Archive for November, 2009

Most Famous Silk Road Travelers

All of you heard about Famous Silk Road, studing in scool or university or just reading books or watching films about. This is the name for the trade route between the Mediterranean Sea and China. For many centuries the Great Silk Road connected a complex network of trade routes from Europe with Asia. It was a way to establish contact with the great civilizations of China, India, the Near East and Europe. Trade caravans, diplomatic missions, merchants representatives of religious circles, dervishes, warriors – millions people have passed on this road through time with nothing frightening these brave travelers, neither the difficult roads, nor the waterless deserts. Those were extraordinary hardy and strong-willed people. Among them was Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who embarked on the Silk Road for trade and good fortune. He was awe-struck by all he had seen during his years of travel through the countries of East, and his journey lasted almost a quarter of a century, as he became the inquisitive researcher of unknown grounds. “This Spellbound wanderer” left his descendants a most interesting “Book” in which he tried to explain how Europeans perceived the East – a writing that has made a great impact on the development of world culture.

At the beginning of the sixth century BCE, the trade route started in Babylon, from where it passed through Opis/Ctesiphon (Baghdad) and Ecbatana (Hamadân) and modern Sâveh – the place where Marco Polo was to see the tombs of the three Magi who had visited Jesus of Nazareth. Whatever the historical value of the story of the Magi, they must have traveled along the Silk road.

-959 King Mu (Mu Wang),. West Chou king and the earliest reputed Silk Road traveller. His travel account Mu tianzi zhuan, written in the 5th-4th century BC, is the first known travel book on the Silk Road. It tells of his journey to the Tarim basin, the Pamir mountains and further into today’s Iran region, where the legendary meeting with Xiwangmu was taken place. Returned via the Southern route. The book no longer exists but is referenced in Shan Hai Zin, Leizi: Mu Wang Zhuan, and Shiji.

-138-116. Zhang Qian (Chang Ch’ien). Chinese general and envoy credited with opening the Silk Road after his mission from the Han Emperor Wudi to recruit the Yueh-chih people to form an alliance against the Xiongnu. First trip (138-125) skirted the Taklamakan desert via the northern route, passed the Pamir, then reached Ferghana. Returned via the southern route. His second trip (119-115), a mission to seek alliance with Wu-sun people, took him to Dunhuang, Loulan, Kucha, then the capital of Wu-sun kingdom in the Ili river. His missions to the west led to the formalization of trade, especially the silk trade, between China and Persia.

40-70. Anonymous author of the Periplus of the Erythraen (=Red) Sea. A merchant handbook, written apparently by an Egyptian Greek, about trade routes through the Red Sea and involving both East Africa and India. One of the most important sources for Roman Eastern trade, compiled after the discovery of how to use the monsoon winds to make the round trip to India. Includes extensive information on ports and products.

73-102. Ban Chao (Pan Ch’ao). Chinese general restoring the Tarim basin under Han’s power and maintaining whole control of the area as west as Kashgar during his career there. He sent out emissaries to the area west and beyond the Tarim basin, including the area of modern-day Iran and the Persian Gulf.

97 Gan Ying (Kan Ying). First Chinese envoy to Ta-Ts’in (the Roman Orient) sent by general Ban Chao from Kashgaria in 97 AD. Journeyed through the Pamir mountains, Parthia, and reached as far as the the coast of the Persian Gulf. However he was dissuaded from continuing further west. The first known Chinese visited the Middle East as west as T’iao-chih, near the present Nedjef, Iraq.

399-413. Faxian (Fa-hsien). First Chinese monk reaching Indian and returning with a knowledge of Buddhism. Traveled the southern route through Shenshen, Dunhuang, Khotan, and then over the Himalayas, to Gandhara, Peshawur then India. He journeyed most of the way on foot and was the first known traveler passing through the Taklamakan desert from Woo-e to Khoten. Returned to China via the sea route.

