They were greatest explorers of their era. One intrepid ambassador struck out west, across the Jade Gate, and stayed so long that he was imprisoned and married before coming home. The other sailed everywhere, in giant ships that dwarfed the little caravels that the Europeans had invented. He left a trail of sailing charts, reports, and temples all across the Indian Ocean.
At the end of the alphabet are two important Chinese explorers, ones who “discovered” the trading routes, over land and sea, which helped carve out where east and west might exchange their goods: the silk, the frankincense, the pepper, and the ideas.
The stories of these explorers seem to be the perfect bookends to wrap up 26 A to Z posts about this amazing time and geography known as the Silk Road.
We aren’t sure When or Who or Where or How Much. We used to guess about What, although now we seem to be sure. And, when I say we, I do mean scientists and people who study facts and sometimes historians who pay attention to them, instead of making up malarkey.
I’m talking about the Black Death, which I already covered last year in the Renaissance and the letter “B.” And I talked about it in a post on “How do they know?” so why cover it again? Because the key truth about the 14th century plague, the one which devastated Europe and is thought to have come across the Silk Road, is that there are so many unanswered questions.
The end is the beginning. The beginning is at the end.
Xi’an was the terminus and the initium. Certainly, from the Chinese point of view, for those who had the silk and knew the pathways above the desert and the skyscraping Himalayas, knew them far earlier than others who struck out to find trading parners, Xi’an was the beginning of their road, the road eventually named the Silk Road.
It was the place for one of the great dynasties of the world–the Han–a glittering civilization back in the days where Greece, Persia, and India were just beginning to look around and wonder how the universe was made. It was a place where philosophies and spiritual ideals intersected. It was the place where some of the biggest and grandest human enterprises started.
It was also called Chang’an. It was known as the Western Peace.