Diplomats, travellers and merchants of the Medieval expand the horizons of knowledge about West and East

Silk is another great invention, which is like the pottery table, wheel, script and money has changed the world, having made it not only civilized but beautiful as well. This soft fabric made of finest threads with shimmering glow, light and pleasant to touch started to be produced from silkworm cocoons in China in neolith age. It took almost three thousand years to find out about this wonderful fabric and to start production outside China. As is known that the silk was often used as a valuable gift to foreign rulers in the Ancient world and medieval times. There many information on such gift. For example, ancient Chinese chronicler Sima Qian wrote that 1100 years ago, famous Zhang Qian, the diplomat and discoverer of the West, reached Parthia and upon his return told to the Emperor Wu of Han about western countries. Soon after that, Chinese embassies were sent there. They took silk fabrics together with gold and other precious stones as the gifts. The silk diplomacy reigned throughout several centuries, having spread everywhere where Chinese invention was adopted. Thus, the history of the Silk Route began and lasted for more than 1.5 thousand years. Who used numerous routes between China and Rome, India and Russia, who travelled for months with slow caravans through the deserts and mountains crossing the seas and rivers? (Photo 2)

First, there were three categories of people – the diplomats, merchants and travellers. While the first two were motivated by commercial side, the last one tried to learn more about unknown places, to understand the surrounding world and to make correct maps. The efforts in these directions were taken both in East and West countries. For example, roman geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus made very important information for those times about land trans-Asian route. In 160 – 180, he wrote the book where he used the information of his predecessor, Greek cartographer Marinus of Tyre whose works did not survived until our days. Particular, it mentioned some Maes Tiziano, the Macedonian and hereditary merchant, who used to send his people to the country of sers, the antic name of China in western tradition. On other hand, we find out from Chinese chronicle of V era “The History of Younger Han Dynasty” that back in 98, in other words in the end of the I century, the Governor of the Emperor He of Han in Western Province (Xīnjiāng at present) sent his ambassador to the Roman Empire.

Starting from VIII when as the result of Arabic invasions, new religion, the Islam, spread from North West Africa to Zhetysu (South East of Kazakhstan) and to Ganges Valley in India, the civilized world separated in confessions. The Christianity predominated in Europe and Byzantine, while the Buddhism dominated in India, Far East and South East Asia. This was exactly the period until the beginning of Mongolian invasion in XIII that was the most favourable for international trade and the Silk Route.

Together with old transcontinental routes, the role of regional roads has grown in those centuries and mass craft productions became the main trade item along with luxurious goods.

Arabic scientists and travellers played special role in the development of geographic knowledge. The first reliable information about the cities and settlements on the territory of modern Turkmenistan remained owing to the travel of the Embassy of Arabic Caliphate to Volga Bulgaria in 922 described by Ibn Fadlan. Plenty of important details about such historical cities of our country as Dehistan, Gurganj, Shehrislam, Nisa, Abiverd, Serakhs, Dandanakan, Merv, Amul, Zemm (Kerki) became known to us owing to the translations of the works of Ibn Hordadbeh and Al Yakubi who lived in IX century, geographers of X century Kudama Ibn Jafar, Al Istahri, Al Makdisi, Muhammed ibn Al Munavvar Mekhneyi (XI century), authors of the second half of XII – the first half of XIII centuries Ibn AL Asir, Muhammed An Nesevi, Yakut Al Hamawi as well as Persian historians Hamdallah Kazwini (XIV century), Hafiz-i-Abru (XV century) and many others.

The map that appeared in the middle of XII century as a result of the friend of the Rodger II, the King of Sicilia and Arabic geographer Muhammed Al-Idrisi brightly indicates the scale of contacts and the world outlook of people of that age (Photo 3). His treaties with the world map engraved on silver is considered to be the top of geographic science of Antic and Medieval times. German historian Richard Henning wrote about him: “Undoubtedly, Idrisi was the most luxurious flower on the tree of Arabic geography. Like Ptolemaeus crowns the development of antic geography, Idrisi finishes the geography that forestalled the Mongolian invasions, which initiated new geographic discoveries”.