518-521 Song Yun (Sung Yun)/Huisheng. Sung Yun of Dunhuang went with a monk Huisheng on a mission sent by the Empress Dowager to obtain the Buddhist scriptures in India in 518. Travled through the Taklamakan desert via the southern route passing Shanshan, Charkhlik, Khotan, then further west into the Hindu Kush, Kabul, Peshawar. The most interesting account is their visit to the Ephthalites (the White Hun) kingdom, who centered in eastern Afghanistan and controlled much of the Central Asia during the 5th and 6th centuries. Both wrote a travel account but none remained.

629-645. Xuan Zang (Hsuan-tsang). Chinese Buddhist monk and translator traveling across the Tarim basin via the northern route, Turfan, Kucha, Tashkent, Samarkand, Bactria, then over the Kindu Kush to India. Returned via the southern route. He spent his remaining life translating sutras into Chinese. .His travel and story became fantastic legends which were used in plays and novels, such as Wu Ch’eng-en’s famous novel in the 16th century, Journey to the West.

713-741. Hwi Chao. Korean monk but grew up in China. Traveled to India via sea route (route unclear). Lived there for several years and visited various Buddhist kingdoms in India, Persia and Afghanistan. On the returning journey, traveled to Kashmir, Kabul, passed the Pamirs and entered Xinjiang from Tashkurgan, then skirted around the Taklamakan desert from the northern towns, Kucha, Turfan and Hami. His account Wang wou t’ien tchou kquo tch’ouan or The Record to Five Indian Kingdoms provided vaulable information on the Islamic and Buddhist distribution among the Central Asian kingdoms during the 8th century. His book had been lost since Tang dynasty until an incomplete copy (14 pages, ~6000 words) was miraculously discovered by the French explorer, Paul Pelliot at Dunhuang cave in 1908.

751 – 762 Du Hwai. Chinese soldier defeated and prisoned by the Arab at the famous battle of Talas in 751. Stayed in the prison camp for ten long years and traveled to Tashkent, Samarkand, passed northern Iran to Iraq, west into Syria. On the Perisan Gulf, he boarded a foreign ship, returned to Canton via Indian Ocean and South China Sea. His book is a personal account of Talas battle and his prison life in Central Asia.

750-789 Wukong (Wu-K’ung). Chinese monk went as a delegation with the ambassador from Samarkand who was returning home. He fell ill there and could not return with his countrymen. On his recovery he became a monk and lived in Gandhara and Kashmir, not returning to China until 790.

821. Tamim ibn Bahr. According to Minorsky, “the only Muslim traveller who has left a record of his visit to the Uyghur capital on the Orkhon, i.e., to Khara-balghasun in the present-day Mongolia.” The author likely was from Khorasan and was sent to the East in connection with political upheavals in Transoxiana. Only an abridged version of his narrative survives, known especially from Yaqut’s geographical dictionary.

921-922. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.Sent as ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph to the ruler of the Bulgars on the middle Volga River. The route went from Baghdad via the territories of the Samanid state and its capital Bukhara, through Khwarezm and north of the Caspian Sea. Although the account we have is not the original report, it has great value, since Ibn Fadlan “possessed extraordinary powers of observation.” (Canard). The account is often best known for its rather lurid but valuable description of a Viking (Rus) funeral on the Volga; this served as the inspiration for a best-seller by the novelist Michael Crichton, Eaters of the Dead.

1219-1225. Yeh-lь Ch’u-ts’ai. Great Kitan statesman and poet who became advisor to Genghis Khan and his successors. Traveled with Genghis Khan and his army to Central Asia in 1219. Journeyed to Altai, Ili valley, Talas, Samarkand, Buhara. His impression on the prosperous Buhara can be read on some of his poems. Returned via Tienshan, Urumqi, Turfan, and Hami. His travel book Xi Yue Lu (The Travel Record to the West) is only available in Chinese.

1245-1247, 1249-1251. Andrew of Longjumeau. A Dominican and papal envoy to the Mongols, traveled from the Holy Land to vicinity of Tabriz (N. Iran) on his first trip. On the second, accompanied by several others including his brother William, went much farther (his route is not well documented) to the inner Asian dominions of the Mongols, where he arrived during the regency of Oghul Qaimish, the widow of Khan Gьyьg. We know of his journeys from summaries in Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora.

