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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

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Trekking the Silk Road
April 1, 2000

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This isn't the most hospitable place for a village!

The Odyssey research van/party-mobile zips across northern Iran, heading eastward towards a small village. The land is desolate, with ragged, snow-capped mountains rising on every side. The few houses and the mosque in the little town of Sultaniyé, Iran are made of plain brown mud and bricks. Why would anyone build a town here? It seems so out-of-the-way!

Our bus pulls up to a large walled enclosure made of crumbling brown mud. A domed building rises from inside. As soon as I pass through the huge open gateway, I recognize what it is. The large entrance and the central courtyard with rooms all around it remind me of the many caravansari I've seen since we were in Istanbul, Turkey.

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I still think I look silly in this hijab, but I'll smile for the camera anyway, in front of Sultaniyé, Iran's caravansari.

This one is smaller and in worse shape than most we've seen, probably because it's here, in the middle of nowhere. The large doorway is big enough for camels, fully laden with treasures to trade and sell. The rooms, now empty or used as storage, once housed nomads and merchants from far-off lands as they passed through on the famous Silk Road. Caravansaries like this were the motels of the ancient world!

Just like the Odyssey trekkers, the Silk Road went all the way from Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) to Chang'an (Xi'an, China)! It wasn't a super-highway, and almost no one went all the way from one end to another. Even today, with cars and buses, trains and planes, major credit cards and Lonely Planet Guide Books, the 8000 miles between Constantinople and Chang'an is long, difficult, and dangerous. Imagine how it must have been back in the 2nd century BCE, when the vast deserts and high mountains were crossed by men with camels, finding their way by the stars! It kind of makes us trekkers seem like wimps, doesn't it? Of course, those traders never had to deal with the nightmare of getting a visa to enter Iran!


Alexander the Great, for all his greatness, didn't make it to China, and didn't know anything about the lands to the far east. It wasn't until a nomadic tribe, the Parthians, took over Persia (modern day Iran) in 190 BCE, that routes were established to the East. Nomads, after all, are good travelers and traders. The Parthians were all about getting to know the locals they conquered, and they allowed the people who lived there to retain their culture and traditions.

Thoughts on Cultural Exchange

As we climb back on the bus and pop Macy Gray into the tape deck, I realize that trade between different cultures always brings cultural exchange along with it, today as much as back then. The US trade embargo against Iran certainly helps Iran keep out the wild, wanton culture of the "Great Satan" (as America was called after the Islamic Revolution), but I see Nike logos, even here.

Many people who protested the WTO (World Trade Organization) in Seattle last November mentioned the loss of traditional cultures as a reason to resist multinational companies. The distance between Xi'an and Istanbul, which took around 200 days along the silk road, only takes a matter of hours on a plane now. The exchange of ideas and cultures has sped up at the same rate! Of course, sharing cultures and exchanging ideas has always been a part of history, and can't be stopped. But today, some would argue, it is capitalism--Nike and McDonald's--that is the new, dominant religion. A far cry from the Buddhism spread by the Silk Road.

Is the rate of cultural exchange in the world today a good or a bad thing? How is it different from the way it was back in the days of the silk road? Do you think it is an equal exchange, or is it one culture dominating another?

On the other end, in Chang'an, the Han Dynasty heard tales of horses bred from heavenly stock.

aristocrat - a member of a ruling class or of the nobility.
nomad - a member of a group of people who have no fixed home and move according to the seasons from place to place in search of food, water, and grazing land.

That, along with a curiosity about the Indian religion of Buddhism, led them to search westward. By the year 105 BCE, the Parthians and the Hans had embassies in each other's territories and a bilateral trade agreement! Is this the origin of the World Trade Organization?!

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Spices are still sold in the markets surrounding the caravansari in Sanliurfa, Turkey

With a trade route to China, the Parthians--and later the aristocrats from the Roman Empire--could indulge in furs, ceramics, perfumes, cinnamon bark and other spices, rhubarb, bronze weapons, and, of course, silk. Just imagine! The wealthy Romans' togas might have been silk. Did they have a little "Made in China" label in the collar?

