Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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Vasco da Gama
(c. 1460 – 1524) was a Portuguese explorer, one of the most successful explorers of the European Age of Discovery and the commander of the first ships to sail directly from Europe to India. In 1497, Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four ships from Lisbon, traveled around Africa to India, and returned. It was with during the Age of Discovery that Europe began shifting trade with Eurasia to seafaring vessels, causing a decrease of trade along the network of Silk Routes.

Gandhara (Northwest Pakistan) was once the centre of the Kushana empire. The language in use in the Kushana empire, and derived from Sanskrit, is known as Gandhari. Manuscripts in Gandhari, written in the Kharosthi script, have been found in modern Afghanistan and Central Asia (the Kharosthi script was used in the writing of documents in the Gandhari language, but unlike Brahmi, it did not survive or develop into other scripts). The style of Buddhist art which developed in this region, influenced by Hellenistic models, is known as Gandharan. (Click here to see a map showing the location of Gandhara.)

East-West cultural exchanges are often said to be well reflected in the sculptural styles of Gandhara (as well as in Gaul, France) due to the influences that are evident of the Hellenistic styles that were popularized by the Romans. The ancient Kingdom of Gandhara lasted from early 1st millennium BC to the 11th century AD, and played an important role in the transmission of Buddhism along the Silk Routes. Gandhara is the name of an ancient kingdom (Mahajanapada), located in northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Gandhara was located mainly in the vale of Peshawar, the Potohar plateau (see Taxila) and on the Kabul River. Its main cities were Purushapura (modern Peshawar), literally meaning City of Man and Takshashila (modern Taxila). More...

Gansu province situated upon the Silk Road was an economically important region located in northwestern China, whose capital is Lanzhou. The province lies between Qinghai-Tibet and Inner Mongolia and rises 4,921 feet above sea level. To the west of Lanzhou, and west of the Yellow River, is the famous "Hexi Corridor," an important strategic passage on the ancient Silk Road stretching to the west. As merchants traveled across the routes they would go to Dunhuang in Gansu, where they would get fresh camels, food and guards for the journey around the dangerous Taklamakan Desert. The Mogao Caves ('Caves of the Thousand Buddhas'), Maijishan Caves, and the Bingling Grottoes are located in Gansu province. Gansu is known as a cultural transmission path, where an early form of paper inscribed with Chinese characters and dating to about 8 BC was discovered at the site of a Western Han garrison near the Yumen pass.

Gansu Jiayuguan Pass

Gansu Corridor (See "Hexi Corridor," and Jiayuguan Pass) an important strategic passage on the Silk Road.

Gaochang (Kocho, Qocho, Karahoca) After the disintegration of the Uighur Empire (744-840) located north of the Gobi Desert, the Uighurs created the kingdom of Kocho (Gaochang,  c. 860-1284), whose urban centers were in the Turfan oasis north of the Taklamakan Desert, astride the northern branch of the Silk Road. The Uighurs, who are a Turkic peoples, have for centuries inhabited ancient oasis cities ringing the Taklamakan Desert of what is now Xinjiang, China. Gaochang is the site of such an ancient oasis city that was built on the northern rim of the inhospitable Taklamakan Desert. A busy trading center, and near the city of Beshbalik, it was a stopping point for merchant traders traveling on the Silk Road. The ruins of Gaochang are located at the foot of the Flaming Mountain, about 40 kilometers southeast of Turpan.

Gaochang, the ancient Uyghur capital, was also once a capital of the Han.
The Han Dynasty garrisoned troops in the city after the 1st century. The city later served as a capital of the Han Qu family Kingdom.

In the 10th century, after the eastward spread of Islam, Islam was established at the Silk Road city of Kashgar under the Uyghur kingdom. For centuries, Uyghur and Muslim merchants were renowned as traders in these Silk Road oasis towns. The strategic importance of these oasis markets enabled many Uyghur traders to become key middlemen on the Silk Road caravan routes between the Orient and Europe. The ancient Silk Road, after entering Xinjiang, split into 3 routes, north, middle and south. Many ruins of ancient cities, watchtowers and numerous historical sites remain along the routes. Among the important cities and towns are Urumqi, Turpan (where the ruins of Gaochang city are located), Kashgar, Kuqa Hotan, and Taxkorgan. (See Beshbalik, Karabalghasun) More...

