopotamia carry loads that duplicate the distinctive appearance of the loads on the Chinese figurines. So it is clear that by the time of the rise of Islam in the seventh century, contact across the Silk Road not only was extensive, but had affected the material and aesthetic cultures on both ends (William/ Spielvogel 145). Clearly, one of the most important and most utilized animals during the Silk Road era was the camel.

Through the characters of Susan Whitfield’s book, Life Along the Silk Road, one can only get glimpses of what occurred in between to smooth the progress of the transformation of a road of infrequent contact into a major artery of international trade capable of surviving, until fatally challenged by European-dominated maritime trade in the seventeenth century (Oliver). Firsthand, accounts of central Asia caravan trading in the twentieth century testify to the complexity of organization required to assemble and move hundreds or thousands of animals, scores of drivers, tons of merchandise specially packed to conform to the weight and balance characteristics of pack camels, and the supplies needed to keep beast and human alive during months of travel in the bitter cold of a central Asian winter. Throughout her novel, one can see the many forms of usage of the animals. In the “Horseman’s Tale” horses were used in trade for military advantages “…as they [horses] stood tall in formation as to implicate to the Chinese fear of Uighur military strength вЂ¦Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (Whitfield 84). Or the camels used as cargo and travel guiders in treacherous weather conditions in the “Monk’s Tale”. “…these [camels] protectors of the hot winds with their furвЂ¦Ð²Ð‚Ñœ and “…foretellers of gust winds as they stuck their snouts in the sand whenever a gust of wind picked up вЂ¦Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (Whitefield 146).

Camels afford us one glimpse of how this system came into being. The two-humped or Bactrian camel was native to central Asia and Iran and was used as a domestic animal from at least the third millennium BCE. onward. The one-humped camel was native to Saudi Arabia. Physically the two species share resistance to thirst and to hunger, which probably explains the survival of both of these comparatively defenseless species in regions too arid or barren to support many predators. They differ, however, in their resistance to heat. The two-humped camel has a long, shaggy coat during the winter and molts in the spring; one-humped breeds have much less hair in their torrid native climate of Arabia (Oliver).

It is reasonable to assume that two-humped pack camels were used from the beginning by travelers along the Silk Road. Once they got to Mesopotamia, however, they must have suffered terribly from summer heat. Yet summer was the most likely time of arrival because the several-month journey from northern China usually began in the fall, when the camels were in best condition after a summer of grazing (William/ Spielvogel 251).

Of course, it must have been evident to traders that Mesopotamia had its own camel, the one-humped animal herded in great numbers by Arabs along the Euphrates desert frontier. Which is evident in the “Princess Tale” from which the “ western merchants arrived on their one-humped camels …loaded with furs of every descriptions” (Whitfield 101). But the one-humped camel obviously could not take the cold of a central Asian winter. Not surprisingly, some people experimented with interbreeding one- and two-humped camels. The earliest evidence of this comes from the first century B. C. E. after the Silk Road had been opened up.

The hybrid was called a bukht and was the ideal animal for the Silk Road and other cold-weather caravan areas such as Iran, Anatolia, and Afghanistan. The problem was that the bukht, though fertile, produced offspring that were either runt, if the mate was another bukht, or ordinary one or two-humped camels depending upon the species of the other parent. In short, the ideal caravan camel had to be steadily manufactured like a car or a truck. There could never be any herds of bukhts producing more of their kind, and caravaneers could not simply buy bukht replacement animals from the nearest nomadic tribe since there was no particular reason for the tribe to have any for its own purposes “Karabalghasun residents were new to these species [camels; perhaps two-humped] as they venture into town ….” (Whitfield 76).

Most of the evidence for the extensive breeding of bukhts comes from the Islamic period, which makes it plausible that the Arab conquests of the seventh century accelerated the process of livestock change. Moreover, Tang dynasty figurines



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