Extending over a distance of only 6,437 kilometers, the Silk Road was a powerhouse of activity connecting the East to the West. Hence, Whitefield concludes that “though much change has come to the Silk Road, its people still represent the diversity of human life and experience” (225). This essay presents a discussion on this theme exploring people’s experiences along the Silk Road.
Diversity along the Silk Road
The Silk Road had different forms of human diversity. It had rulers, nobles, merchants and the rich tradesmen, forming a complete network of business community (Whitefield 28). The area also had diverse economic activities consisting of merchants, miners, shoppers, artisans, bar and restaurant operators, singers and dancers (Whitefield 30-38).
Closely linked to economic activity was the diverse social class, which defined inhabitants of the Silk Road into merchants, commoners, artisans and the noble (Whitefield 35). Further, the Silk Road had cultural and religious diversity, presenting a rich blend of the West and the East culture.
According to Whitefield, the area had diverse groups of people speaking more than ten languages and practicing different religions, including Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism (28, 38). The area was also diverse in terms of housing with a combination of the traditional single housing units and modern story buildings.
Forces behind the Diversity
The diversity discussed above can be attributed to a number of forces. First, the burgeoning human population along the Silk Road led to the change from individual housing units to multi-storey building since there was no more space to build single houses. Second, the large and diverse population in the area provided a ready market, hence encouraging the diverse economic activities (Whitefield 28).
The merchants found a ready market for their goods while the singers and dancers got an opportunity to earn a living by entertaining the merchants. The shoppers and artisans provided people with goods and services needed on a daily basis. Third, the Silk Road served as a trading center and stopover for people from different parts of the world, including China, Arabian region and Turkey, hence the diverse culture and religion in the area (30).
Experiences along the Silk Road
People’s experiences along the Silk Road differed based on ethnicity, occupation and religion. The Arabs and Chinese had better experiences as compared to other ethnic communities since they were the rulers and the nobles. The Chinese formed the ruling class while the Arabs were powerful and influential given that they were the largest group of traders. The Arabs even used their power to convert Sogdians to Islam:
The nomadic Arab nobles were encouraged to settle in these lands and promote Islam. The rewards for conversion were not spiritual: converts were exempted from poll tax…large numbers of Sogdians converted. (Whitefield 33)
Further, the rulers, merchants and rich tradesmen had a prestigious life along the Silk Road (Whitefield 28). They had big and beautifully decorated houses and owned large tracks of farmland (Whitefield 35). Besides, they comfortably made long trade journeys since they were not only able to afford transport costs, but also had weapons to protect themselves from bandits (Whitefield 39). Contrary to them, there were the poor people whose experiences were the opposite. Pushed against the wall, some turned to criminal activities to take care of their daily needs (Whitefield 39).
Finally, the Silk Road had different religious groups and each had its own experience. For example, Muslim-Arabs had power and authority over other religions and even forced non-practicing groups to convert to Islam. While the converts enjoyed their first experience in Islam religion since they were exempted from paying taxes, this joy did not last as they were later subjected to forced circumcision leading to a lot of rebellion (Whitefield 33).
How These Experiences were shaped by Time and Space
The Sogdians’ experience was shaped by the period when Arabs were trying to not only conquer as many colonies as possible, but also convert them to Islam (33). Besides, the Sogdians’ were few and lived near the road frequented by merchants, explaining why they were easily subdued by the Arabs.
The Silk Road era was also characterized by thriving barter trade, which benefitted the Arabs and Chinese hence earning them wealth and power. Again, colonization was the trend during this period; hence the Arabs and Chinese were able to use their wealth and power to conquer the others. This was also made possible by the fact that the inhabitants of the Silk Road (Sogdians) were few, weak and poor.
Further, the Silk Road era was a time when rulers lived off the sweat of their subjects and the merchants and tradesmen thrived through long distance trade. They used falsehoods and unfair deals to oppress those who bought their goods. For example,
…profited handsomely…. During the long journey he had opened gap in several of the large bales of wool in order to allow the desert sand to seep in, thus increasing their weight. (Whitefield 29)
Besides, the natives of the Silk Road were too few and weak to fight for their rights.
Finally, the Silk Road era was also characterized by missionary work and power was drawn from the religion’s ability to convert more people, hence the Muslims’ ambition to subdue other religions along the Silk Road.
A Commentary on the Book and My Thoughts on How Life was Back Then
This book reflects the history of human diversity using the case of the Silk Road. The Silk Road was only a connection route between the West and the East, but eventually developed into a region with diverse culture, economic activity and religion. Whitefield brings out the experiences of people in a society whose diversity was also reflected in the vices such as insecurity, cheating in trade and oppression of the weak and poor.
There was no freedom of worship and the ruling class forced their subjects to convert to their religion in order to have a better life. Nevertheless, people still tried to be happy, amidst all the challenges. They found joy in the company of their loved ones and in their economic activities:
The mood in the valley was festive the shearing had been successful and everyone was glad to be going back to Chach where they could trade their wool for the many luxuries in the city’s bazaars. (41)
I think life back then was challenging. The poor had to adhere to the rules or face the issue. The rich, despite living better lives, also had challenges in conducting their businesses:
…until the residents were forced to surrender and agree to a peace treaty…. It was over 3,000 miles to Chang’an …bandits preyed on rich travelers…. They stayed for several more days in the valley to rest their animals, then made arrangements for the next leg of their journey, hiring yaks and more horses to carry the large bales of wool. (Whitefield 33; 39; 42).
Whitefield, Susan. Life along the Silk Road, Canada: University of California Press, 1999. Web.