EXCUSE ME DISEASE RIDDEN SILK MERCHANT, HAVE YOU HEARD OF BUDDHA?

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, "Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road" via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, "Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road" via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Hey there! It's us again, Steven, Isaiah and Solomon (SIS). Our second blog post would be on the intriguing topic of The Silk Road! No, not the popular online game, nor the drug-dealing, black market websites that pollute the Internet in the 21st Century, but the ancient Silk Road!

What's Significant, Bud?

Hold up, what's so interesting about The Silk Road? Yeah, we get it, extensive trade of gold, ivory spices, tea, and of course, silk. Silk was probably the most important good traded on The Silk Road, since the trade of it was extensive to a point of silk being a currency of exchange, and also trading up to the West. More importantly but also less known, The Silk Road also brought about the...

  1. Transmission of diseases

  2. Buddhism

A Quick Catch-Up!

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce. The network first started around 130 BCE, when there were permissions granted by the Han Dynasty to officially commence trade with the west. The power of the Han dynasty, as well as the Roman empire enabled trade on Silk Road, and without them, the Silk Road would probably never have existed, or notwithstanding; could have provided trade of such extent. However, as time went by, the Silk Road gradually fell into decline, and this was mainly caused by the Ottoman Empire closing the routes in the west to spurn trade, approximately 1600 years later, around 1453 CE. 

MOM... ARE WE THERE YET? 

The journey across the Silk Road was

really, really, really, really, really, really long.

 

No, seriously. The Silk Road is over 4,000 miles long! This amounts to roughly 64 hours by car, assuming you drive at 100km/h. By foot? Some merchants don't even make it! The main reason for using camels stemmed from the fact that the terrain was rather difficult to traverse on; coupled with a biological advantage whereby the camel's feet have a thick layer of protection that allows them to endure such harsh conditions. Despite all of that, the traders then still mostly used horses or donkeys rather than camels, because they were easier to handle in normal tolerable conditions. 

Joe Mon Bkk, "An Array of Indian Spices", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Joe Mon Bkk, "An Array of Indian Spices", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

What's For Sale, Merchant?

During its peak, The Silk Road was often regarded as the major route for trading goods and services of all kinds. For starters, The Silk Road was also known as the Spice Routes, due to its huge commodity in trading of spices. A few of the popular kinds of spices one could find in The Silk Road consists of cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, ginger and turmeric. As its name already specifies, the Silk Road did facilitate the trade of silk as well. Silk is a form of fibre that can be woven into textiles. During the discovery of silk in China around 2,700 BC., it was regarded as a high-quality, elite product due to its tough production processes and was highly guarded as a royal secret... shhh!

Cresques Abraham, "Caravan On The Silk Road, 1380", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Cresques Abraham, "Caravan On The Silk Road, 1380", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

diseases? ew!

We are all familiar to the fact that The Silk Road did facilitate the movement of diseases across the different regions, thanks to our friendly online teacher John Green! We should seriously consider donating some money. And as awesome students, we volunteer Professor Heather as tribute.

 

Dr. Mae Melvin, "Rat Blood Smear Revealing Parasites", via Public Health Image Library, Public Domain.

Dr. Mae Melvin, "Rat Blood Smear Revealing Parasites", via Public Health Image Library, Public Domain.

WHAT KIND OF DISEASES?

Considered as the most epic and rampant (and probably deadly), The Black Death was an epidemic of bubonic plague, a disease spread by wild rodents that included rats, through the circulation of bacterium Yersinia pestis. It was believed to have started at either Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan) or North-western China, rather than from Europe. As already talked about by John Green, The Black Death plague was well-documented to have passed through the Silk Road, through the extensive trading. The Black Death that we know of lasted from a period between 1346 CE to 1353 CE. There are a few different ways of transmission of this bacterium. This bacterium is actually found in some infected rats or rodents, which are then fed on by fleas for their blood. Some of these rats have already developed a resistance to the bacteria but the fleas have not. Due to that, the fleas are unable to fully ingest the blood taken from these rats, and then when they proceed to feed off a human, they end up vomiting the blood back into the human. This bacteria ends up in the human and transmission from there can be through pneumonic or through infection of open wounds. The other way of transmission was that domestic cats had eaten infected rats and passed on to the family.

The Black Death killed more than 20 million people in Europe, and almost 60 million people in China. There were 3 different routes of Silk Road, Southern, Central and Northern Routes. This allowed the Black Death to spread to places that would have never have known about the disease. Globalization was nowhere in sight at that point in time, but this opened up pathways for infectious diseases to spread.

