The Silk Road episode 3: In the final episode of his series tracing the story of the most famous trade route in history, Dr Sam Willis continues his journey west in Iran. The first BBC documentary team to be granted entry for nearly a decade, Sam begins in the legendary city of Persepolis – heart of the first Persian Empire.
Following an ancient caravan route through Persia’s deserts, he visits a Zoroastrian temple where a holy fire has burned for 1,500 years, and Esfahan, one of the Silk Road’s architectural jewels and rival to Sam’s next destination – Istanbul. In the ancient capital of Byzantium, Sam discovers how the eastern Roman Empire was ruled through silk and how Venetian merchants cashed in on the wealth and trade it generated.
Sam’s last stop takes him full circle to Venice. Visiting Marco Polo’s house, Sam reminds us how the great traveller’s book was one of the first to link east to west and how the ideas and products that trickled down the Silk Road not only helped to trigger the Renaissance, but set Europe on a path of unstoppable change.
The Silk Road episode 3
The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative silk, first developed in China and a major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive transcontinental network. The German term Seidenstraße (“the Silk Road”) was coined in 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. The term “Silk Route” is also used. Although the term was coined in the 19th century, it did not gain widespread acceptance in academia or popularity among the public until the 20th century. The first book entitled The Silk Road was by Swedish geographer Sven Hedin in 1938.
Use of the term ‘Silk Road’ is not without its detractors. For instance, Warwick Ball contends that the maritime spice trade with India and Arabia was far more consequential for the economy of the Roman Empire than the silk trade with China, which at sea was conducted mostly through India and on land was handled by numerous intermediaries such as the Sogdians. Going as far as to call the whole thing a “myth” of modern academia, Ball argues that there was no coherent overland trade system and no free movement of goods from East Asia to the West until the period of the Mongol Empire. He notes that traditional authors discussing East-West trade such as Marco Polo and Edward Gibbon never labelled any route a “silk” one in particular.