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One of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 1997: The statues’ survival until 2002 spoke to centuries of dialogue between religions along the Silk Road ( © JEAN-CLAUDE CHAPON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Silk Road is actually a network of routes over land, river and sea, which has connected the peoples and the nations of Eurasia for many hundreds of years. There is the northern route over the Caucasus to Europe, the middle one through to Turkey, and the southern ones to Gandhara in what is now northern Pakistan, to the Indus Valley, and one down to northern and south-west India. The sea routes connect the Gulf and India with the spice islands further east.

Naturally, over such a vast area the trade in goods has also been very diverse. Although the term Silk Road is deserved because of the importance of the trade with China in this highly desirable fabric, there was much else besides. There was lively trade eastwards of wool and westwards of spices. There was the selling and buying of precious metals and stones, of tools and raw materials. The list could go on. Equally importantly, there was the transfer of technology, whether in the making of paper, techniques of printing or even the introduction of writing and the reducing of hitherto purely oral languages to a written form.

One of the lasting legacies of the Silk Road has been the bringing together of cultures, beliefs and ideas. This has brought about debate, discussion and dialogue. We cannot pretend that peace has always prevailed. The territories, routes and even the goods being traded have been the subject of wars, piracy and exploitation. People have, nevertheless, talked and learnt from one another about each group’s cherished beliefs and rituals, their sense of right and wrong and their basis for honesty in trade.

In this connection, it is worth noting that what we call religion today was not a separate, hived-off activity but belonged, to borrow a metaphor from the world of textiles, to the very warp and woof of society. It was central to a people’s identity, to its main symbols and to moral understanding and discourse. It was their world view, that is to say, how they understood the universe and their place in it. Arguably, this remains the case in most parts of the world but sometimes has to be explained to secularised European audiences. When groups came into contact with one another through travel and trade, it was natural for them to discover their trading partners’ rituals, values and ways of seeing the world. At other times, there was a more deliberate transmission of ideas and beliefs: scholars, monks and missionaries travelled along the routes, sometimes with trading caravans, sometimes alone, with the express intention of sharing their knowledge, beliefs and practices with others. The arrival of Buddhism in China and the spread of Nestorian Christianity into central Asia and China are certainly to be understood in this way. Islam also arrived with conquest but spread, at least partially, both in central and south Asia through the peaceful exertions of Sufis and merchants. On the other hand, some travelling was intentionally undertaken to establish the origin and authenticity of religious ideas that had been received from elsewhere. The early Buddhist travellers, like Fa-Xian and Xuan Zang, went to India to determine the origin of the scriptures they had received and to check on the accuracy of their translations.

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