Not coincidentally, the Silk Road flourished during the highly artistic and prosperous Tang dynasty. Chang'an, the capital, a large cosmopolitan centre, was the departure point and final destination for travellers on the Silk Road. The city in 742 was five by six miles in area and had a population of nearly two million, including over 5000 foreigners. Numerous religions were represented and the city contained the temples, churches and synagogues of Nestorian Christians, Manicheans, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews, to name but a few. Foreigners from Byzantium, Iran, Arabia, Sogdia, Mongolia, Armenia, India, Korea, Malaya and Japan lived in Chang'an. Some Tang tomb murals depict foreigners in the im perial court.


Islamic Building in Kashgar
The Maritime Silk Road
Jiaohe Ancient City Listed by UNESCO in Turpan

In addition to Western goods, religious thought and art, Chang’an received caravans from distant lands loaded with exotic treasures such as cosmetics, rare plants including saffron, medicines, perfumes, wines, spices, fragrant woods, books and woven rugs. Strange and unknown animals also arrived: peacocks, parrots, falcons, hunting dogs, lions, and a rare prize, the ostrich or ‘camel bird’.

By the end of the eighth century, the sea routes from the southern coastal city of Canton (Guangzhou) to the Middle East were well developed, while the Tibetan occupation of the Tarim Basin from 790 until around 850 AD often disrupted the overland trade routes. The art of sericulture had been mastered by the persians and Byzantines, and the heyday of the Silk Road was over. The Tang dynasty’s downfall led to political chaos and an unstable economy less able to support extravagant foreign imports. At the same time, entire communities, active oasis towns, thriving monasteries and grottoes along the Silk Road were disappearing in the space of weeks, as the glacier-fed streams ran dry or changed course. Since the end of the Ice Age, shrinking glaciers have been consistently reducing the amount of water in the Tarim Basin. Only the most fertile and well irrigated oasis towns have survived.

The fanatical spread of Islam from the Middle East was one of the most critical factors in the disappearance of the Buddhist civilizations along the Silk Road, and perhaps the most destructive element in the loss of Serindian art. Only those caves and monasteries that have been swallowed by the sands centuries before were able to survive unmutilated by the followers of Allah. Many of the Buddhist cave frescoes, silk paintings and statues had adopted the Gandharan figurative style, portraying ‘the almighty’ in human form, of which the Muslims were intolerant and even fearful. By the late 15th century, the entire Taklamakan region was thoroughly entrenched in Islam; Buddhist stupas and temples were either destroyed or left to crumble. At this time, the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) virtually shut China off from the outside world, effectively, ending the centuries-old influx of foreign ideas and culture. Islam brought a whole new mix of religion, art and architecture that today is the root of Uyghur culture in Xinjiang. The surviving remnants of an intensely artistic Buddhist civilization were to remain interned until the late 19th century, when a new generation of ‘foreign devils’ undertook archaeological excavations in the Tarim Basin.

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From Book "The Silk Road Xi'an to Kashgar"-Judy Bonavia



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