However, there were more than just one disease to spread through the Silk Road. Researchers have found that parasitic worms were also transmitted through this route. You may be wondering, how would they know? Researchers have found 2,000 year old ancient poop with eggs of these worms, worms that can ultimately cause liver cancer. These worms found on the Silk Road were only of an origin of more than 1,500 kilometers away. Also, these worms required wet areas to survive, and the eggs were found in extremely dry deserts. This definitely illustrates that more than silk and spices were traded through the legendary Silk Road.

WANNA HEAR SOMETHING GROSS?

Poop sticks. Yes, you heard us right. Poop sticks. Sticks that were used to clean, well, the excretions of travelers. 

Jason Daley, "Ancient Poop Sticks Offer Clues to the Spread of Disease Along Silk Road" via www.smithsonianmag.com. Hygiene sticks excavated at Xuanquanzhi station along the Silk Road (Hui-Yuan Yeh) This photo is of Smithsonian Content, and we got it from the website above.  

Jason Daley, "Ancient Poop Sticks Offer Clues to the Spread of Disease Along Silk Road" via www.smithsonianmag.com.
Hygiene sticks excavated at Xuanquanzhi station along the Silk Road (Hui-Yuan Yeh)

This photo is of Smithsonian Content, and we got it from the website above.

 

Poop sticks. It kind of has a nice ring to it! During the periods of 111 BC and 109 AD, travelers used these hygiene sticks as means to clean themselves up. These sticks were made of bamboo and had cloth on one side to help with the cleaning up. Due to such unhygienic practices, diseases was rampant in the most obscene of ways. Cambridge researchers actually had the guts to examine these unearthly items and did prove that there were several eggs from parasitic worms located on the hygiene sticks. 

We apologize for the obscene information. We, too, are thoroughly grossed out. Steven did say that he would lick it for a million dollars. So would Solomon. We are indeed cheap peasants.

Purshi, "Buddha's Statue Located Near Belum Caves, India", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Purshi, "Buddha's Statue Located Near Belum Caves, India", via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Buddhism, how & why?

Ah, Buddhism. A widespread religion that has its origins deeply tied into the Indian culture. Wait a minute, Buddhism stemmed from India? That can’t be right? It says here that China is the country with the largest population! Well, Solomon, excuse you and your close-mindedness. Just because China hosts the majority of Buddhists does not mean it had to originate from there!

Well yes, it is true that Buddhism did originate from India, but did you know that Buddhism was spread along the Silk Road too? We definitely did not know that, if not for our best friend, Mr John Green! It was first recorded along the 1st century BCE that trails of Buddhism and its teachings were discovered along the treacherous path. Caves and paths were littered with decorations, paintings and writings that were linked to Buddhism. Monasteries were also formed from these clusters of caves. It was documented that Buddhist monks would travel along with the traders between the routes of India and China.

Well, a question we pondered on was the differences in languages. Surely the original texts and languages used in India could not have been understood by the average Han in China, right? Correct. But, as lucrative a job it is in today’s context, translators existed then too! Surprise surprise. The first documented translation of the Buddhist texts and scriptures into Chinese in Central Asia was documented in 148 CE, with the appearance of the famous Parthian prince, 安世高 (An Shigao), which Steven directly interpreted it as “Peace In the World Is High”... Well, he isn’t wrong, but we are pretty sure Steven is equally as high too. Anyway, with Shigao spearheading the translation in the Central Asian region, and with the help of a few others along the different generations, the early movements of Buddhism from India to China occurred.

I guess this in turn exemplifies the statement of more than spices and silk were traded along the Silk Road. But why did the people in the Silk Road try and expand their religious outlooks? Was there a scripture or practice that wanted them to spread the word? Perhaps they were doing so to follow the footsteps of Buddha. Buddha and his 5 holy disciples went around spreading the word on Buddhism, on the Noble Eightfold Path, as well as the Four Noble Truths. Most would argue that they did so out of compassion, possibly to make the world a better place. Their ideals and values within the Buddhist community was to try and get people to attain enlightenment. 

As Buddhism spread along the Silk Road, it started to gain acceptance and societies of people listened and took in the message of Buddhism. One of the more well-known stories are that of a Han emperor by the name of Mingti had a vision in his sleep of an illuminated figure with a halo on it. He managed to get some insight on the dream that it was the Buddha and he made a conscious effort to send an envoy to find out more for him. This envoy of his would probably have taken the Silk Road for his journey and it took him three years to get back. This would have only been possible with the Silk Road, and if it wasn't there, he might have never gotten there, much less gotten back. Buddhist monks also traveled along the Silk Road, with traders, and Buddhist temples started appearing on the routes between India and China. 

This concludes our epic blog post, we hope you had a good read!

Signing off, Steven, Isaiah and Solomon.

Solomon Foo

I will learn to appreciate the finer arts in life, such as ancient civilisations.