Contemporary manifestations of the Silk Road

  • 2005-03-09
  • By David M. Kalivas
The arrival, or should we say, the return, of globalization has evoked the imagery of the Silk Road. Indeed, in Latvia, Chinese Ambassador Ji Yanchi has referenced it as a metaphor that alludes to new possibilities for trade across Eurasia. Let us begin with a very basic question: What is the Silk Road? Of course, the title itself is partly descriptive. It originally focused on a specific trade route whose sole reason for existence was the transport of that very precious commodity - silk.

This familiar image of the Silk Road gives us a very neat East 's West axis that illustrates the great distances between Europe and Asia. Clearly, the historic view of the Silk Road has been a conduit for Asian, in this case Chinese, silk flowing to Europe 's the West. Of course, that is until enterprising souls in China, India, Persia, and the Byzantine (Roman) lands figured out ways to smuggle the process of raising and harvesting silk worms.

The imagery here is one side of the axis getting what it wants from the other side through long-distance trade. Regardless of specifics, rest assured, the Silk Road (was) is a trade route, a pathway, but one with many avenues moving east - west over land, and north - south over the maritime routes of ancient Indian Ocean trading networks.

The history of Eurasian trade is long indeed, for it not only had east/west dimensions, but north/south ones too. In ancient Rome, references were made to Baltic amber. The Vikings also plied their wares up the Daugava and down the Dnieper River, from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, thus connecting the north to the south.

Of course, the phrase Silk Road was not used by those who traveled it, at least not until after 1877, when the German historian/geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen coined the phrase. Richtofen's coining of the term was very imaginative. There was no single road, it was not only for silk, and it wasn't always over land, yet we readily accept and use his phrase all the time. It is certainly an exotic-sounding device for describing a vast expanse of territory with so many different histories intersecting over it, but it's also a phrase grounded in a specific historical period marked by early globalization.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of European imperialism, when most of the world was carved up or about to be carved up by one European country or another. By 1914, all of Africa 's with the exception of Ethiopia 's and most of Asia, with the exception of Japan, was either colonized or under some European sphere of influence.

Richtofen's Silk Road comes out of an imperialist age where empires were much concerned with holding onto conquered territories to exploit labor and raw materials, and enhancing political prestige in the capitals of those empires.

However, it was also an age for geographers and adventure-seekers who ventured forth to map and unearth treasures from far away, whether it was the source of the Nile in Africa, or the best way to secretly enter Tibet, or map the Central Eurasian terrain where two empires 's British and Russian 's were concerned about who was gaining more footing or influence at the court of various Central Eurasian Emirs.

This intrigue, mixed with periodic wars, came to be known as "The Great Game." Naturally, for those who fought and died in the Great Game of the last two centuries it was not a game at all, but a matter of serious and tragic consequences. The areas once traversed by explorers and imperial dreamers are once again in the forefront of a new Great Game in Central Asia, with new consequences awaiting present and future generations.

Re-emergent East Asian powers are reasserting their traditional power and seeking to engage Europe through trade that may be to the mutual benefit of both. What is clear is that a new Eurasian-wide trade is re-surfacing and poses challenges and opportunities for Eurasia and the world.

Dr. Kalivas will visit Riga from the U.S. and deliver a presentation on the Silk Road at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga on March 15 at 4 p.m. See: