Ancient pathway to the modern world
by Meredith McKendry
Take a sensory journey across Asia and discover the secrets and wonders of the world’s greatest trade route, whose traditions and technologies still influence the world today.
Travelling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World is an exhibition developed by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, opening at the National Museum of Australia at the end of March.
Welcomed by life-size camels in full caravan regalia, rooms draped in brightly coloured silk fabrics, lanterns casting intricate light patterns on the floors, and the heady fragrances of exotic oils, you’ll be immediately immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the world’s oldest international highway: the Silk Road.
Not a single path, the Silk Road was a loose network of trading routes that extended about 7400 kilometres from eastern China west to the Mediterranean. The Silk Road was a conduit not only for tangible goods but also for technology and culture — both objects and ideas — among extraordinarily diverse groups of people.
Few people travelled the entire distance, but merchandise moved long distances as caravans of camels and horses slowly made their way from one settlement to another, enabling trade across thousands of kilometres. Both raw materials and finished products made the journey, including paper, furs, tea and ceramics travelling west from China, while ivory, glass, spices, metalwork and aromatics were sent eastward.
This exhibition takes you on a journey that covers the entire distance of the Silk Road from east to west — from Xi’an, the capital of China, to Turfan, Samarkand and Baghdad, the heart of the Islamic world, and spans six centuries (600 to 1200 AD). As you enter, you will receive a passport that can be embossed with iconic symbols as you travel from one city to the next, marking your passage through the exhibition.
Travelling the Silk Road begins in Xi’an, China’s Tang dynasty capital. For centuries, silk was China’s most highly prized product, used in diplomacy and even as currency, and crucial to the origin of the Silk Road. The luxury silk trade helped transform Xi’an into a cosmopolitan urban capital and the largest city in the world at the time, with a population of more than one million people and another million living outside the city walls.
Here you can explore the stages of silk-making, from cocoon to cloth. A video reveals the once carefully guarded secrets of sericulture (raising worms to make silk) — a single cocoon can unwind into a silk filament about 915 metres long. The centrepiece of the section is a massive 5-metre-long replica of a Tang-era loom, which demonstrates the final step of weaving fabric from silk thread.
A musical interactive accompanies a display of classical Chinese instruments: the cymbals, sheng, moon lute, drum, pipa and erhu. By pressing one or all of the buttons on the display, you can hear the sounds of individual instruments or of several at once, playing a very lively piece of traditional Chinese music. Nearby is a ceramic figure of a Chinese court official clothed in a silk robe that dates from the 7th or 8th century AD.
The lush Turfan section of the exhibition, situated beneath a grape-covered arbour, transports you to a night market in the desert city. Wandering through this re-creation, you will discover stalls with exotic goods and delicacies — sapphires, silks, jade, rubies, animal skins, peacock feathers, fruits and spices — that would have captivated travellers over a thousand years ago during the city’s heyday.
Turfan is famous for its vineyards and wine, and the exhibition features a karez underground irrigation system that transformed Turfan into an agricultural centre and remains in use today. The display demonstrates how this oasis city — where temperatures often exceed 38 degrees — tapped rainwater, and melting snow and glaciers to provide life-giving water for its people and crops.
Samarkand, located in what is now Uzbekistan, was a major city and trading centre for the Sogdians — long-distance caravan merchants who became indispensable in the transfer of goods, techniques and religious beliefs.
Also known as a centre for fine papermaking and luxury metalwork, the Samarkand section of the exhibition displays historic paper-based artefacts, including an 11th–12th-century Chinese woodblock print of a Buddhist prayer and a 12th-century Koran. There are also precious metal pieces, including Persian coins imprinted with Zoroastrian symbols and an intricate 900-year-old silver and copper jug from Iran.
The centrepiece in the exhibition is a life-size model of a two-humped Bactrian camel, the ‘ship of the desert’, which, with its capacity to conserve water (enabling it to go up to 15 days without a drink), broad leathery foot pads to prevent it sinking deep into the sand and bushy eyebrows with long eyelashes to protect its eyes from dust and sand, carried people and goods along the Silk Road. Well-adapted to Central Asia’s harsh conditions, the hardy camel was essential to the long-distance trade.
The Samarkand section also includes a computer-animated book that brings to life tales that travellers might have told along the Silk Road. Based on early illustrations from China, Central Asia and the Middle East, the animations tell the timeless fables, ‘The goose that laid the golden eggs’, ‘The lion and the hare’ and ‘The stonecutter who was never satisfied’. There’s also an ‘Explore the Silk Road’ interactive map, which encourages school-age children to discover the links between culture, technology and geography along the Silk Road.
Next, visitors will encounter Baghdad at the height of its golden age as a hub of learning and commerce. The capital of the Islamic world and present-day Iraq, Baghdad was an intellectual centre where scholarship flourished.
Enthusiasm for science during this period was driven by the ruling family of the time — the Abbasid caliphate — and their thirst for knowledge. A library and translation institute in Baghdad, known as the ‘House of Wisdom’, was a research centre for studies in geometry, engineering and astronomy and a famous destination for intellectuals around 800 AD.
The art of blowing glass developed in the Middle East around 100 BC and, centuries later, reached new heights under Islam. A display in the exhibition features some extraordinary Islamic glass cups as well as a decorative glass bottle and pitcher dating from 500 to 1000 AD.
The centrepiece here is a prime example of the mechanical sophistication of the time: a working model of a water clock — made out of glass to reveal its inner workings — designed by Islamic engineers about 800 years ago. A family-friendly interactive teaches you how to tell the time by marking the position of ‘stars’ using a working model of an ancient Islamic astrolabe, which helped astronomers navigate and predict sunrise and sunset.
The last section of the exhibition charts the shift from overland to maritime routes in the ninth and tenth centuries, which was made possible by advances in technology and eventually overshadowed the caravan trade. Sea travel was faster and merchants could move heavier and more diverse goods by boat.
You can walk through a replica of a heavily laden vessel that travelled between east Asia and China about 1200 years ago. The full-sized model of a 22-metre-long Arab dhow is split in half to reveal a cargo of ceramics and elaborate metalwork that were traded or purchased from workshops in China during the Tang dynasty. Another display in this section shows you how designs found in ceramics and glassware were used by different cultures, showing the influence of international trade on the diffusion of culture. Intricate plates and jars are featured, including a colourful 13th-century Persian ceramic bowl depicting a hunting scene from the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings.
A final display with a wall-size video screen connects the Silk Road to today’s global economy. Long before the internet, the Silk Road brought globalisation to the ancient world. This complex network gave many people — including Greeks, Indians, Persians, Arabs and Han Chinese — their first contact with distant civilisations. Exchanges between them took many forms, from the spread of religions, musical styles and cuisines to the dissemination of scientific knowledge. This movement of objects and ideas helped lay the foundations for the modern world. ‘Trading has existed since prehistory,’ says lead curator Mark Norell from the American Museum of Natural History. ‘But the Silk Road was the first large-scale, globalised trade that developed in any organised fashion.’
Travelling the Silk Road is on display from 31 March to 29 July in the Temporary Exhibition Gallery.