From Persia and Greece, the Chinese could import gold, silver, precious stones, textiles, ivory, wool, Mediterranean colored glass, jade, spices, wine and coral. Sometimes animals, including ostriches, peacocks, parrots, falcons, gazelles, hunting dogs, lions, leopards, and even humans--like acrobats, magicians, and dwarves--were traded along the route.

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Brian seems hesitant to buy me gold from a shop in an old caravanseri that was made into a gold market in Erzurum, Turkey

We're not carrying jewels, we're not dwarves, and none of us can do handsprings, but we're still headed east along the Silk Road. Not that it's just one road. It might be better called "the Silk Web," because there were multiple routes for most sections, and very few caravans went the whole way. Instead, caravans would transport goods along one particular section, and then trade it for goods coming from the opposite direction in some caravansari or oasis along the way, and take the new treasures back. During the 900 years during which this overland route was the only thing that connected the "East" and the "West," different parts of the route would become dangerous because of war or robbers, or bad weather. We trekkers are actually going to fly over Pakistan to get to India to avoid danger--an option those ancient traders never even dreamed of!

Treasures of the Silk Road

Run between your fingers
the silk,
with brilliant dyes.
Examine closely,
each fine gem,
how it glitters in the sun.

Inhale deeply
spices rare:
sweet sticks of cinnamon,
saffron warm and red,
sensuous vanilla
disguised as brown pods.
And vials of perfumes
whispering of sultry,
far off lands.

Languages and gods
mix freely,
as camels watch in quiet thought.
In the caravansari
traders share the gemstones
of their souls.
Treasures returned
to homes far away--
stories of men
with different skin.
Insight from another world.

Not traded for silver
or gold, or creatures rare.
The true treasure
given freely
with a smile, a cup of tea.
a friendship made
beneath a desert night.

Towns like this dusty little place struck it rich when the caravans would stop in and spend money. I have no idea what they do for survival here these days. Maybe they are shepherds. By 800 CE, sailors had connected Canton, China with the Middle East, which was an easier and cheaper way to transport goods. The Silk Road slowly died out after that. Of course, the boat journey still wasn't easy or cheap. Remember, Columbus was hoping to find a better route to Asia when he stumbled upon the Americas in 1492!

Looking back from this point in time, we can say that the most important things transferred along the Silk Road were ideas, traded for free by the travelers from distant lands. For example, from the 1st century BCE until at least the 7th century CE, monks and converts from China made pilgrimages to modern-day India and Pakistan to study Buddhism. This new religion, along with others that came along the Silk Road, changed the face of China forever. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), the capital city of Chang'an had foreigners from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Mongolia, India, Sogdia (where's that?!), Korea, Malaya, and Japan living there. There were temples, churches, and synagogues for the Nestorians, Manicheans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Confucianists, and Taoists! Stay tuned to the Odyssey this summer when the team visits modern-day Xi'an!

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for larger view
I wonder if all the old merchants on the Silk Trail were as cheerful as this man, outside the door of a caravansari in Sanliurfa, Turkey

Today, the only people following the Silk Road are adventure travelers and crazy World Trekkers. It is often referred to now as the "hippie-trail," for all the scruffy Europeans who head out to Asia this way. Anyone else would just fly, and cargo would go by sea.

As the sun sets, a cold wind whips down from the ice-capped mountains. Images pass through my mind of turbaned nomads, camels stacked high with goods, seeking shelter in this caravansari. I can romanticize it, but, in truth, it must have been a very difficult life. I'm glad to have a bus to get into!

- Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Brian - Yes, They've Heard of Ricky Martin--
and More Answers to Your Questions

Jasmine - Spring Forward! Into the Year 1379?
Kavitha - Persian New Year Fun
Team - Purim: An Ancient Story Not Soon Forgotten
Monica - The Hejab in Iran: Don't Leave Home Without it...

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