Skip to content

Editor's Note: Connections

The traveler is described as 30 years old and “of medium build, black hair, big eyes, with moustache and beard.” The description is part of the man’s travel pass, a wooden document written in ink and authenticated by government officials. The pass details the traveler’s itinerary and, at each stop, officials count the number of people and animals in each party to confirm that the group exactly matches the description on the pass. The documents all close with the same phrase: “If their party is more than what is listed here, do not allow them to pass.” 

The traveler described in the document was making his way along the Silk Road around 641 CE. However, this sophisticated system was in place throughout the history of the Silk Road, which emerged around 130 BCE when China’s Han Dynasty officially opened commerce with the West. The Silk Road remained open until the Ottoman Empire banned trade in 1453 CE. 

According to The Silk Road: A New History by Valerie Hansen, professor of History at Yale University, the documents discovered at excavations of oasis towns along the Silk Road reveal that the main contribution of the trade routes was not commerce, but connection. The documents, some written on wood and others retrieved from burials where paper documents had been recycled into burial clothes, suggests that the Silk Road was not a single road nor was it used primarily for trading silk. “In fact, the quantity of cargo transported along these treacherous routes was small. Yet the Silk Road did actually transform cultures both East and West,” Hansen notes. 

The documents reveal the minutiae of life. Far from the grand and cosmopolitan trading centers of imagination, the small towns along the Silk Road were concerned with legal disputes over livestock and enforcing marriage contracts. The documents include medical prescriptions, receipts, regulations, inventories, and even lottery tickets. They reveal shifting attitudes of a culture in flux.  

Through the interaction of people from a variety of cultures, Hansen says, “this modest non-road became one of the most transformative super highways in human history—one that transmitted ideas, technologies, and artistic motifs, not simply trade goods.” 

The Silk Road is still a powerful symbol. China’s President Xi Jinping has launched his “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road” program, which will encourage trade via land and sea between China and Eurasia. 

One of the industries that will benefit from increased trade is security as discussed in this month’s cover story, “Insights on Asia.” 

As Western regulations on industries such as airports and data centers become crucial to economic development in Asia, security experts are working to determine what best practices can be adapted and which ones must be imagined anew.