The Internet of the ancient world

Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World

American Museum of Natural History, New York Until 15 August 2010

The time is 8.00 p.m. in Baghdad on 14 November — 1000 AD. I discovered this with the aid of a brass astrolabe, a map of the sky with moveable parts (pictured). I peered through sight-holes to measure the altitude of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse (a twinkling bulb in a model night sky), spun the astrolabe around, rotated a dial, aligned the rule to a mark on the inner rim and read the time on the instrument's outer rim. A simple task for a Muslim astronomer at the turn of the first millennium — or if you're reading the instrument's instructions while visiting the American Museum of Natural History's enchanting exhibition, Traveling the Silk Road.


Baghdad was an important stop on a 7,400-kilometre journey along the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that, at its peak 1,000 years ago, stretched from China to the Mediterranean. The road guided merchants on foot or on camelback through scorching deserts and snow-capped mountains, where they confronted bandits, sandstorms, frostbite and hunger, among other dangers. The trek through the exhibition is much safer, but there is still plenty to do. Visitors can watch live silkworms chomping on mulberry leaves, play with interactive maps and displays, listen to an orchestra of ancient Chinese instruments and listen to familiar folk-tales carried to a global audience along the Silk Road — which was “the Internet of the ancient world”, says the museum's president Ellen Futter.

To guide their journey, visitors are equipped with a passport that they can stamp at four cities en route through the exhibition: Xi'an, the ancient capital of China, from which camel caravans set out loaded with silk for trade with the West; Turpan, an oasis city on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert in northwest China; Samarkand, a merchant city now in present-day Uzbekistan; and Baghdad, once a meeting place for scholars and known as the City of Peace. On the way, visitors grasp the great cultural and technological developments that flowed along the route: music, religion, language, numerals, medicines and innovations such as paper-making.

A two-metre-long, table-top interactive map charts these advances. Paper was invented by Chinese craftsmen in 50 BC, who mashed plant fibres such as hemp and flax with water, shaping the pulp into paper using a wooden mould. One such mould, with a screen made of woven reeds, is on display. The Chinese kept their paper-making technique a secret for centuries, but it slowly wound its way westwards. The Diamond Sutra, an ancient Buddhist text printed in 868 AD, is the oldest known dated example of a paper book and was found in a cave in Dunhuang, an oasis town that formed an interchange between China and western Asia. The first paper Koran was copied in Persia in 971 AD, and in 1150 Arabs set up the first paper mill in Al-Andalus, the Islamic territories in southern Spain.

Innovations travelled in the other direction, too. Glass-blowing was developed in the Middle East in around 100 BC, and then progressed eastwards: one beautiful, long-necked cloudy-white bottle from western Asia dating to 800–1000 AD is imprinted with pairs of graceful, curved-horned ibex. Irrigation techniques also spread along the Silk Road: artificial underground rivers called karezes, which rely on gravity to carry mountain water to distant desert fields, were first used in Persia more than 2,500 years ago and still move nearly 300 million cubic metres of water in the Turpan Basin each year.

A mock market displays luxury goods offered by traders in Turpan: items such as leopard, tiger and ermine fur; red coral and green jade; a profusion of fruit including figs, peaches, pistachios and melons — the latter transported in lead containers packed with snow — and medicines such as rhino horn, rhubarb, ginseng and bezoars, the brown pellets of undigested food extracted from the stomachs of goats and cows, purported to cure a range of ills and rid you of “perverse goblins”, according to one Chinese doctor.

A final video quiz reminds us that the globalization of trade and culture continues unabated. China, which grew wealthy on silk sales, is now the world's biggest exporter of manufactured goods. To get the best price for their catch, rural fishermen in India call ahead on mobile phones — more than four billion of which are now used worldwide. And in a 2001 speech to “celebrate Britishness”, then UK foreign secretary Robin Cook called a sauce-doused ensemble “a true British national dish”. It was chicken tikka masala.

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Glausiusz, J. The Internet of the ancient world. Nature 462, 574 (2009).

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