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by Chris Wilkinson

From time before history, the pathways that lead from what now are China, Persia, North Africa, and India, along with the ship routes to all points of the compass, were traveled by those active in commerce: the trading of goods, services, and ideas. What we know as the "Silk Route" was the pathway that brought silk from China through Central Asia and into North Africa, whence it found its way to Europe and other exotic lands, the same pathway which brought the goods of India to China, and the goods of Persia to the Middle East.

It is clear that, from the earliest times, forms of symbolic expression, gestures, and tokens became an important part of the life of those traveling the trade routes. It is most evident that by the first century CE, paintings, inscriptions and markings on stone, pillars, and other markers became the cosmological "map" for traders and travelers.
As the traders generally traveled in caravans and the distances were measured in months, if not years, fellow travelers had much time to exchange the ideas, stories, and beliefs that formed their home cultures, and to develop special methods of communication that only fellow travelers might understand. Thus commerce in goods came together with commerce in ideas. The concepts of religious values, special mores, and cultural likes and dislikes were exchanged along with efforts to span the bridges of language differences.
The great meeting places, such as Samarkand, Wu Tai Shan, Magadha, Uddayana, Baghdad, and Cairo became the central markets for exchange of goods and knowledge. The heritage of this knowledge, and the goods that often held keys to it, have largely been neglected in the era of airplanes and international telecommunications, yet this heritage contains a richness of many years, and demands to be both preserved and understood.
The businessmen, wandering mendicants, doctors, servants, camel drivers,. herdsmen, and all the peoples they came to know and interact with, held a deep understanding of the world they lived in, a world far from us today, but remaining with us in our histories, in the movements that shape society, and in the values, both religious and secular, that have come to form the substratum of the world in which we find ourselves living. The gods and demi gods, the witches and demons, the angels and powers of protection, the visions of transcendent realities ­ all of these can be found in the art of Central Asia from the earliest times, and all of them are based on a central problem: The Transmission of Enlightenment.

Copyright © 1998 Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, Shelley and Donald Rubin