1220-1221. Wu-ku-sun Chung tuan.Accompanied by An T’ing chen, sent as ambassador of the Jin emperor to Chingis Khan, whom he found apparently in the Hindukush mountains (today’s Afghanistan), not “the North.” The Pei shi ki (Notes on an Embassy to the North) is a written version of his oral report copied in the Chi pu tsu chai ts’ung shu. Bretschneider indicates the “narrative is of little importance.”

1221-1224. K’iu Ch’ang Ch’un and Li chi ch’ang. An eminent Taoist monk born in 1148 CE and thus elderly at the time of his trip, Ch’ang Ch’un was ordered by Chingis Khan to travel to his court. The route went through the Altai and Tienshan mountains, the southern parts of today’s Kazakhstan, through Kyrgyzstan, to Samarkand and then down into NE Iran and Afghanistan. He was accompanied by Li Chi ch’ang, who wrote the Hsi Yu Chi, a rather detailed diary of the journey; it was published with an introduction by Sun si in 1228 and included in the Tao tsang tsi yao. Bretschneider feels that this account “occupies a higher place than many reports of our European mediaeval tavellers.”

1245-1248. Ascelinus and Simon of San Quentin. Dominican envoys of the Pope to the Mongols, who went from the Levant into the southern Caucasus and returned (accompanied by Mongol envoys) via Tabriz, Mosul, Allepo, Antioch and Acre. There is information about the embassy in Matthew Paris’s chronicle as well as in an account written by Simon of San Quentin, which has not been translated into English.

1245-1247. John of Plano Carpini (Pian del Carpine) and Benedict the Pole. Franciscan monks sent as envoys of Pope Innocent IV to the Mongol Khan. Traveled through the dominions of Khan Batu (ruler of the “Golden Horde”) to the vicinity of Karakorum, where they witnessed the proclamation of Gьyьg as the new Great Khan. Where he is discussing that which he actually saw, Friar John’s account (“History of the Mongols”/Historia Mongalorum) is “the first direct authentic description of Asia” (Olschki) and one of the most perceptive and detailed accounts we have of the Mongols in the thirteenth century. Considering his European Christian perspective, it is surprisingly unbiased. It became quite widely known in Europe through excerpts in an encyclopedia compiled by Vincent of Beauvais, the Speculum Historiale.

1253-1255. William (Guillaume/Willem) of Rubruck (Ruysbroeck). Franciscan missionary from Flanders who traveled through the Black Sea and the territories of the Golden Horde to the court of the Great Khan Mцngke at Karakorum. His account (Itinerarium) is “a mine of varied information about the Asiatic life of his times” (Olschki). It contains “the fullest and most authentic information on the Mongol Empire in its pre-Chinese phase” (Dawson); it is of interest for descriptions of encounters with Nestorian Christians, of Karakorum itself and the palace which is no longer extant, and much more. Although his experiences interested his contemporary Roger Bacon, Rubruck’s account did not become widely known until it was translated and published late in the sixteenth century.

1254-1255. Hayton I (also, Hethum, Haithon) and Kirakos Gandsaketsi. King of Little Armenia, Hayton traveled through the Caucasus and territories of Khan Batu to the Great Khan Mцngke in Karakorum and then back via Samarkand, Bukhara and Tabriz. The account of his travels was written down by Kirakos, who accompanied Hayton. This account is not to be confused with a descriptive narrative of the Near East written by Hayton’s nephew of the same name.

1259-1260. Ch’ang Te.Envoy from Mongol Khan Mцngke to his brother Hьlegь soon after the latter’s conquest of the Abbasid Chaliphate. Ch’ang Te’s Si Shi Ki, recorded by Liu Yu, is part travel diary and part a second-hand account of Hьlegь’s campaigns in the West. Its geographical information is inferior to that of Ch’ang Ch’un.

