MOOMTAZ EMRITH

(Windsor, ON, Canada)

Long before the Europeans ventured into the Indian Ocean after ‘finding’ the sea-route to India and South-East Asia from Arab sources, trade was generally carried on between Europe and South Asia via land routes that consisted of bringing goods from South East Asia to the Middle Eastern ports and from there loading them on caravans and transporting them to the European trade centres, notably in Persia, Samarkand, Venice, Florence, Constantinople and others, through a long and tedious land route, which later would be termed by historians as the famous Silk Road. It was so called because of the lucrative trade in silk carried out from China and which was a most prized commodity in Europe at the time. That prized route connected the land routes from South Asia, South-East Asia, Persia, Eastern Europe, the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa to Western Europe through the Mediterranean. That successful trade in silk was carried on all along the length of the trade link since the days of the Han dynasty (207 B.C.-220 A.D.) in China.

The Silk Road, undoubtedly, was a most popular trade-link that began during the second century B.C. and lasted till the end of the 14th century A.D., that is, till 1453 – the year Constantinople (now Istanbul) fell to the Ottoman Turks, who would slowly stop all trade with China – a move which would literally disrupt the movement of merchandise along the famous Silk Road and, naturally, the slow-down at the European trade centres became a cause of serious concern to the Europeans as the loss of trade greatly affected their respective economies.

As a matter of fact, the Silk Road, as we know it, also helped make fabulous contribution to the spread of not only trade but also of civilization among the countries, among the nations, among the cities and towns and even ports along the way. Indeed, the Silk Road, as we look back in history, we discover that it was also a major agent in the exchange of arts and philosophy – not to mention science and technology and architecture along the routes by the merchants as they peddled their commercial goods from country to country. The impact of the Silk Road on the spread of trade and civilization from Asia to the Western countries is undeniable and its impact is even felt to-day.

So much so, when the Ottoman Turks took over Constantinople in 1453 and opted to impose new rules and even block all trade with China, there eventually followed a scramble in Europe to seek new routes to get to the East to access the prized commodities, notably, the spices from India and South East Asia, and also, among other goods, the lucrative silk from China. Hence, we know of the sudden mad rush in the quest of a new sea-route to get to the East to access those precious goods.  The Portuguese would be the first to venture in the Indian Seas and challenge the Arab mariners, who were well familiar with the Eastern coastline of Africa, where they had been carrying on a lucrative trade of their own for centuries with the coastal ports and harbours along the East African coastlines. Goods were brought not only from the coastal region of East Africa but also from South India and South East Asia and also China.

The Arab traders would load the goods on caravans and transport them via the land route, which was the Silk Road, to the well-known trade centres in Central Europe.

In Turkey – notably, in Istanbul – I have visited a splendid well-preserved stop-over station on the trade route known as Caravanserai, which was akin to an inn or rest-station, where the Caravan, loaded with merchandise, would stop to rest before getting set for their next stop. The Caravanserai was a huge building and some are still standing to-day and are several centuries old. Little wonder then that they are major tourist attractions to-day. The Caravanserai stands as glorious reminders of the heydays when trade flourished between countries thanks to the famous land routes like the history-laden Silk Road.

It was the disruption in the flow of trade caused by the Ottoman’s capture of Constantinople that led the Spaniards and the Portuguese to look to the sea for

new routes to the East. The Spaniards financed Christopher Columbus’ expedition to find a new route to the East by sailing West while the Portuguese would concentrate in the Mediterranean and challenge the Arabs in the Indian Ocean, where they had been master mariners along the East Coast of Africa down to the Cape of Good Hope in the Indian Ocean, establishing trading posts along the southern coasts of India and South East Asia. The Arabs were well ensconced in the region as traders and, with the blessings of the local rulers, they even set up trading posts along the coastal cities and ports of East Africa and South India – notably, along the Malabar coast, to handle the goods that they carried to the ports of the Middle East from where the lucrative goods were taken by caravans across the deserts to the trade centres in Europe. The Asian goods, particularly the spices were much sought after in Europe.

The European ventures in the Indian Ocean and across the Atlantic Ocean would also inaugurate the infamous era of dominance and exploitation by the Western countries – including the ignominious slave trade from the African continent to the colonies in the Americas and Asia, to provide cheap and free labour on the plantations. In fact, it marked the beginning of the infamous era of colonialism. The Arabs and the Asians were no match for the Europeans with their better equipped and well-armed ships with superior canons and guns and, evidently, they soon became the unchallenged masters in the seas of the regions. However, the Portuguese and the Spaniards would each be challenged for a share of the colonial pie by other fellow European powers, notably: the Dutch, the French and the English. That was the hey-day of colonial domination, which would last till the end of the Second World War, that is, till 1945.

The Silk Road helped bring to the European markets such prized Chinese and Indian goods like silk, porcelain, paper as well as the prized spices from South East Asia, notably: cloves, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, among others and which were much valued on the European markets. In return, the Chinese and the South Asian nations would get horses, precious stones and jewels as well as woolen goods. All in all, it all meant good business both ways.

The Silk Road, indeed, played a major role in history through the expansion of trade and commerce while at the same time aiding, indirectly, in the diffusion and spread of knowledge, culture, science, technology – as well as religion. It is a fact that Buddhism, as a religion, arrived from India to China through the Silk Road.

The fabulous exoticism and mystic fascination exerted down the ages through the exchange of trade among the regions along the legendary Silk Road, is ever alive and continues to exert a kind of hypnotic fascination on people in the region so much so that we are not surprised to hear – particularly, in China – of the idea of reviving the legendary route again. Sure, it is a known fact that many Travel Companies have long been sponsoring Silk Road Tours, which give tourists the opportunity to live and experience the allure of reliving the adventures of travelling down the ancient mystic Silk Road on camels’ back thus affording them the luxury to experience, to some extent, the fantasies and the magic spell the old Silk Route that played such a marked role in advancing trade of exotic goods among nations since the dawn of civilization.