Gaziantep (Antep, Southeastern Turkey) is amongst the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The history of the city of Gaziantep dates back to c. to 4000 BC. Many ancient civilizations were founded in the surrounding regions. The province and city are located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Mesopotamian region, which is widely considered to be a cradle of civilization. Its strategic location placed the city at the center of historic crossroads, connecting east to south and north to west, and along the Silk Road. The province of Gaziantep contains structures and artifacts from the following periods and civilizations: Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic Copper Age, Bronze Age, Hittite, Median, Assyrian, Persian, Hellenistic (Alexander the Great), Roman, Byzantine, Abbasid and Seljuk.

Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khaan, Cengiz Han, Cinggis-Qan, c. 1162-1227) was born named Temujin in Mongolia (Deliun Boldaq) and was the founder of the Mongol Empire, an empire which became the largest contiguous empire in history after his death. Genghis Khan created a unified empire from the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia and promoted religious tolerance. Before Genghis Khan died, he assigned Ögedei Khan as his successor and split his empire into khanates among his sons and grandsons. He died in 1227 after defeating the Tanguts. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Mongolia. His descendants went on to stretch the Mongol Empire across most of Eurasia by conquering and/or creating vassal states out of all of modern-day China, Korea, the Caucasus, Central Asian, and substantial portions of modern Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

By the middle of the 13th century, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, the Mongols controlled Asia from the coast of China to the Black Sea and west to the Mediterranean (the large sea located between Europe, northern Africa and southwestern Asia). After Genghis Khan's death, the Mongol Empire (1206-1368) was led by Kublai Khan who completed the conquest of China and established the Yuan Dynasty between 1271-1368. The unified Mongol Empire enabled the Silk Road to remain an important means of trade and communication. It was during this period European travelers arrived in China, and as a result of Kublai Khan's tolerance of religious diversity, a wide range of people settled in China and along major cities of the Silk Road.

The conquests of Genghis Khan and his successors effectively connected the Eastern world with the Western world, ruling a territory from Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe. The Silk Road, which connected trade centers across Asia and Europe, came under the sole rule of the Mongol Empire. Security and stability was provided along the Silk Routes in the middle of the 13th century when the family of Genghis Khan controlled Asia from the coast of China to the Black Sea. This period with the Mongols in charge of safe routes is described as Pax Mongolica. The end of the Pax Mongolica was marked by political fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the outbreak of the Black Death in Asia which spread along the trade routes to much of the world. (See Mongolia)

Map of Expansion

Genoa An Italian city-state which traded with Silk Routes empires. Genoa enjoyed a treaty with the Ilqanate Empire, was involved in the Crimea and the Byzantine Empire.

Ger (Yurt) Mongol tent.

Gibraltar is located off the southwestern coast of Spain (at the tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula) and north of Morocco, located on the North African coast. Andalusia has figured prominently in the history of Europe and the Mediterranean due to its links to the trade routes between Europe and North Africa. Gibraltar is the Spanish derivation of the Arabic name Jabal Tāriq (جبل طارق), meaning "mountain of Tariq." It refers to the geological formation, the Rock of Gibraltar, which in turn was named after the Berber Umayyad general Tariq ibn-Ziyad who led the initial incursion into Iberia in advance of the main Moorish force in 711 under the command of Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I. (See Andalusia) More...

Gobi Desert (Mongolia and China) The most well known desert of the Silk Road is the Gobi Desert. This desert is the fifth largest in the world. To the west of the Gobi Desert in China is the Taklamakan Desert, Tarim Basin and Lop Nur (from where northern and southern routes would bypass the Taklamakan Desert and Lop Nur). Ancient caravan trails also passed from Mongolia (i.e. Bayanhongor aimag) across the Gobi Desert to link up with the Silk Routes of China.  More...

In the early 1920′s, the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews led a team from the American Museum of Natural History in New York to explore the Flaming Cliffs and other sites of the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. They stumbled onto the world's mightiest dinosaur find and the first known dinosaur nest. While serving as chief of the division of Asiatic exploration of the American Museum of Natural History, he led three expeditions, to Tibet, southwest China, and Burma (1916–17); northern China and Outer Mongolia (1919); and Central Asia (1921–22 and 1925). 