1260-1263. Yeh-lь Hi Liang. Great-grandson of Yeh-lь Ch’u-ts’ai, who, with his father, worked for Mцngke Khan and then Qubilai. His biography in the Yьan-shi relates his travels in Inner Asia in the period of the Mongol civil war prior to Qubilai’s consolidation of power.

1260-1269, 1271-1295. Niccolт and Maffeo Polo. The merchant father and uncle of Marco Polo traveled from the Crimea through the other territories of the Golden Horde to Bukhara and ultimately to the court of Qubilai Khan in North China. Qubilai sent them back to Europe on a mission to the Pope via the overland route; they arrived in Venice in 1269. When they departed again for China in 1271 via the Levant, Anatolia and Persia, they were accompanied by young Marco. Our knowledge of their travel is from Marco’s book.

1271-1295. Marco Polo. The most famous of the Silk Road travelers, who, by his own account, worked for Qubilai Khan. He traveled overland through Persia across the Pamirs and south of the Taklamakan; his return was by sea from China around south Asia to Hormuz, whence he went overland to the Mediterranean. A Venetian, Marco dictated his account to a professional writer of romances while imprisoned by the Genoese on his return. It is important to remember he was not keeping a diary. Olschki calls it “not…a book of travel and adventure, but a treatise of empirical geography.” Clearly some of the descriptions are formulaic, others not based on direct observation, and others reflecting the common stock of travel mythology. Many of his observations are precise and verifiable; others unique but likely accurate. Since his main associations seem to have been with the Mongol rulers of China and with the Muslim merchant community, often he is silent about “obvious” features of Chinese society. Polo’s book became well known in Renaissance Europe and served as a stimulus to further travel and discovery.

1275-1279. 1287-1288. Rabban Bar Sauma and Markos. Цnggьd (Turkic) Nestorian monks who traveled from Tai-tu, Qubilai Khan’s northern capital, to the Middle East, via the southern branch of the Silk Road (through Khotan and Kashgar). Although on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (which they never reached), they seem to have had official sponsorship from the Khan. Once in the Mongol Ilkhanid realms, they became involved in Nestorian church politics, and Markos eventually was elected head of the church as Patriarch Mar Yaballaha III. Bar Sauma was sent to the West as an emissary of the Ilkhanid ruler Arghun in 1287, with the goal of concluding an alliance against the Mamluks. Bar Sauma’s writings were preserved in an abridged translation into Syriac, from which there are several translations into modern languages. As Rossabi notes, “His narrative remains the only one of its era to provide an East Asian perspective on European ways and rites,” even though it is somewhat disappointing in detail about life in the places through which he traveled. Like their contemporary, Marco Polo, the travelers are not mentioned in any Chinese sources.

By the 13th century, of all the countries on the Great Silk Road, the most extensive and powerful country was the Mongolian empire, which spread across Northern China, Eastern and Western Turkistan (Central Asia), Iran, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe. The khans controlled the markets which sold jewelry, fabrics, furs, and various items of luxury. These markets attracted, firstly, Asian tradesmen, and later merchants from Western Europe.

In 1260, two Venetian merchants – Nikkolo and Maffeo (the father and uncle of Marco Polo) left for the East taking the “northern way”. This caravan journey lasted for a whole year, and finished in the residence of great Kublai Khan. From Marco Polo’s “Book” is is known that his father and uncle made a successful trade agreement during this first year of travel and when returning to China after two years, the brothers decided to take seventeen year old Marco with them. They had no idea that this decision would be such a historically significant decision.

Marco Polo’s journey with his father and uncle in China, bearing a message to the great Kublai Khan from the Head of the Catholic Church, Father Gregory X, began in 1271. Their route passed through modern Akka (Israel) to the Persian Gulf, then to the north through Iran to Amu Darya, and on to Oksus (Aral sea) through the Pamir mountains to modern Sinkian (an Uigur area) and then finally through the Gobi Desert to Shangtu.