While the scientists and diplomats were not in each caravan that went for dangerous trip through hostile lands, not a single trade caravan left without the merchants. Owing to them, this unknown travellers, foreign goods appeared on the shelves of the bazaars and the books from such large spiritual centres like Merv, Gurganj, Buhara, Herat, Isphahan, Bagdad or Cairo were delivered to the libraries of numerous madrasas. This fact supported wide spread of the folklore of various nations and hence, there are so many similar plots of anecdotes, fairy tales, destans and epochs in the most remote countries.

The trade was predominately controlled by professional merchants in the middle Ages. In their turn, they divided into several categories. Abul-Fadl Jafar Bin Ali Ad Dimashki - the author of the treaties about the rules and types of trade, divides the merchants into the travelling, wholesale and exporting merchants. The trade related with the transit was profitable, however it was connected to plenty of difficulties. Marine trade was related to the great risk but at the same time was the most profitable. There was a saying at those times “The incomes reaches the ankle while the losses reach the neck in maritime affairs”.

Together with big and medium merchants called “bazargan” or “gurjan”, there were small traders – “bazari”. The last category included mainly urban craft and trading population that sell their own production at local markets. There was many retail sellers among bazaar people. This were grocery, meat, rice, sugar, spices and other sellers. Mainly, it was not rich people who could barely feed their families.

The practice of bargains (“muamala”) was widely spread in large trade circulation. “Tujars” and “bazargans” made deals not only in cash but also in credit. Usually, they used to buy unsaleable goods hoping that prices would grow even though it was not very good from the religious and moral point of view. Most smart and greedy tradesmen used to buy the goods especially the grain with speculative purpose. The dealers normally had their shops and had the personnel who received the salaries for their work called “shagirdana”

The credit in the form of some amount of money with the interest (“sarf”) was adopted in the trade although such practice contradicted to Koran and sharia rules. Special ethic theory of trade effected by the Islam existed in the Mediaeval. Muslim theologians and legal scholars divided the goods into forbidden (“haram”), allowed (“halal”) and disapproved (“makrukh). Despite the condemnation and disfavour, the practice of “sarf” was quite usual in the trade and exchange throughout Muslim East. So called “suftaja” – the loan of the goods under credit but with the term that it would be transported on the buyer cost for sale in some other place was widely spread. Non-cash promissory payments as well as the operation in the form of transferring of the debt (“havalat”) by the agreement of the creditor with the debtor was in the circulation. The bargains were documented but the merchants tried to avoid giving the receipts in order to recline the dept in case of necessity.

Currency exchange carried out by money changes – the “sarrafs” was used very often in the trade. Money changers block existed under the Seljuks in Merv and written reference on them was kept in the literature of those times. There were plenty of Jews among the money changers, whose societies existed in number of the cities of Central Asia and Iran. It is known that Isfahan Jews carried out international trade and was closely connected to the banks in Bagdad.

The merchants especially those who dealt with other countries untied in companies. The sources of XI – XII centuries mentioned about special selling and buying associations. The relations between their members were regulated by the agreements included the share of the instalment and relatively the income. Wealthy officials and affluent aristocrats were the members of such companies, however, the main role was played by the merchants who sent their agents or went themselves with the caravans to different countries. There were many average tradesmen who re-sell imported goods together with big businessmen. Rich and powerful associations led by the chiefs (“malik at-tujar”) controlled entire trade in number of Esatern countries.

It can be stated that everything started from the silk but now it is more the metaphor, which is used to describe not only the world that vanished long time ago but also re-create that phenomenon of the world history that transcontinental road network used to be about two thousand years ago. It connected remote cultures of the Old World – the Chines in the East and Mediterranean in the West, involved all countries and nations of Central Asia, supported their development and entered XXI century as a part of our history and national heritage of every state in the Great Silk Road territory.