The Silk Road is a misnomer for several reasons. It consisted of several roads. One was defined by two Syriac (Nestorian) missionaries (actually Industrial spies) who walked from Xian China to Constantinople in what is now modern-day Turkey. They did this in the sixth century by using a bamboo stick as a walking rod. Even this road had two routes. There was a northern and southern route that split in Central Asia and wrapped around the Tarim Basin. There were feeder roads. One in Asia minor went from Selucia Cestiphon (near Baghdad) and fed the route passing on an west to east corridor. Then there was an Afghanistan/Indian Route that fed into south China. Finally there was a sea route that came from Sri Lanka and fed Canton, Fujian, Quanzhou and other ports of China. The name Silk Road is a Euro-centric designation. China probably saw it as a spiderweb of roads that led to the center of the world.
I suggest we call this road the Horse and Butterfly road. After all, these roads and routes were pathways of commerce that carried goods and ideas back and forth between Europe and China from early Roman times. By calling this the horse and butterfly road we focus on the principle features of this road during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Silk and tea was the currency of China during the Tang Dynasty. These products were carried by horses. This is why I call it the the Horse and Butterfly Road.
The Tang Dynasty created a golden age of both economic and academic activity. Because the Horse and Butterfly Road had to be defended by a military that was clearly at a disadvantage. During the earlier Sui Dynasty managed to acquire horses that were bred not for hauling material but could carry troops. So there were two types of horse on the Horse and Butterfly Road, one for hauling, a strong Mongolian horse that could pull wagons, and a tall, fast, large horse from Central Asia for soldiers. These horses became the heroes and most important military weapon that helped to defeat Vietnam to the South, the Koreans to the North and the Turkish tribes in the West. So how did China get these horses?
When the dynasty was founded by Emperor Gaozu (618-26), the state inherited three thousand horses from its predecessor, the Sui. Through a combination of military conquest, trade and careful husbandry, by the time of the Emperor Gaozong (649-83) a mere four decades later, the state boasted no fewer than 706,000 horses, a force intended to awe and dominate the Mongol nomads of the northwest.
The best horses in the world for military use came from the Ferghana Valley (just to the north of what is now Afghanistan). To obtain them, government procurement agents, traveling with military escorts, brought caravans laden with silk (collected by the Chinese government from the peasantry, in payment of taxes on land) via the Silk Road as far as Ferghana. (The return trip was made with fodder and water for the small Chinese horses carried by camels; even so, losses of horses on the return trip were sometimes numerous.) The security provided for the silk caravans inspired private merchants to seek protection, so both state and private Silk Road trade flourished. The Chinese exported mainly silk textile bolts of material, but also medicinal herbs, carved jade, and a wide variety of luxury goods; they imported not only horses, but also glassware, raw jade, gold and silver, and luxury goods from the western regions of Eurasia.
The Tang Dynasty understood the importance of this special breed of horse. Tang Emperors knew that the security of the nation depended upon these Ferghana horses.
Ferghana is a region in modern day Turkmenistan. Recent archeological discoveries by Russian archeological teams reveal this was a Syriac (Nestorian) dominated region. Syriac/Sogdian/Persian speaking Christians raised these horses. They had a monopoly on their production and exported them to the armies of the region. It is a common practice of religious minorities to monopolize specific industries in order to improve the chances of survival. Syriac peoples tended to monopolize medicine and precious metal production. These activities used secretly held knowledge to protect their industries. It made it less likely that they would be killed. It would be damaging to a king or emperor to kill a minority that held secret knowledge vital to survival of the kingdom or empire. So too for the husbandry of horses. It is not easy to breed horses. Special techniques need to be used to stimulate the act of breeding. Secondly, an understanding of genetics, line breeding, record keeping, and careful observation is required. What emerges is a body of knowledge usually passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition. Thus, this knowledge is held in families often for hundreds of years. The Syriac (Nestorians) of the Persian empire held the secret knowledge to developing a military horse that was intelligent, strong, and had endurance to carry armies across the Central Asian Steppe.
The Tang Dynasty was also to some extent a “conquest dynasty” partly of non-Chinese descent; some of the ancestors of the ruling family of the Tang were Turks from Central Asia who knew about these Ferghana horses. Tang power extended far out into Central Asia, almost to the Pamirs, and that power was used to encourage and defend the Horse and Butterfly Road trade. Tang China was open to foreign goods and ideas to an unprecedented extent; trade brought new fashions (tight, long-sleeved jackets for women), sports (polo), music (many new instruments and new musical styles), furniture (chairs replaced floor mats), and many other innovations from Turkish and Persian cultural areas to China’s west.
For hundreds, even thousands of years to come, the enduring problem of Chinese foreign policy would be how to deal with mounted nomads on their northern frontier. Eventually, the threat from the north would encourage the Chinese to look to the corridor linking their own northwest with the grasslands of of Central Asia where the finest horses could be found and the people who had to knowledge to bred them.
Silk is produced by a special butterfly that feeds on the mulberry tree. For years I lived in the Middle East. In the courtyard of Syriac churches (Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox, Maronites, Assyrians) I would almost always see a Mulberry tree in the courtyard. It is evidence of Syriac Christians and their domination of Silk production once it came out of China. Especially in the Tur abdin region where I lived along the Turko/Iraqi border this was always the case.
Now that I am in China I have taken special interest in butterflies. Soon I will collect cocoons and study the silk which often will contain 1-3 thousand yards of silk thread per cocoon. The Chinese silkworm is actually a caterpillar of the Lepidopera family that includes both moths and butterflies. The bombyx mori was the one brought back from China by the Syriac priests and spies. This is actually not a butterfly. It is a moth but it belongs to the same biological family. In fact some butterflies produce better silk than these Chinese moths. Also these are not worms although they are called silkworms. They are caterpillars. Just like the name Silk Road, this story is full of misnomers. It does not make the task of an historian and writer very easy. Nevertheless, it provides us puzzles and possibilities and for these reasons I am here in China.
Nestorian/Syriac Christian churches, monasteries, and treasures have been found in