The Venetians were greeted with great honor and soon appeared in the presence of the great Khan. Young Marco was especially liked by Kublai Khan who gave him authority as his personal envoy. Using this authority Marco Polo traveled to the provinces of China, carrying out numerous, mainly diplomatic assignments. These trips, coupled with his natural curiosity and extraordinary memory, allowed Marco to get acquainted with the lifestyles of the people of this mysterious country, and subsequently, to document a unique and descriptive story about his findings and impressions. It is known that he went overland from Bukhara to China. In one of the versions of his “Book” he describes his visit to Samarkand.

The Venetians stayed for 17 years in the service of Kublai Khan. Most of their return journey was done by sea around the coast of South-East Asia, Hindustan, visiting many seaports on the way. They arrived in Venice in 1295, completing the greatest journey of that time both distance wise and time wise.

The merit of Marco Polo exists in his work, which was originally referred to a “Book about the variety of the world” in which he describes various Asian countries, cities and regions, along with life and customs of their inhabitants, the court of the great Khan of the Mongols and Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan. This book is especially valuable not only as a great reference work, but also because of the personal input of the author – the first European to have crossed all of Central Asia. It contains interesting personal accounts of his travels as well as information about his father and uncle. The “Book” was originally written in French, and then translated into many other European languages. It has become one of the most famous literary compositions of the 13th century, and has influenced the development of culture in Western Europe – the only piece of writing of its kind. It is said that Christopher Columbus studied the “Book” before leaving for his historical journey to the coasts of the New World. The famous traveler, Vambery (19th century) also refers to this book in terms of Iran, Afghanistan, and India.

Marco Polo’s book was known in Italy as the “Book Million about miracles of the world”, or simple “Million”. The origin of this name is such: when he returned from his travels and spole of the luxury of the court of the great Khan, Marco Polo frequently mentioned that the daily income of the Khan was estimated between ten and fifteen million in by gold. Or perhaps he got this nickname because of the considerable riches he returned home with.

The diversity of the interests of Marco Polo is amazing. The nature, climate, state protocol, trade, architecture, religions, traditions and customs, magnificent palaces of the rulers, the disposition of the courtiers, the eastern bazaars, national cuisine, legends and stories is all addressed and explained in his book. Marco Polo begins his description of Asia from Armenia, writing about areas of present Persia and part of Turkey, and on to the Central Asia. He includes interesting information about Mongolia, China, Japan and India. In his description of the northern areas of Persia (Khorasan), verging now on the borders of the Caspian, he emphasizes the difficulties, the traps the traveler experiences in the desert: lack of water, heat and vicious sand.

He remarks on excellent pastures in the valleys of the Pamir Mountains and the variety of animals. The valley passes through gorge below, which becomes steeper and steeper with a treacherous mountain pass as the only way of getting through. One side of the mountain feeds the Amu Darya River and other side feeds the River Ind. The snow collects in the winter, and during the summer the waters flow down from here to Central Asia. He describes many animals in detail including mountain goats, which in 1960 would be named by the famous zoologist, Severtsev Ovis Polii, as the “rams of Polo”.

Balashan, according to Marco Polo, is an extensive state, controlled by a line of kings, all of them from Alexander and the daughter of Darius, the Persian king, calling themselves “Zulkarnein”, i.e. Alexander. This land is rich in jewels – balas (rubies). They can be found in the high mountains, but only in Sikinan. The country described by Marco Polo – present day Badahshan, a province of Afghanistan, and Sikinan – Shugnan of Pamir, is where the ruby mines are.

The travelers also passed through the Kashmir valley where Marco Polo did not forget to include the legend about the local inhabitants who were engaged in witchcraft and black magic – forced to speak to idols, and able to change the weather and other natural forces. He remarked in his “Book” that even Kashmiri women are black, but beautiful: “Kashmiri women were glorified by their beauty far from India”.

Many pages of the “Book” are devoted to the description of areas of Central Asia, the modern territory of Uzbekistan. He describes Samarkand as a noble and great city, where there are many of gardens with fruits in abundance. Muslims and Christians live side-by-side and they are religiously tolerant to each other. Polo left Samarkand for Karkan, a place where people were skilled in art and needlework. He could have been referring to Fergana under Karkan.

