Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology, mythology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we travel one of the most renown paths in human history, the Silk Route.
Gather near dear friends for today we step through the misty portal and into the past, traveling along the Silk Road in order to discover its significance, the cultural exchanges it brought and the stories it was to tell.
Trade Needs and Theft
Trade grew from the need of civilizations to acquire goods and resources not available in their home regions. This trade was often driven by empires, conquerors and religious establishments.
The Silk Route is one of the greatest trade routes ever designed, stretching over 4000 miles by land from Italy to the Chinese Pacific coast and by sea to Indonesia. The route is believed to have started during the time of Alexander the Great given his need to supply his forces across a rapidly growing Empire. After Alexanders death Ptolemy and others continued trading along the route exchanging goods, horses and slaves. The route added in new peoples and nations for several hundred years, expanding its reach westward until finally connecting to China in 200 BCE.
The Chinese held one vital resource, silk, and readily traded it for a wide variety of required goods and treasure over the following 500 years. However, the Chinese silk monopoly ended in the 3rd century when two Christian monks discovered the secret of making silk and spies were sent to steal precious silk worm eggs. Not long after silk began to be produced in the Byzantine Empire and the Silk Route drifted out of use, giving way to Islamic-controlled routes.
Were we to introduce a trade route of this type, stretching through all of the kingdoms of a fantasy world or between the planets of a Science Fiction environment what would each region have to offer it? What would they need from the others? What would each be required to protect or fear the loss of (such as the silk worms of China)?
Once these questions are answered, many stories become available. Protection of trade secrets, spy and espionage activities and political machinations just to name a few. While the life of a merchant is never a dull one, perhaps our hero is an artist seeking new methods to bring him fame back home or a commander tasked with protecting the valuable trade lines.
Conquerors, Adventurers and Death
A new conqueror, this time Genghis Khan and his Mongol hoard, re-established the Silk Route from the early 1200’s until the mid to late 1300’s. During the interim the Islamic trade routes had held a stranglehold between Europe and Asia but they could not resist the power of the Mongols. Genghis breathed life back into the Silk Road and it thrived.
Two famous travelers moved along the Silk Route during this era. One a much lauded noble traveler and the other a far more insidious and ignoble traveler.
The first was Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer, although he was only 17 when he and his father and uncle, a successful merchant team and headed along the route for China. Marco would end up traveling both the land and sea segments of the Silk Route through China to modern day Burma and back. For 24 years, Marco and his companions adventured through foreign lands before returning loaded with a wealth of treasure and knowledge.
The second famous traveler of the Silk Route during this era was the Black Death (commonly known as the Bubonic plague although this connection is in dispute). Many studies feel that the Black Death moved along this famous trade route from China to Europe most likely carried by merchants or the rats that hitchhiked with every caravan of the era. The Black Death led to the deaths of approximately half of the European population and changed the course of Western history forever.
How would the appearance of an outside invader disrupt trade and supply in our world? Would our hero be the invader, the established power or someone caught in between just trying to make a living and protect his family?
What if that invader was a virulent disease such as the Black Death? Imagine a young hero traveling the route and arriving at a village of dying people or sitting at an inn as a man coughs his last bloody breath upon the hero and dies. Watch the reactions to modern pandemics such as swine flu and you’ll have a good idea of how people react in these situations.
Perhaps we will have our hero meet and befriend a great conqueror or ruler as Marco Polo did when he was introduced to Kublai Khan? Consider the many peoples and things that travel between kingdoms and worlds and a host of stories rise to the surface. The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer are a prime example of a travelers story that remains relevant today.
While the need for goods spawned the Silk Route it was humans that transported those goods. As such the route served as a primary exchange of culture between the West and the East with Central Asia acting as a centralized stew pot of ideas, art, technology and religion.
The route allowed Christianity to advance as far as China while Buddhism missionaries traveled from India with caravans reaching into China and Central Asia. Caliphates of Arabia introduced Islam along the Silk Route in the 7th century and at one time the three great religions brewed together in the melting pot of Central Asia.
Alongside of religion moved art, paper, architecture, music, sculpting, dance and theater. It is easy to see in some areas of what we now call the Middle East the wide variety of cultural influences that at one time blossomed here.
Imagine a story setting that is at the center of a mighty trade route such as the Silk Road. Opposing cultures, ideas, religious beliefs and technologies constantly bouncing off of one another. Place any two people together, the more disparate the better and watch the story grow out of their differences. Opposition is the heart of a strong story. What one will we involve our hero or heroine in? The possibilities are endless.
I now return to you through the misty portal to your own place and time, hopefully wiser, richer and carrying a wealth of stories like Marco Polo once did.
Join me next week when we consider the cryptic messages of an ancient metallic treasure map.
If you’re interested in more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries found in “Categories” on the side bar.