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.)

Foraminifera
Foraminifera

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.)

The Real Sinbad the Sailor

A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf

The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.

Soleiman Siraf – Production Still from Film

In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.

Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.

Sinbad by Paul Klee

Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.

Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.

Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks

As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.

Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)

The Silk Road Roots of the Age of Exploration

I’ve written a lot about the participation of Asian nations in Silk Road trade, but what I haven’t considered enough is the effect of the Silk Road on Europe. The Silk Road and its spice trade played important parts in shaping early modern Europe, and it was no less than the price of pepper, cinnamon and cloves in the mid-fifteenth century that forced the Portuguese and the Spanish to the seas to find a route to Asia – kicking off the European Age of Exploration. A route to Asia that didn’t involve the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, that is.

Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Muslim traders controlled both of the major sea ports that brought Silk Road goods into Europe – Cairo and Constantinople and were soon to wrench Kaffa away from the Genoese twenty-two years later. With the control of all three ports, the traders and their financiers started charging higher and higher overhead fees for the passage of goods, which drove up the cost of goods to European consumers. There may have been a bit more than profiteering going on as well, because the higher import fees were being levied on the Christians who had unsuccessfully defended the remains of Byzantium against the Ottomans – a sort of Silk Road tribute to the victors if you will.

So in the mid-to-late fifteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish begin funding massively expensive ocean expeditions to try to avoid the Muslim taxes on spices and Silk Road goods. In 1492 Columbus winds up in the West Indies and in 1498 the Portuguese – sailing in the correct direction – landed in Kerala, India. Within a decade, Vasco de Gama, Almeida, Albuquerque and other Portuguese pioneers had negotiated treaties with local rulers and set up trading posts to buy and sell black pepper, cinnamon and other spices at four sites in Southern India. With ports at Malindi, Mombasa and Mozambique in Africa they ran a vast spice empire that moved Asian spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific directly around Africa to Lisbon for further distribution into Europe.

Three Types of Peppercorns

The seafaring Dutch were at first the principal partners of the Portuguese in transporting spices and other trade goods from Lisbon to the rest of Europe. Although Charles V was born in Ghent, as Holy Roman Emperor, he increased pressure on the growing Protestant population in the Netherlands – in part a Spanish possession. This caused unrest in the region and helped lead to the Dutch Revolt. Eventually, the Dutch were excluded from their part in this trade, and took to the seas on their own – forming the Dutch East India Company. Within a few decades, this company came to dominate the seafaring spice route, and until its demise in the late 1700s moved two and a half million tons of Asian trade goods into Europe and sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europeans loved their spices and paid dearly for them. A pound of cinnamon cost 24 pence and a pound of ginger half that; black pepper was about 18 pence per pound. With the average wage of a master carpenter being about 8 pence per day, one would have had to work 3 days for a pound of cinnamon and a little more than 2 for pepper. With 96 teaspoons in a pound, these purchases would probably last for 2-3 months in an average sized family, but still one can see how expensive spices were at this time. Anyone who could afford them, even if it was a stretch for their household income, considered spices a necessity. This was not only because food tastes better with added flavoring, but also to show to others in the community that they were well-off enough to afford spices (conspicuous consumption) and to harness the medicinal benefits offered by spices that I’ve written about in other posts.

The culinary creations enjoyed by the people of late Medieval and early modern Europe with Silk Road spices were well worth it. I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to dabble in historical cookery and am treated to these dishes on a regular basis. Recently he cooked a lamb stew from 17th Century Europe that had culinary relatives in Persia, Uzbekistan and even Mongolia. More accurately stated perhaps, the Persian dish gave rise to the European, Uzbek and Mongolian dishes. He started with a wonderful stock from Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies from 1602 that combined currants, dates and almonds with onions, white wine, mace, black pepper, parsley, mint, bay and rosemary on a chicken and lamb base. The Levantine fruits, parsley, mint and mace make this a sweet treat to build a stew on. The completed stew goes on to add more onions, chestnuts, nutmeg and cloves for a rich, deep, filling stew.

So changes in traditional Silk Road maritime routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the fifteenth century sent the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and eventually the rest of Europe to sea. The Dutch Revolt was the first in a series of struggles for succession that shaped early modern Europe, and the dissolution of the remnants of Byzantium sent the Greeks into Europe and opened intellectual doors that had long been shut – paving the way for many of the innovation and rediscoveries of the Renaissance. A victory for the Ottomans was the first in a long line of changes in the global spice trade that eventually led to the end of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)