Marco Polo’s father and uncle were the first Europeans to have seen Bukhara. The city seemed perfect to them. It was surrounded by high towers among which shone light-blue domes, glowing under the sun. The walls of the mosques were beautifully decorated with colorful mosaic. Bukhara was one of the busiest trading centers of silk, porcelain, ivory, spices, metal ware, and everything else that was made with the greatest artistry and precision.

Marco Polo revealed much to the Europeans about life in the Far East. But shortly before his death in 1324, the great traveler admitted that he didn’t even write about half of what he saw.

Centuries have passed since the travels of Marco Polo and the creation of his remarkable “Book” but people will never forget his humanistic feat. In 1994 the World Tourist Organization, together with UNESCO, carried out an international seminar in Tashkent called “The Great Silk Road”. The Samarkand declaration was accepted where Uzbekistan was officially named the center of the project to bring the Great Silk Road back to life as a major channel for cooperation between the states through which this famous route passed. The participants of this conference remembered the name of Marco Polo with respect and gratitude and he was named the first tourist to pass through the Silk Road. Probably, this brave Venetian man would be proud of this title, because the noble purpose of tourism is to educate, fascinate, and draw the hearts of the people.

1279-1328. John of Monte Corvino. Franciscan missionary, active in Armenia and Persia, and then in India and China. He left Tabriz for India in 1291 and arrived in Beijing probably after the death of Qubilai Khan in 1294. He was elevated to the rank of Archbishop in ca. 1307 and continued to head the Catholic mission there until his death. Although he did not write a travel narrative, several of his letters have been preserved.

ca. 1316-1330. Odoric of Pordenone. Franciscan monk who traveled via Constantinople and the Black Sea to Persia, and then via the Indian Ocean to India in the early 1320s. From there he sailed around southeast Asia to the east coast of China and spent several years in Beijing. His claim to have returned via Tibet is dubious, although he apparently traveled overland, arriving back in Venice via the Black Sea and Constantinople. His lengthy travel account, which he dictated in 1330, became a “best seller,” in part because of Odoric’s indiscriminate mixture of tall tales with more authentic information. He occasionally notes aspects of Chinese culture that were ignored by Marco Polo, “with whose account he was certainly familiar” (de Rachewiltz). Important portions of his material were re-worked and given a further fictional gloss by the author of the very popular late medieval travel fable attributed to John Mandeville.

1325-1354. Ibn Battuta. A native of Tangier (Morocco), Shams al-Din Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Battuta (1304-1368/9 or 1377) is famous for spending the years between 1325 and 1354, when he returned home, traveling across North Africa and through much of Eurasia, all the way to China. His initial goal was to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca (the hajj); his interest in Muslim holy men and places dominates portions of his text. While he may have kept notes, the account as we have it is “a work of literature, part autobiography and part descriptive compendium” (Dunn). It was dictated to Ibn Djuzayy between 1354 and 1357. Some sections clearly do not contain eye-witness material; chronology is often confused. There are critical views of the value of his material on Iran and questions about how much he saw in China. Among the most valuable sections are his descriptions of Anatolia, the territories and customs of the Golden Horde, and Southern India.

1339-1353. John of Marignolli. Franciscan sent as papal legate to Yьan (Mongol) Emperor of China. Entered the lands of the Golden Horde via the Black Sea. His route probably ran through Urgench (S. of Aral Sea), via Hami (north of the Taklamakan) to Beijing and Shang-tu, where he was received in August 1342. After three years, headed home via ship to Hormuz and then overland to the Levant. Included his travel recollections in his chronicle of the history of Bohemia; his account was ignored until the nineteenth century.

1340. Francesco Balducci Pegolotti. A Florentine merchant, Pegolotti was active in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second quarter of the fourteenth century, at which time he acquired first- and second-hand information on the Asian trade. While he himself never travelled further east, his account is of particular interest for its description of the relative security of trade routes through the territories of the Mongol Empire and the great variety of products available in commercial centers such as Constantinople by about 1340. His merchant handbook survived in a copy made in 1471.