The modern-day paleontologist and explorer Dr. Mark Norell, Chairman and Curator of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, made further finds in the Gobi when he discovered new "feathered" dinosaurs from Liaoning, China, and explored the first indication of a dinosaur nesting on a clutch of eggs like a bird. Dr. Norell has named numerous dinosaurs which were previously unknown. In addition to his scientific expeditions, a Silk Road exhibit was organized by Norell in 2009 at the American Museum of Natural History, presented in his book "Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World," coauthored by Denise Patry Leidy, Curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Leidy has also organized a Silk Road related exhibit "The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010.)

Gobi Desert & Silk Road Trivia (courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History)

• People often traveled at night to avoid scorching desert heat.
• Both one-humped and two-humped camels hauled goods. Camel humps do not store water, but store fat which provides energy.
• Merchants sometimes packed melons and other fruit in lead containers filled with snow and ice from mountains before sending them along the Silk Road.
• When glass first reached China, it was treated as the rarest of jewels.
• The "Arabic" numerals used today in the West were based on an Indian system and popularized by an Islamic mathematician in the early 800s.

Benedict Goës 
(Bento de Góis, 1562-1607) Inspired by Marco Polo's writings of a Christian kingdom in the east, travelled 4,000 miles (6,437 km) in three years across Central Asia. He never found the kingdom, but ended his travels at the Great Wall of China in 1605, proving that Cathay was what the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) called "China." A missionary and explorer, he is mainly remembered as the first known European to travel overland from India to China, via Afghanistan and the Pamirs. In 1594 the Portuguese Jesuit Benedict Goës joined a mission to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, where he was chosen by the Jesuit leadership (partly because of his knowledge of Persian) to travel on an exploratory mission to China via Kashgar. He died before reaching Beijing. What survived of his notes and letters and some oral accounts were later (1615) combined by the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci into his travel journal. Despite some inconsistencies and problems in dating, the account is a unique record by a European of travel on the overland trade routes in inner Asia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. The route entails heading northwest into Afghanistan before going north across the Hindu Kush to the headwaters of the Amu Darya, then east to Sarikol, and on to Yarkand and Kashgar, before skirting the Taklamakan on the north. The account details human and natural threats to travel and other aspects of inner Asian trade, and provides some valuable information on the political divisions of the time. More...

Göktürks (or Kök Türks) The first Turkic peoples to form a state in Central Asia were the Göktürks. Known in medieval Chinese sources as Tujue (突厥 tú jué), the Göktürks under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his sons established the first known Turkic state around 552. The first kingdom to emerge from the Göktürk Khanate gave birth to the Uyghur Empire, which flourished in the territory encompassing most of Central Asia from 744 to 840 AD. This powerful Eurasian nomadic confederation of medieval Inner Asia became a main power in Eurasia, taking hold of the lucrative Silk Road trade.

The Turkic Khaganate in its earliest years

After the Turkic tribes united, the entire area of the Eurasian steppes and the lands of ancient settled civilizations were also united. Turkic peoples and Sogdian merchants coordinated with Byzantine traders in the organization of trade from China to the Mediterranean. The growth of cities also revived trade in China and Iran (between 627-647 nearly a dozen trade embassies were sent to China). It was during the 5th–8th centuries that the Silk Routes reached the peak of their development. Sogdians built cities, palaces, temples, and created works of art that included paintings and architecture. Trade stations and settlements of Sogdian merchants, handicraftsmen and farmers in the 6th - 8th centuries extended to the northeast areas of Central Asia, Xinjiang, Southern Siberia, Mongolia, northern China, and in the west to the Crimea. The third significant period in the history of the Silk Road came at the end of the 8th to the beginning of the 13th centuries -- a period that saw Arab conquests and scientific exchanges. More...

Golden Horde (Khanate of Qipchaq) Russian name for the Mongol domains of Russia and neighboring areas. The "Great Horde" was destroyed by Crimea in 1502, marking the end of Mongol Russia. Click for chart

Grand Trunk Road - connecting Calcutta in India to Peshawar in Pakistan - it has existed for over two and a half millennia. One of the important trade routes of the world, this road has been a strategic artery with fortresses, halting posts, wells, post offices, milestones, and other facilities. Part of this road through Pakistan also coincided with the Silk Road. As one of South Asia's oldest and longest major roads, for several centuries, it has linked the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent, running from Bengal, across north India, into Peshawar in Pakistan up to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Grape Valley is located in the Flaming Mountain of Turpan in Xinjiang, China.

Great Game The Great Game is a term used for the strategic rivalry and conflict between the British Empire and the Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia. The term "The Great Game" is usually attributed to Arthur Conolly (1807–1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry. It was introduced into mainstream consciousness by British novelist Rudyard Kipling in his novel Kim (1901). More...

