Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica California is a monument to 1960’s American culture. The road became America’s best known highway while we sang “Get your kicks on Route 66”. I take nothing away from 66, its pop culture and the TV show it inspired, but how about a much older road? The Silk Route first connected China to Europe thousands of years ago. Capitalists on camel caravans got their kicks hauling Beijing silk to Rome. My school history books covered China, Greece and Rome, but the land in-between it was a blank piece of paper. There wasn’t much about these camel drivers who changed our civilizations in many ways. They deserve a shout out.
That Euro-Asian land bridge story and its heroes cry out for attention. Alexander the Great came to Central Asia from the West bringing Greek philosophy, baklava and gyros. Fifteen hundred years later Genghis Kahn came in from the East. He brought more blood than cuisine, but greatly improved the Beijing-Rome Highway and kept it safe for hundreds of years. There was Marco Polo who gave the road some well deserved publicity and nudged Europe towards the Renaissances with tales of Chinese paper, gunpowder, and treasures. If that was not enough, Marco brought back pasta and taught Italians to eat it without chopsticks.
Today the caravans are gone and little remains. Earthquakes and wars have erased most traces of the famous route. A few monuments survive like the caravanserai buildings. These were road side stops, like Motel 6 but with camel stalls instead of parking spaces and no coin operated vibrator beds. For a thousand years while the Silk Road was a traffic jam, these hostels ran full occupancy.
Then one day the camel trains and the wealth that brought them dried up. And yet China-Europe trade continued: So who killed The Silk Route? That would be bad guy Vasco da Gamma, who sailed to Asia by going around Africa. He shipped goods by sea from Portugal to India, China and back. He saved a bundle by cutting out middle men, war lords, and customs agents. Since 1496 it has been curtains for Silk Road caravans.
Back in the day, caravans of up to 1,000 camels traveled from East to West and back again. The animals groaned under the weight of silk, spice, jewels and other treasure. Now Kirgizstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and the other “stans” have been cut out and forgotten. The new “Vasco da Gamma Interstate Bypass” cut their once profitable business. Kind of like what U.S. Interstate 40 did to Route 66. The Silk Route is largely forgotten. It deserved better!
Why? Because these guys carried something more valuable than material treasure. Caravans brought ideas, religion, philosophy, science and military arts with them. The idea flow, the inventions and learning endured long after the silk and spices were consumed. In Uzbekistan today you can see the 1,000 year old astronomical observatory and the birthplace of Al Gohrizmie so called by Uzbeks as inventor of algebra. (Others suggest mathematicians such as al-Khwarizmi (780 – 850) and Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) were more likely the first algebraists). Central Asia kept the study of science alive while Europe slept through the Dark Ages.
Jared Diamond suggests in his book GUNS GERMS AND STEEL that China, Europe and India prospered, while Tasmanian aborigines, Congo pygmies and early Patagonians did not. The reason was that the Eurasian continent with all those caravans allowed for idea exchange that accompanied commerce and trade. He writes:
“The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, and ideas. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse various climate zones and geographic boundaries that discourage trade.”
Idea exchange along the Route allowed culture and civilization to flourish. You can be thankful for those caravan drivers for modern civilization, hospitals, cars, soap operas and Pokémon. Western and Asian history owes them a debt of gratitude. Without their trudging through the sand, trading and transferring scientific ideas, we might not have invented cars. Anyone for a ride down Route 66 on a camel?