Friday, June 10, 2005

02: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 2

Trade: the act of commerce between individuals, or peoples. Requirement: a common manner of communication, and an understanding of the economy of the other party, and a commodity or skill for sale, or barter. Communication: The transmission of ideas, messages or information between two persons.

After the clans discussed in Part 1, came the eventual villages of tribes, and later cities, then city-states, and eventually, kingdoms. With early man’s natural tendency to be profligate as part of the instinctual survival imprint, the human gene pool continued to expand, and winnow out some of the weaker elements. With the rise of civilization came the rise in personal wealth. And wealthy people have a taste for the finer things in life. That meant spice.

Old Testament passages speak of the Israelite kings and patriarchs as having spices for food, and incense, and silks from the Orient. Indeed, archaeologists have identified how spice and other goods moved west (oddly enough, it always seemed to move from east to west – more about that later) on specific roads, in particular, the Incense Road, the Spice Road, and the Silk Road. These ancient caravan routes are not just middle school text book terms, but very real roads used for millennia to move products from east to west, and riches from west to east. But that is not the only thing that traveled on these roads. Commerce and communication also meant the conveyance of ideas.

Often, we look at Biblical and ancient historical sagas such as Gilgamesh and early Babylon as being the earliest recorded civilizations. In this Occidental-centric view, the Oriental peoples are seldom given credit for reaching many of civilization’s milestones before their western counterparts did, which occurred more often than one expects. The domestication of the horse is one such example, in use on the Eurasian Steppes three thousand years earlier than the middle eastern societies began using the camel as a pack animal. One can argue that climate, and terrain had much to do with it, yet the Arabs eventually embraced the horse, in addition to the camel, and the camel was embraced by the Chinese later for use on the caravan roads.

The War Chariot, a “souped up” version of the standard horse-drawn chariot, was a product that arose in three distinct areas almost simultaneously, appearing around the same time in China, Iran, and in the Hittite Civilization of Anatolia. Only one conclusion can be drawn about this oddity when it is realized that all three civilizations sat along the Silk Road.

Interestingly, there are Indo-European mummies in the Taklamakan Desert, located in the Tarim Basin of greater China. They date from about 1200 to 1500 BC. They were located along a caravan stop on the Silk Road.

So, silks and spices and incense moved from China and other parts of the Orient westward to the Middle East first, and later to Europe, throughout the first millennium of the Christian Era. And in the process, whole peoples assumed roles in the trade of silk, spice and incense. On one end, the Chinese, and on the other end the Royal houses of Europe and the Byzantine Empire. It filtered down to the noble houses, and later to the more affluent traders and tradesmen, all of whom used the spices to flavor their foods, the incense to scent the often fetid air around them, and the silks that adorned them. Between both ends of this system of trade were the various caravan and caravanserai operators, the rulers of the lands in between, both large empires and petty fiefdoms, all of which partook of tolls and duties exacted from the caravan owners. Finally, the Jewish merchants of Europe who traveled, sometimes to the edge of the Russian Steppes, to purchase these goods and bring them back to the European noble houses (and the Christian Church as well), a business lucrative enough to eventually see their families into the European banking business.

Into this mix walked and rode a Venetian merchant’s son, and the thousands year old trade would enter a completely new phase, kicking off an historical epoch that would see the world completely change, and result in one of the worst human tragedies ever recorded.

Back: Part One
Next: Part Three
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