1403-1406. Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo and Alfonso Paez. Ambassadors of Spanish King Henry III of Castile and Leon to Timur (Tamerlane). A third envoy, Gуmez de Salazar, died en route. Traveled through the Mediterranean to Constantinople, into the Black Sea to Trebizond and then overland via Tabriz to Balkh, Kesh (Shahr-i Sabs) and Samarkand. On return journey, they passed through Bukhara. Clavijo’s account, written soon after his return in 1406, is a very important source for travel on the western part of the Silk Road. Its description of Tamerlane’s Samarkand is one of the fullest available and includes substantial detail on economic life, trade with India and China, and Timurid buildings.

1413-1415, 1421-1422, 1431-1433. Ma Huan. Muslim interpreter who accompanied the famous Ming admiral Ch’eng Ho (Zheng He) on his fourth, sixth and seventh expeditions to the Indian Ocean. His Ying-yai sheng-lan (Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) (published in 1451) contains valuable information on geography, products and trade in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. On the first two voyages, he went as far as Hormuz; on the third he apparently reached Mecca.

1419-1422. Ghiyathuddin Naqqash. Artist representing Prince Mirza Baysunghur, son of Timurid ruler Shahrukh, in embassy sent by latter to Beijing in 1419. Describes travel via route north of Tarim Basin (through Turfan, Jiayuguan, Suzhou to Beijing and back via Kashgar to Herat), various aspects of culture along way, including Buddhism, and reception at Ming court.

1435-1439. Pero Tafur. A native and notable of Cordoba, born ca. 1410, Tafur traveled from Spain to the Eastern Mediterranean and back. While not a merchant, he was very interested in commercial affairs and well connected with the trading networks. He was in Egypt, the Black Sea region and in the sad remains of the dying Constantinople; while he thought about going to India, the closest he came was a conversation with the famous traveler Nicolo di Conti, whom he met on the latter’s return journey from South Asia.

1436-1452, 1473-1479. Giosofat Barbaro.A merchant who spent a decade and a half in the Venetian colony of Tana at the mouth of the Don River and then in the 1470s traveled as an ambassador to Persia. In his “Journey to Tana” he describes the regions adjoining the Black Sea as well as distant Muscovy, which he never visited; his “Journey to Persia” follows closely his official report on his mission. The latter, at least, incorporates information from other travelers and presumably was influened by the author’s having seen the Persian travels of Contrarini.

1466-1472. Afanasii Nikitin. A merchant from the Russian city of Tver on the upper Volga River who traveled through Persia to India and spent more than 18 months there. He died just before reaching home. The largest part of his travel account describes India; the account is of some interest for his advice to fellow Christian merchants to leave their faith at home and profess Islam if they wished to prosper on the Silk Road. There is a 1958 Russian film based on his journey; a Soviet oceanographic expedition named a newly discovered undersea mount off the southern coast of India for Nikitin.

1474-1477. Ambrogio Contarini.Venetian ambassador to Persia, who traveled through Central Europe, Ukraine, the Crimea and the Caucasus. In Persia he spent time in Tabriz and Isfahan, and returned home via Muscovy and Poland. Although he traveled rapidly, he was a good observer. Apart from what he relates about conditions in the Caucasus and Persia under Uzun Hasan, his narrative is of considerable interest for its material on Moscow in the important reign of Grand Prince Ivan III.

1490s-1530. Babur. The great-great-great-grandson of Timur (Tamerlane), Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur (1483-1530) wrote a stunning memoir of his early life and struggles in Central Asia and Afghanistan before finally settling in northern India and founding the Mughal Empire. His Baburnama offers a highly educated Central Asian Muslim’s observations of the world in which he moved. There is much on the political and military struggles of his time but also extensive descriptive sections on the physical and human geography, the flora and fauna, nomads in their pastures and urban environments enriched by the architecture, music and Persian and Turkic literature patronized by the Timurids. His most recent translator declares, “said to ‘rank with the Confessions of St. Augustine and Rousseau, and the memoirs of Gibbon and Newton,’ Babur’s memoirs are the first–and until relatively recent times, the only–true autobiography in Islamic literature.”

