Hansen stocks you with facts and theories you will need for the rest of her geographical and historical journey: ‘The term ‘silk road’ is a recent invention,’ she writes, ‘the peoples living along different trade routes did not use it. They referred to it as the road to Samarkand or whatever the next major city was.’ Further on, Hansen establishes that the Silk Road was no single route between China and Rome, but a shifting lacework of paths for local trade over seven main oases.
Over the course of seven chapters – one dedicated to each oasis – Silk Road explores the transmission of ideas across the Taklaman desert. Silk is not at the heart of Hansen’s debate. Instead she focuses on paper, which was invented by the Chinese before Julius Caesar was born and gradually made its way westward. In one example, she describes a pair of shoes made of recycled paper that were found still bearing the writing on the insole: ‘paper had a high value and was not thrown out, craftsmen cut paper documents into shoe soles and covers. By disassembling such items and reconstructing the original documents, archaeologists have learned much about life along the Silk Road’.
Hansen’s book is an academic’s narrative, with stories told through documents, evidence and artefacts. Forget caravans of camels plodding across the continent, The Silk Road is about culture and knowledge moving across geography.
THE SILK ROAD: A New History by Valerie Hansen; Oxford University Press; £12.99 (paperback)
This review was published in the January 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.