Great Wall of China The Great Wall of China is a series of stone and earthen fortifications in northern China, built to delineate political boundaries and to protect the northern borders of the Chinese Empire against intrusions by various nomadic groups. Several walls have been built since the 5th century BC that are referred to collectively as the "Great Wall of China" -- which has been rebuilt and maintained from the 5th century BC through the 16th century. The wall originally was estimated to be more than 5,000 kilometers long, but recent measurements show the total length of the structure may have exceeded 8,000 kilometers. Due to its rich history and panoramic views, the "Great Wall Of China" is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987. It is one of the largest building-construction projects ever undertaken, and is still one of the more remarkable structures on Earth. (See Jade Gate) More...

In c. 220 B.C., under Qin Shi Huang, sections of earlier fortifications were joined together to form a united defense system against invasions from the north. Construction continued up to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when the Great Wall became the world's largest military structure. Its historic and strategic importance is matched only by its architectural significance.

The Great Wall actually consists of numerous walls (many of them parallel to each other) built over some two millennia across northern China and southern Mongolia. The most extensive and best-preserved version of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and runs for some 5,500 miles (8,850 km) east to west from Mount Hu near Dandong, southeastern Liaoning province, to Jiayu Pass west of Jiuquan, northwestern Gansu province. About one-fourth of its length consists solely of natural barriers such as rivers and mountain ridges.

Note: Some scholars point out that it is a common misconception that the Great Wall was originally created in defense against raiders from the north and east, such as the Eastern Hu. In fact, the Great Wall was not conceived to serve a military function until the Qin dynasty, when sections were added to existing walls. Prior to the Qin, states had long practiced the construction of walls to delineate political boundaries. (See Hsiung-nu Empire)

Antoine-Jean Gros When Napoleon Bonaparte commissioned the 19th century Orientalist painter Baron Antoine-Jean Gros to paint "Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims in Jaffa," Bonaparte sought to help clear the accusations of the British press who had alleged that he had wanted to execute the plague-stricken during his retreat to Cairo. The painting, presented at the 1804 Salon in France, shortly before his coronation - a particularly opportune moment for Bonaparte - is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic history painting. Bonaparte and then Napoleon the emperor drew the painters of the time away from classical subjects and had them paint contemporary battles and imperial pomp instead, with himself as the heroic center of attention. Not only is this particular painting a propaganda masterpiece, it also reflects the complex and hidden motives of some painters who traveled to the Orient. Another propaganda paintings of the era was "Napoleon Crossing the Alps." Dominique Vivant, Baron de Denon is another name often associated with Bonaparte's Egyptian propaganda campaign. Many other individuals were used as instruments of propaganda to protect France's trade routes and colonies. Bonaparte’s Army of the Orient was an expeditionary force 54,000 strong. His retinue included 167 engineers, artists, scientists and journalists named the Commission for Arts and Sciences (Commission des Sciences et Artes d’Egypte). Their purpose was to catalogue Egypt’s wonders and promote their discoveries through Bonaparte’s propaganda machine. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798-1799 led to the development of Egyptology, and the acquisition of great collections in prominent museums in the West, by various means, including looting. More...

Albert Grunwedel (
1856–1935) was a German indologist, tibetologist archaeologist and explorer of Central Asia. Grünwedel was also one of the first scholars to study the Lepcha language. See IDP  More...

Guangzhou Cities such as Istanbul, Venice, and Guangzhou were key transportation hubs and trading ports which could be considered maritime cities of the Silk Road. Located in southern China on the Pearl River, Guangzhou played a vital role in maritime trade between East and West. With trade developing across the Indian Ocean between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China, European and Asian ports became indirectly connected to the caravan routes of the Silk Road.

Gunpowder Fireworks originated in China some 2,000 years ago. Pure sulfur, the second most important gunpowder ingredient, was known to Chinese alchemists as early as the second century CE. The dating of gunpowder is as early as 850 A.D. This invention is said to have been discovered in China by accident. Gunpowder has been widely used as a propellant in firearms and as a pyrotechnic composition in fireworks. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1276), technology was highly advanced in fields as diverse as agriculture, iron-working, and printing. During this period, military applications of gunpowder included primitive hand grenades, poisonous gas shells, flame throwers and land mines (The term gunpowder refers broadly to any propellant powder). More...