ARCHAEOLOGY

A SILK ROAD RENAISSANCE

THE SILK ROAD, the vast network of trade routes that connected China to the rest of Eurasia from roughly the first century B.C. to A.D. 1400, was justly famous in the West for the rich silk textiles it carried to the Mediterranean world. “But it could just as easily have been called the Jade Road, the Glass Road, or even the Rhubarb Road,” says art historian Judith Lerner of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Such was the variety of commodities—raw silk, glass, spices, finished metalwork, ceramics, and much more—that any one of dozens of goods could have given the route its name. The Sacred Road, too, might once have been a fitting appellation. Christian and Buddhist missionaries, among others, used Silk Road caravans to cross the Asian continent. And from the fifth to the eighth century A.D., the overland trade routes that crossed through Central Asia might also have been called the Sogdian Road. An East Iranian people who lived in what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the Sogdians were, for a time, the leading merchants of the Silk Road. “The Sogdians achieved great influence via trade,” says Lerner. “The Chinese even had a saying: ‘When a Sogdian child is born, his mother puts honey on his tongue so that he will speak sweetly and glue on his palm so that money will stick to it.’”

The Sogdians were more than quick-witted intermediaries. At their height, their sophisticated culture, skilled diplomacy, and mercantile power helped shape the greater world around them. “You could describe the Sogdians as the first internation-alists or globalists,” says Lerner. Sogdian diplomats, translators, artists, craftspeople, and entertainers traveled in the caravans that ventured along the Silk Road and settled

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