What do the Persian city of Ray and the Chinese city of Xi’an have in common?
They are both points on the Silk Road, which connected trading centers across the Eurasian continent since ancient times. Search your globe along 35 north latitude, roughly the same latitude as Los Angeles, and you will find Ray south of the Caspian Sea, in the foothills of the snow-capped Alborz Mountains. Ray was the home of Persian physician and chemist al-Razi, whose Book of Secrets described malachite from Egypt, talc from Yemen, and glass from Syria.* He also spoke of “Chinese iron” and “Chinese salt,” but as to the availability of these materials in the tenth-century bazaars of Ray, I can only speculate. My most vivid memory of Ray is bring told that the abundant clear water from the mountains was considered ideal for washing Persian carpets. What a perfect place it must have been for weary trade caravans to rest!
But, for today, let’s be armchair travelers. With your finger on Ray, turn your globe to the left, following the 35th north latitude line to the east and you come to Xi’an, the ancient capital of China where the Silk Road begins, and home of an international tourist destination known as the Terra Cotta Warriors. Coming into Xi’an today, the city looks anything but ancient. Downtown Xi’an is a modern city with bright lights, tall apartment buildings, and upscale shopping districts. You pass stores labeled Gucci and Ralph Lauren, not to mention KFC and McDonald’s.
The renowned Terra Cotta Army is a little way out of town, housed in three large display pavilions and they are every bit as amazing as they are reputed to be. The soldiers stand life-size, in vast numbers, and the excavation is still going on. Fashioned for an emperor’s tomb and buried from about 210 BCE until their discovery in 1974, they now stand in silent dignity under the gaze of visitors from all over the world.
As a historian, however, I urge you to spend a few hours in the Shaanxi History Museum and survey the broader role of Xi’an in the history of China and of the world. You can follow thirteen dynasties through time, but I would have needed much more time to do that. I was especially interested in the Qin Dynasty, which lasted only fourteen years (221-207 BCE), but saw the beginning of administrative unification in coinage, writing, roads, and uniform weights and measures. The next dynasty, the Han (206 BCE – 220 AD), was roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire in Europe. The science and technology of this section fascinated me, and I found myself taking pictures of hinges, rulers, plowshares, large looms, and small fragments of paper. There was glassware of blue and yellow hues, and mortars and pestles which would have been at home in al-Razi’s laboratory seven centuries later.
The displays added context to the artifacts. My favorite was the map of the Silk Road which you could light up to show its extent in different time periods. It was never one road, but a network of trade routes and sea routes, moving goods east and west, beginning in the Han Dynasty in Xi’an, connecting the markets of India, Persia, Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Rome, and bringing al-Razi the materials of alchemy.
P.S. For further armchair traveling, I recommend The Silk Road, by Frances Wood. Very readable and beautiful pictures.
P.P.S. The dissertation is being read. That means it’s temporarily out of my hands, which is a good thing at this point. It also explains why I’ve been gone so long.
* If he doesn’t sound familiar, see the Thesis Page.