Cities of the Silk Road

David Pettitt

The Silk Road stretched from the far east of China to the Mediterranean Sea – a twisting, shifting caravan route which threaded its way between mountain and desert linking cities in the name of commerce. The highly prized and valuable commodity of silk initially drove trade however, over the centuries many other precious products exchanged hands as did crafts and technologies, languages, beliefs and knowledge. Cities grew wealthy from their association with the route and were hubs of science, art and literature – vibrant centres that linked East with West. Evoking images of caravans of horses and camels, travelling merchants and bustling caravanserais, these five cities are some of the best places to experience the essence of this ancient highway.

Xi’an, China

The eastern departure point of the Silk Road, the ancient Chinese imperial capital of Xi’an was a vibrant political and economic centre where east truly met west. The city regularly hosted large numbers of foreign visitors during the heyday of the Silk Road but had always been an important crossroads for people throughout China and Central Asia. The city was a hub of different cultures and beliefs with science and the arts the main beneficiary of the huge wealth the city generated from its location on the road. Upon leaving Xi’an the next major settlement was the oasis town of Dunhuang.

Well preserved ancient city wall of Xi'an in China

Kashgar, China

Located close to the border of modern day Kyrgyzstan, Kashgar is in the far west of China. Its initial wealth was gained through agriculture – the land here astonishingly fertile thanks to the annual floods of the Kashgar River – and numerous crops were grown including corn, rice and cotton, melon, apricot and cherry. Reached after a tortuous journey along the edge of the forbidding Taklamakan Desert it quickly became a popular stopping place and major marketplace with caravans departing not only for Central Asia but also Persia and India as well. Kashgar was also famous for textiles and pottery.

The Apak Hoja Mazzar Xiangfei Tomb in Kashgar, China

Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Synonymous with the Silk Road, exotic Samarkand was once the centre of the world. Thought to have been founded during the 5th century BC, it was already a cosmopolitan melting pot of cultures when Alexander the Great arrived and by the 13th century had a larger population than it does today. Samarkand cemented it pre-eminent position on the caravan routes thanks to Tamerlane who was encouraged to make it a major economic player and cultural centre. Aside from business, Samarkand was also well known as a scientific centre and an observatory was built here in 1420.

Colourfully tiled Ulugh Beg Madrasah, Registan Square in Samarkand

Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Sometimes overlooked, Bukhara is Central Asia’s holiest city and has been a major trading centre for well over 2,000 years. Located today in central Uzbekistan, Bukhara benefited from its position as a junction on the main caravan routes that criss-crossed Central Asia. Here merchants traded wares and ideas and purchased locally made carpets, clothes and leather. They also readied themselves for crossing the great Kyzyl Kum and Kara Kum deserts. As one of the region’s most prosperous cities, during the Middle Ages it also became a major centre for culture, religious studies and learning.

The decorative Poi Kalon Kalyan Minaret in Bukhara, Uzbekistan

Bursa, Turkey

With a history dating back to antiquity, Bursa flourished with the establishment of the silk industry in Byzantium and soon become a silk centre in its own right. Bursa benefitted from the growth of the Ottoman Empire – it was later to become the capital of the empire too for a short while – and its increased political power attracted traders and merchants from far and wide. Sitting at the European end of the Silk Road, Bursa helped to distribute goods to the west and collated merchandise that was to head east. The city was known for its grand bazaars and Koza Han – the silk ‘cocoon exchange’.

Hagia Sophia Interior, Turkey