Silk Road Dangers Past and Present

From Out of Istanbul: A Journey of Discovery along the Silk Road [taken in 1999], by Bernard Ollivier, trans. by Dan Golembeski (Skyhorse, 2019; French ed. by Phébus, 2001), Kindle pp. 151-152:

I can’t get last night’s adventures off my mind: have calamitous times finally come?

Crossing over the one-thousand-kilometer mark, the attempted robbery, and the intervention of the army are events that capture perfectly the dangers caravans faced for over two thousand years. Sitting on the second floor of Sivas’s caravansary, now converted into a salon de thé, I muse on the following five plagues that traders and camel drivers so feared: ill health, injuries, natural disasters, thieves, and war. The Silk Road is strewn with tombs. Death hung over the mountains and deserts, striking without warning. Is it any wonder that, when the Polo brothers and young Marco returned after having been gone for twenty-five years, they had been presumed dead and their estate divvied up?

It’s by way of the Silk Road that the plague arrived in Europe, spreading death in stopover towns along the way. Yesterday, I completed the one thousandth kilometer, it’s true, but who’s to say whether I’ll make it to the two thousandth? Aside from my sore feet, I haven’t had any health issues thus far. I’m fit as a fiddle. But there’s still a long way to go. And the conditions in which I’m traveling, sometimes in blatant disregard of basic nutritional or bodily hygiene, by no means guarantee that I’ll arrive in Tehran well rested and raring to go.

Theft was a constant threat on the Silk routes. My adventure yesterday proves that it still is. Gangs would lie in wait for the caravans at narrow passages, ambushing the merchants, steeling their bundles and animals, taking the gold and sometimes the travelers’ lives. The silk, spices, and precious merchandise that paraded by day in and day out right before their eyes aroused envy in the sedentary populations. I too, quite unwittingly, stir up those same desires. In poor villages like Alihacı, I look like a wealthy man from a land of plenty. From that perspective, perhaps it isn’t just a stretch to think that my pack conceals stores of treasure. No one actually did anything, though, until the tractor incident on the road to Alihacı. Although my watch is now tucked away deep in my pocket, it looked a lot like a portable computer, arousing envy. I’ve already been asked several times if I wanted to exchange it for a cheap bazaar timepiece. Two young men suggested I simply give it to them.

Bandits thought twice before attacking thousand-camel caravans, as they were accompanied by a hundred men practically looking for a fight. The lead caravanner also paid several armed men (usually Armenians) to ensure the convoy’s security. Inside the caravansaries—veritable fortresses—security was good. When there was a particularly serious threat, the paşas lent escorts, consisting of dozens of lancers, to accompany the travelers for a certain distance. Revenue from the Silk Road was the local lords’ chief source of income, so they had a vested interest in providing security; otherwise, the caravans would change routes: farewell, then, to all the taxes levied on those transporting precious bundles. Their concern for the merchants’ peace of mind was so great that the authorities of the day invented insurance. If, despite all the precautions, a traveler were robbed, he would submit to the paşa a list of the stolen merchandise and would be reimbursed, either by the paşa himself or by the Sultan. Today, of course, gangs of highwaymen are a thing of the past in Turkey. But alone and unarmed, I’m an easy, tempting target. It wouldn’t take fifty people to steal my “treasures.”

Since ancient times, war has been a permanent way of life on the Silk routes. It’s just as prevalent today, and the entire region of Central Asia is still in this day and age ravaged by local, violent conflicts. While I was preparing my journey, I had to bear this in mind in choosing my itinerary. I had the choice of several ancient routes. I would have liked to begin on the Mediterranean in the ancient city of Antioch and traverse Syria, Iraq, Iran, and then Afghanistan. They are magnificent countries; their peoples and lands are rich in history. But the dangers are all too apparent [in 1999].

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Filed under Central Asia, disease, economics, labor, Middle East, military, nationalism, travel, Turkey, war

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