The Silk Road at the The Corning Museum of Glass

I love glass and glassmaking. Glass is fire and imagination combined. Long have I loved watching craftsmen at historical sites blow air into a molten mass to form a useful bowl or bottle, or see the artisans of Murano twist and sculpt it into a decorative statue. When I was a child, I played with prisms and suncatchers – throwing rainbows around my room. Years later, I am still in awe of how three opaque substances: sand, soda ash, and limestone are combined at very high heat to form the brilliant rigid-liquid we call glass.

Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE
Glass Seal for White Cumin Order, 754-775 ACE

After my trip to Ithaca I drove over to Corning, New York and spent a several hours in the Museum of Glass. I could have spent a week. While touring the Origins of Glassmaking and the Ancient Glassmaking galleries, I found a few glass mementos from the Silk Road. There were pieces there from the dawn of glassmaking: a glass pendant from ancient Mesopotamia dated to 1450 BCE, along with slightly younger core-formed cosmetic bottles and vases from Egypt. The collection is stunning, but the pieces that caught my eye were two small seals made in Egypt in the 8th Century ACE that were used in the spice trade along the Silk Road. They are glass seals – of no more than 4 to 6 centimeters a piece – for orders of cumin stamped with with Arabic script to denote the owner of the shipment and the quantity ordered.

The inscription on the first translucent, dark-green glass seal reads: “Ordered [by] the Servant of Allāh, Abdullāh, the Commander of the Believers, a full measure of white cumin.”

The second seal has a bit more of the lip and body attached, is made of slightly lighter green glass, and is a seal for a shipment of black cumin. The inscription on this one is more generic and simply reads: “A measure of black cumin.”

Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE
Seal for Black Cumin Order, 700-825 ACE

It is unclear whether this would have been true black cumin (kala jeera) from the Himalaya or Central Asia (Bunium bulbocastanum) or Nigella sativa used to give a pungent onion flavor to dishes (kalonji). Misuse of the name black cumin to denote nigella persists to the present day, so it is impossible to know.

Despite the confusion in spice names, these two glorious little glass seals have survived more than 1200 years to give us a glimpse of how at least some spices were packaged for shipment. Since the glass originated in Egypt, it is tempting to assume that the orders either originated in a large emporium in Alexandria, or were at least shipped through there from their points of origin. The Abbasids used Alexandria as a major center for trade with India and China, so this is not just simple conjecture. Based on large chunks of green glass found in medieval spice shipments (like those in the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology), the spice vessels themselves may have been made from the same green glass as the seals.

Wrapped in burlap or cloth and packed tightly in the hold of a ship or dhow, these spices and their glass seals traveled hundreds or thousands of miles across the known world from origin to end-point. How far people were willing to go for flavor, and how much they were willing to pay for it a millenium ago.

And how much we take for granted today.

Likewise it is with glassware itself. Take another sip from that glass and consider the millions of microscopic sea creatures (foraminifera) from the sand that have been melted together to form that machine-made vessel in your hand. The calcium carbonate of their bodies has been combined with ash and limestone and remade into the glass. Less art perhaps than the seals or the early pendants and vessels in the Corning museum, but still no less of a miracle. (Words by Laura Kelley: Photos of Islamic Glass seals by Laura Kelley; Photo of Foraminifera from Wikimedia.)


Silk Money from the Silk Road

Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C. ACE
Silk Currency Bolts, 4th C, ACE
From cowrie shells; and iron, copper and silver coins; to various kinds of paper, many different materials have been used by merchants and customers as credit or legal tender. Bolts of silk measuring roughly 22 inches wide and 41 feet long were also used as a form of currency by the Chinese, especially in foreign trade or as gifts to foreign lands. The silk used as currency was of lower quality than that used for luxury goods or tribute. Generally it was a plain basketweave (one thread above, one below) and both undyed and undecorated, as in this photograph of a silk bolt used as payment for the expenses of soldiers at a garrison in Loulan (Korla) in the 3rd or 4th Century ACE.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century, that people actually began to print money on small pieces of silk and use them as banknotes. This use of silk money was usually a temporary thing, fueled by a local or regional government’s need to raise money quickly, or by a shortage in paper, or both.

In 1918, Khorezm (now in far western Uzbekistan) was seized by Junaeed Kurban Mamed when he invaded Khiva. Mamed executed the legitimate ruler Asfandiyar, set Asfandiyar’s younger brother, Seyeed Abdulla, up to rule in his place. This invasion and coup threw the economy of the state into chaos, and the new government started printing banknotes to raise money. Lacking sufficient paper resources, they started to print and circulate currency on small pieces of silk.

Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ
Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ

Unlike the presses used to print paper money, the designs and official seals on the silk currency were applied by hand with wooden (probably elm) stamps, with separate stamps used for each color. The dyes used were traditional and derived from local plants and fruits with oak-apple (dark brown to black), pistachio leaves (green), madder root (red), and the Japanese pagoda tree flowers (cream to yellow).