1557-1560, 1561-1564, 1566-1567, 1571-1572. Anthony Jenkinson. Representing the English Muscovy Company and accompanied by Richard and Robert Johnson, traveled via the White Sea and Moscow, down the Volga River and across the Caspian Sea to Bukhara and then back by the same route in 1557-60. In 1561-1564, via the same route to the Caspian, he went to Persia to try negotiating trade agreements; spent the winter in Kazvin discussing the spice trade with Indian merchants. Jenkinson’s subsequent trips did not take him beyond Moscow. Beginning in 1546, well prior to his Russia service, Jenkinson had traveled widely in the Mediterranean and the Levant.

1579, 1580-1582, 1583-1584. John Newbery.A London merchant, Newbery undertook three trips. The first went only as far as the Levant. The second took him from the Levant through Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf and Hormuz and then back through central Persia, the southern fringe of the Caucasus, Anatolia, and Eastern Europe. On the third he was accompanied by Ralph Fitch (see separate entry), John Eldred (who stopped short of the Persian Gulf), William Leeds and James Story all the way to the Mughal court in India. Newbery died on the route home. He was the first Englishman to visit several of these regions. Unfortunately, he never wrote much about his travels–notes on the first and especially the second trip were apparently worked into a narrative by Purchas in the 17th century; the third trip is known from some letters, Fitch’s account, and Linschoten.

1583-1591. Ralph Fitch.English merchant (d. 1611) who traveled with John Newbery (s. v.) via the Levant and Mesopotamia to India, through northern India and on as far as Malacca (in Malaysia) before returning home via the Persian Gulf, to discover in London that he was presumed dead and his property had been divided among his heirs. He later returned to Aleppo. He apparently did not keep a diary; in writing down his account, in part with the encouragement of Hakluyt, he drew upon the travel account by the Italian Cesare Federici. The Indian section of Fitch’s account is “disappointingly meagre and haphazard”; clearly he must have known a lot more than made its way into writing. Since, unlike Newbery, he survived to tell the tale, he often is given the greater prominence of the two.

1602-1607. Benedict Goлs. In 1594 the Portuguese Jesuit Benedict Goлs joined a mission to the Mughal Emperor Akbar, where he was chosen by the Jesuit leadership (partly because of his knowledge of Persian) to travel on an exploratory mission to China via Kashgar. He died before reaching Beijing; what survived of his notes and letters and some oral accounts were later (1615) combined by the famous Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci into his travel journal. Despite some inconsistencies and problems in dating, the account is a unique record by a European of travel on the overland trade routes in inner Asia at the beginning of the seventeenth century. One is struck by the route itself– heading northwest into Afghanistan before going north across the Hindu Kush to the headwaters of the Amu Darya, then east to Sarikol and on to Yarkand and Kashgar before skirting the Taklamakan on the north. The account details human and natural threats to travel and other aspects of the inner Asian trade, and provides some valuable information on the political divisions of the time.

1615-1616. Richard Steele and John Crowther. Agents for the British East India Company, traveled from Agra, the Mughal capital in N. India, overland via Kandahar to the Safavid capital Isfahan. Their account highlights the continuing importance of the overland trade routes, in part as a way of avoiding the Portuguese control of the Indian Ocean ports. There is interesting information on the role of the Afghan nomads along the route and an emphasis on the relative safety of travel in the period of Mughal and Safavid strength and stability. Steele then returned to England by traveling overland to the Mediterranean and taking a boat via Marseilles; Crowther returned to India.

1629-1675. Jean Baptiste Tavernier. French merchant/jeweler who probably knew the overland trade routes through Persia better than any other European in the seventeenth century. His six voyages took him to the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Persia and Mughal India; his interactions with the merchant communities (notably the Armenians in Persia) gave him an insider’s perspective. His account reflects the editing of a professional writer but is precise and detailed.

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