A is for Asia

There are few descriptive phrases that sum up a time and place as elegantly as “The Silk Road.” It is an idea specific to geography and historical era. Others terms–World War I, Manifest Destiny, the Roman Empire, or the Enlightenment–belong to a specific country or encompass a comparatively brief span of years. Even the Renaissance, as I found out in last year’s A to Z challenge, made a heavy impression mostly on a handful of places and was fairly localized to Italy and the coastal cities of Western Europe. Or take a place like the Fertile Crescent, which may have lasted centuries in the development of human processes, but it was really a spot, that convergence of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

In comparison, the Silk Road spread across a continent, and the biggest one at that. It began a few hundred years before the Common Era (BCE is the new way of saying minus zero year) and lasted into the era of colonization. To cover 26 posts on anything requires a vast stretch of subject.


The Silk Road was not really a road but a networking set of related pathways that brought goods from East to West to East, from North to South to North, across Asia. There were civilizations on each end, growing cities and manufacture of a sort in China, Europe, Persia, and India. They all wanted to find new markets, as the global lingo goes today, and there were plenty of enterprising men and women who longed for adventure to take the goods.


That 1540 German map at the top, Cosmographia by Sebastian Munster, is one view of the continent, that shows off the European names of the exotic places, from Cathay to Bothnia. The Europeans didn’t have many maps until the sailors started finding the boundaries. But the traders who had crossed Asia back and forth had plenty of road maps of their own, though they didn’t proliferate until the invention of paper helped make copies.

“Asia” itself was “Assuwa,” a Hittite word according to Wikipedia, meaning it was a word created by a people of the steppes about the location. The latter Mycenaen Greeks (i.e. Agamemnon and friends) referred the location as Anatolia, meaning Turkey. So that Asia was a Greek term about the westernmost point of this continent that moved to the east as far as anyone had known.

The road across this land crossed from the Pacific Ocean in the East to the Mediterranean in the West. Less through forest than through desert, but the hard parts were moving around the mountain ranges of the Himalayas and other offshoots. The travelers and their carts and camels went around and through whatever passes they could find to go south to key cities in India and Persia and back north up to Constantinople or Alexandria, the key gateways cities to the Mediterranean that would take them everywhere else.


Since recorded history at the time of its inception didn’t record a lot, there exact origin of the Silk Road is a little sketchy. But there were burgeoning civilizations at both end of the Asian continent. The Han dynasty in China was flourishing by 200 BCE, and the practices of Confucius had had three hundred years to blossom into a structure that built an empire.

On the western end of the continent but the eastern end of Europe, Greece had “discovered” all sorts of ideas and culture of its own. Alexander the Great, taught by Aristotle, went east with the ideas, and between his empire dreams and the goods he found as he pushed towards central Asia, well… East met West.

What were the goods? Who were the people who wrote about the journey? Where were some of the key places? That’s what the B to Z will cover.

I came across this excellent “coffee table” book on this topic, Traveling the Silk Road, written by Mark Norell and Denise Patry Leidy and sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. If you are inspired to learn more, the book is full of great maps and photos that I can only replicate in tiny pieces.

Here we go! One down, 25 to go!

2 Replies to “A is for Asia”

  1. Great start! I’m learning already about a topic that only has some vague images in my mind.

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