The notes were printed with Arabic, Uzbek, and Russian text. The notes were issued in 200, 250, 500, 1000, and 2500 tanga denominations. At the time of issue, the value of 5 tanga was approximately equal to one Russian ruble, so the 250 tanga note was valued at 50 Russian rubles.

April 1920, on the territory of the Khiva khanate the Khorezm People’s Soviet Republic (KPSR) was established, and more silk money was printed. In 1923 an even exchange of the silk banknotes and soviet currency was established. Despite this, many people held on to the silk banknotes and up until the 1950s and 1960s homemade quilts and suzani in the Khiva region could be found incorporating codeine online.

A little Silk Road History for a warm January day. . .

(Words by Laura Kelley. Photo of Silk Currency Bolts from the British Museum (Collection Image AN00009/AN00009325_002_l.jpg); Photo of Silk Money, Khorezm, UZ by Laura Kelley.)

Venice and the Silk Road: Lace

Burano – Lace Maker

Long ago a Venetian seafarer brought his beloved a gift of seaweed from the far, distant seas. She wanted to preserve the memento forever, so she painstakingly copied the delicate outline and patterns using her needle and thread. . .

So goes the legend of how lacemaking began in Venice and its surrounding islands, now renown for the art. Once, Venice and Burano Island were the lacemaking capitals of Europe. Other than its lacemaking, Burano Island is known as a fishing community. It is easy to see how the women of Burano – accustomed to sewing and repairing fishing nets – could take to the fine art of lace. Together, Venice and Burano filled orders for coronation robes and papal vestments as well as personal adornments for aristocrats and wealthy merchants across the continent. Once, large workshops of women worked long days and nights like armies of spiders to create their diaphanous web-like creations. Today, sadly, handmade needle-lace is a dying artform. A few, often older women, sit stooped in their chairs with a pillow on their laps working on intricate borders and sewn ornaments.

Like most legends, the fisherman’s gift of seaweed to his paramour has a kernel of truth in it, but that kernel has been embellished with a dash of romanticism and a splash of whimsy. The kernel of truth is that lacemaking came to Venice from across the Mediterranean Sea – from Cyprus. The missing bit is that the origin of lacemaking can be traced to more than two millennia earlier in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty.

Mummy Cloth

The earliest (and simplest) precursor of lace can be found in Egyptian mummy cloths. There sheet-like garments were used to wrap the dead in preparation for their journey to the afterlife and were usually made of finely woven linen decorated with fringes. Some mummy cloths had drawn thread work on them in which warp threads had been removed and embellishments added in the holes left by the missing threads.

Herodotus tells us that Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt (570 BC – 526 BC) sent finely woven linen to the Spartans, which, was made of no less than 360 threads (iii. 47); the figures woven on this cloth (drawn-thread or open work) were partly of linen and partly of gold thread. Herodotus also mentions a wonderful pallium sent by the same king to the shrine of Athene at Lindus. Amasis is also important in the lacemaking story for incorporating Cyprus into his kingdom.

By the Greco-Roman period, beginning in the 4th Century BCE, intricate selvedge borders routinely decorated the edges of mummy cloths and sometimes, complex beadworking decorated the hems of the cloths. It is easy to see how the patterning of the beads could be translated to stitch patterns for later lace borders.

Mummy-Cloth Beadwork

Flash forward a thousand years and the Arabs are producing woven macramé. It is difficult to determine Cypriot Lefkara lace is a direct descendant of Egyptian drawn and open work or whether the Arab macramé tradition was an important influence on that development.


Either way, Venice begins its control of Cyprus as early as the late 12th Century. Although this is often called the “Frankish period”, Venice was the hidden hand in ruling the island, until taking direct control in 1481. It is probably during the Frankish period that the art of lacemaking is introduced.

As early as the end of the 14th Century, the Dogaresse Morosini (Doge Michele Morosini) begins to promote the art of lacemaking by forming a workshop of more than 130 women to create personal lace adornments for her and the nobility of allied states and countries in the form of gifts. Another Dogaresse, Giovanna Dandolo, wife of Doge Pasquale Malipiero protected and encouraged lacemaking in 1414 and soon lace had spread throughout Europe and become a fashion necessity for those who could afford it.

Today some five stitches are routinely done on Burano Island: Venetian, Rose Point, Point de Gaze, Alencon, and Argentan. This indicates a decrease from the 20th Century when Flowered Lace (Tagliato a fogliami) and Brussels point were also commonly used.

So, a artform that began in Egypt’s 18th Dynasty persists to this day in Venice’s nearby Burano Island. It is an art that is hanging on ‘by a thread’ and may soon be gone given the age of its masters both in Venice and Cyprus. To me, however, it is a voice from the Western Silk Road that continues to echo today. (Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of Burano Lacemaker by Laura Kelley, Photos of Mummy Cloths and Beadwork from the British Museum, Photo of Modern Macrame from Google Images and Photo of Lefkara Lace from Wikimedia.)