Trade exchange on the Great Silk Road giving rise to active development of handicraft production

What the caravans used to carry along the Great Silk Road? What was huge sacks loaded onto camels filled with? The list of goods made by men’s hands as well as grown and harvested by people is huge indeed. However, the name of the route itself, even though this is modern name, directly indicates that silk was the most valuable item of that list. Light compact material from China and Central Asia, which was on the great demand on the West and cost a lot of money, like nothing else was suitable for transportation to remote countries.

In the first centuries of the development of international trade, Chinese merchants exported gracious and fast horses, the ancestors of modern ahalteke horse, as well as the forage, the alfalfa, from Parthia. The grapes was other important goods of Chinese import. We all know that viniculture and winemaking have deep roots in the Ancient Greece, Mediterranean countries, Caucasus and Hellenistic East including Parthia. It is only the territory of Turkmenistan where the archaeologists found charred and hence remained grape seeds in the cultural layers of the neoliths and early Bronze Age, which age according to radiocarbon analysis exceeds five thousand years. The vine was not known in China for a long period. Once they got to Parthia, Chinese travellers were surprised when they found out that wine could be made not only from rice. They cultivated many plants at home like walnut, pomegranate and fig as well as such vegetables like onion, carrot, beans and cucumber. Central Asian peaches, melons and water melons as well as wild and domestic animals like lions, leopards, hunting dogs and birds, fat sheep were exotic on Far East. They were shipped by carts from their home lands to unknown countries.

Various wool items were brought to China from western countries including from central Asia. First of all, it was carpets. However, the Chinese who did not possessed the technique of wool, flax, carpet making and weaving production, were also impressed with tapestry fabrics, bed covers, carpet items and curtains, which they saw in the palaces, temples and luxury houses of Parthian cities. Chinese market had a good sale of the weapons and armoury, gold, silver and semi-precious stones. The glass from Central Asia, which was better than the one made in China, was a piece of luxury. Starting from VI – VII centuries beautiful white china porcelain with fine, sometimes relief patterns like dishes, cups, glasses, vases and statuettes was brought from China to the West. For a long time Chinese was the one who produced the finest and resonant porcelain, which cost a lot on the markets of the western countries. Intact samples and fragments of Chinese dishware discovered by archaeologists in Turkmenistan are kept in the collection of Ashgabat and Mary Museums. There are plenty of mediaeval replicas of Chinese porcelain; they are not made that accurately, however, it is hard for the amateur to distinguish it from the original. This is historical paradox: today China overwhelmed the whole world with fakes of the famous world brands but several centuries ago, other Asian and European countries tried to imitate Chinese goods.

Bronze items, mirrors, umbrellas, varnish, perfumes, corrals, amber, medicine, tea, rice, chicory, ginger and other spices were imported from China. Fine and strong paper, which was invented in the beginning of II century by Zai Lun, the eunuch of the Emperor Court of Han dynasty, who became large official but was known in the history as great innovator. Spices, precious stones and colours were also imported from India and silver goods form Persia. Raisings and sugar, perfumes and precious stones were exported to the Roman Empire and after farther to Byzantium. Europe received rice, silk, wool and cotton fabrics from Asian countries and exported honey, leather goods, fur, wood crust for leather tanning, livestock and slaves to Khoresm, Persia and farther to India and China.

Plenty of horses, sheep and cattles were brought to Gurganj (modern Kunyaurgench) from the Southern Kazakhstan and Semirechye (seven rivers area) for exchange to domestic agricultural handicraft production. Chinese silk also brought there, especially its type known as “targu”. From the North, where the Kypchaks used to live, squirrel and ermine furs were brought to Maverannakhr (the area between Amudarya and Syrdarya Rivers). In XII century, Muslim merchants delivered the fur from Talas, Khotan and Yarkend. Slaves, precious stones, gold, felt, sheep and hunting falcons were brought from the same places. Weapons, ornamented fabrics and other goods were transported to Maverannakhr from Balasagun and Taraz. Besides the fabrics, sheep wool, carpet items, horse saddles were delivered from Bukhara. Gurganj and other Khroesm cities under its governance supplied salt fish, sable furs, cotton wool padded clothes, prayer mats, cushions. Fruits like various species of grape and pomegranates, robes made of soft wool, pheasants, raw silk came from Turkmen areas of South – East Caspian regions of Gorgan and Dekhistan.

Many handicrafts were developed in Merv, however, silk clothes from “mulkham” fabrics were the most famous. Excellent refined canvas were weaved in Nisa, while the brocade was made in Serakhs. Handicraft production of Khorasan cities was exported to neighbouring and remote countries, the textile was also made in Gurganj and neighbouring Kyat, but the bows made in Khoresm were the most famous across Central Asia.

The traditions of old sedentary population as well as nomadic and semi-nomadic Turkmen tribes remained in urban handicrafts in XI – XII centuries. Together with textile production, carpet making, pottery, smithery, jewellery, weapon production and other crafts were considerably developed. Technical and artistic level of production, particularly of metal and ceramic items, also increased. The potters made various types of dishware, ordinary and glazed ceramics. The potters from Amul, Merv, Abiverd, Nisa, Gurganj and Dekhistan made production for any taste. Painted dishware from silica paste was innovative in XII century. Approximately at the same time, mass production of clay water and sewage pipes has originated. Many of them were discovered at the excavation sites of Sultan – Kala, Serakhs, Shehrislam and other Turkmen cities. The Khoresm masters produced plenty of vessels of burnt clay for water lifting wheels. All of these naturally was spread all around the world by caravans.

Glass making industry received great development in the State of the Great Seljouks. Around 40 types of goods including dishware and chemical, perfume and pharmacy bottles were produced. The glass was used for making of cheap jewellery, lights and weights. The production of disc-shaped window glasses was new. Local glass production reached rather high level of development in XII century.

Metal processing, production of tools, household items, weapons and jewellery was one of the important branches of handicraft production. The smith, coopers and jewellers of Khorasan, Gorgan and Khoresm made some samples of high artistic items. Almost half of bronze items of XI – beginning of XII centuries from the collections of Mtropoliten Museum in New York and museums of Islamic art in Europe are from Central Asia. Thy include vessels, small cups, bottles, lamps with zoomorphic ornaments. Dishware made of bronze and copper vessels were used in day-to-day life. Weapon masters made light combat axes, half-moon shaped hatchets and figured clubs. They also produced metal shields and spearheads including double tooth ones. Combat armours and mash mail made of small plates were on the great demand. Special Indian steel (pulad-i hindi) was used for making swords and daggers. Metal items were decorated with different ornaments as well as with owners’ names or words of the famous poets.