Rough Diplomacy

Silk Road

The Silk Road was dominated at first by Chinese silk destined for European aristocracies and then spread to other commodities  beginning  around 250 BC. It has threaded through Afghanistan for centuries. Afghanistan’s location, equidistant between the China Sea and the Mediterranean, made it a strategic ancient crossroads.

red denotes  land routes ,blue  denote water routes

The silk Road is credited for the spread of development in China, India, Persia, Europe, and Arabia which  led to political and cultural exchanges among vastly distributed populations and flourished for about 1,400 years. In addition, Afghanistan and other areas are dotted by valleys and rivers. The were the best things to facilitate trade because travelers who used the well worn route did not need to depend solely on navigation techniques.

However, the strategic value of Afghanistan’s intimidating climate and topography made it a difficult stretch of the Silk Road.

Afghanistan is landlocked, high in the Hindu Kush mountain range,  temperatures veer from burning deserts to freezing mountains.

These travelers still  use traditional transportation; few modern vehicles can stand up to Afghanistan’s mountain terrain.

 Mongols on the silk road  embraced new ideas and technologies. Whenever they conquered a city, they divided the people into groups based on their skills. Doctors, teachers, engineers, and scientists were sent back to Mongol Headquarters to put their knowledge to good use.

Chinese were forbidden from learning the Mongol script and intermarriage was prohibited.

The same thing happened to those who were good with their hands. The Mongols always had a use for blacksmiths, furniture makers, jewelers, and scribes. Even if you didn’t have a skill, no worries, the Mongols always found a place for you. You could either join the Mongol army or if you were unfit for even that type of work the Mongols would drive you in front of their armies so that your body could fill the moat, making it easier to attack the walls.

 The Mongol script was adopted from the Uyghur people of western China, using Arabic as its alphabet. On the steppes the Mongols could pass down their laws through campfire stories but an empire is too big for that. Using scribes (sometimes abducted from some unlucky city they had conquered ), the Mongols had books from all over the empire translated into Mongol.

The Mongols also  brought Chinese doctors to the Middle East and Islamic scholars went the other way. Ideas like acupuncture and the use of Chinese herbs were taught to Arab doctors. Indian, Arab, and Greek surgical knowledge helped to improve Chinese medical practices.

Medical Herbs-India

The Mongols also carried new inventions back and forth across Eurasia. The middle eastern invention of the triangular plow helped to revolutionize agriculture in China while the Chinese blast furnace made European metal working easier and stronger. Afghanistan absorbed influences from Europe as well as India.

Photograph by World Imaging, courtesy Wikimedia

This capital, for instance, topped a column not in Athens, but in Ai Khanoum, now an archaeological site in northeast Afghanistan and was  was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE.

Much this knowledge was recorded on paper. Paper was lightweight and unlike the animal skins (parchment) being used in Europe at the time, paper was cheap and easy to make. Paper mills spread along the Silk Road and revolutionized the way information was transmitted. Think of it as the internet revolution of the 13th century.

The invention of paper later came with another idea the printing press. In China  a movable type printing press began to be used by around 1041. This handy invention made writing books by hand obsolete.

The Europeans wouldn’t discover this technology until 1451 when a German inventor named Johannes Gutenberg created a movable type printing press that catapulted Europe onto the world stage. Whether or not Gutenberg knew of the Chinese discovering is still being debated but it is likely that through the Mongols the Chinese press had reached Europe long before Gutenberg.

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