Tracks and Time: Trade Routes in Eurasia

I can’t recall where the image was from, in the sense of which website or private photo collection that the search engine scraped. It showed a Safavid Era caravansarai in Iran (then Persia). Beside the caravansarai ran a modern gravel road, probably a full two lanes wide. A major regional route through the otherwise empty region, in other words. As I looked at the image projected on the screen, I realized that faintly, to the left of the modern road, a long depression as wide as the modern path ran into the distance. It wasn’t quite a “hair on the neck stands up” moment, but it showed just how old that particular way was, and how long it had been used by people.

A comment from DadRed reminded me of the image. He just finished a double biography of Philip and Alexander of Macedon, and is reading Marco Polo’s journals. Polo followed Alexander’s route for much of the first part of his journey, as had traders for thousands of years. Alexander probably followed older ways and tracks, because trade and travel from the Levant to Persia and South Asia go as far as the Neolithic. Routes that worked stay in use, or return to use, century after century. They are there for a reason, in this case, water and ease of movement in a harsh and mountainous land. It’s like the places in Europe and Asia that have layers of habitation that go down to the paleolithic. They provided water, food, shelter, access to other resources, and thousands of generations found them good. They might be abandoned temporarily, but people eventually returned. Vienna is one of those places, Buda Hill in Budapest is another, some of the hills of Rome, places in Spain and Portugal . . .

Barry Cuneliffe, in his wonderful history of the plains of Eurasia, pointed out that once people started getting stuff, be it lapis lazuli, or fancy weavings, or metal, or foods and spices, or jewelry from other places, they always wanted more of it. Even if a route was abandoned for a while and trade interrupted for hundreds of years because of unrest, or plague, or for other reasons, the collective memory of “neat stuff from over there” remained. Eventually someone would to looking, or traders from “over there” would return, and a new form of the neat stuff would be passed hand to hand and ruler to ruler.


Note some similarities between the two maps.

Princeton has a nice on-line series of maps in the “Globalization” sub-category. The above link takes you to the Princeton site.

So too the physical routes that the “neat stuff” moved along. There are relatively few ways to get from the Indus and Oxus river watersheds to the Yellow River watershed, or to the places in between that have metal ores, furs, weavings, amazing gold jewelry, and the like. Deserts, steppe, mountain ranges, bad water, cold winters, they all forced goods and the people carrying them to follow certain paths that lasted for thousands of years. Long before Alexander the Great, the proto-Indo-European speaking horsemen rode along certain routes, and the men and women who carried metalworking tools and techniques went the opposite direction, from the Balkans across the Iranian Plateau, then south into the Sarasvati and Indus basins, or east on the edges of the Urals and Himalaya to China.

The old ways never really vanish. They get paved, or become long-distance hiking trails, or remain dirt tracks linking water holes that are used by the locals. National borders are a new interruption in some places, but I suspect in the long, long span of human history? The trails will stay alive.


14 thoughts on “Tracks and Time: Trade Routes in Eurasia

    • Persia comes from the Persian/Pahlavi language “Partha” which was used by the group known to the Greeks and Romans as Parthians. Iran comes from Aryan, and the Indo-European root “Arya-” meaning “us.” When The Pahlavi Dynasty formed in the early 1900s, the first Pahlavi Shah announced that the land term “Iran/Aryan” [pronounced AR-yan, not Ar-ee-un or Air-ee-un] would be the official name for the country, so it would match the geographic name.

    • Not to blame the NAZIs for everything bad, but Adolph Hitler. The Shah of Persia was an admirer of Hitler and wanted to distinguish the Persians from the Semitic Arabs and Jews as well as indicate to the NAZIs that Persia was the home of the Aryans. Thus, Persia became Iran.

  1. I grew up near the Oregon Trail. Traces can still be seen. (Except where plows, backhoes, or road graders have been involved.)

  2. My father told us, after he took a transcontinental airline flight, that he could look down when they passed over Northern Texas/Oklahoma, that he could still see the cattle trails – a hundred years after millions of cattle walked north from Texas to the Kansas railheads, after the Civil War.

    • In far western KS/ eastern CO, in late December if there’s not much snow yet, from the air you can see buffalo tracks. They followed the same paths to water and salt for thousands of years. One reason Tascosa on the Canadian River became a settlement is that it was a buffalo ford, where they’d crossed since time immemorial, and the hunters could be pretty sure of a decent harvest there. When the Hispanos moved into the valley, guess where one of them settled, because he’d scouted it while hunting?

  3. One of the things that fascinate me about trails like the Silk Road and others like it is the amount of time that it must have taken to originally establish the route. Travelers/traders must have had hundreds or thousands of false starts over hundreds of years before the best, most efficient, route was discovered.

  4. I get the sense that the North American continent doesn’t have many of these trails and those it does have are not very old. The Oregon trail and the cattle drives are both about a LOT of traffic over a relatively short period of time. The buffalo trails are the only ones mentioned as being quite old. If true, I think this is about the relative difficulty of settling this continent. Perhaps due to the extreme weather possibilities?

    • If you look at things like the salt trails around Big Bone Lick, and some of the routes in the Southwest, you get a bit more of a sense of age. But even using the oldest confirmed dates, humans have only been on the continents for 20K years, and the population density was so low for so long, that trade on the scale of Eurasia didn’t seem to have developed.

      Eurasia’s climate and bio-zones run east-west, creating large swaths of similar environment. The Americas tend to run north-south, and even then you have the latitude differences even when the moisture amount is similar. There’s a book I read ten years or so back that argued that that difference was critical in the cultural differences and some physiological differences that appeared in Eurasia and the Americas, allowing for similar stages of technological development. I can’t recall the author’s name or the book title, alas.

      • It might have been Thomas Sowell. I recall either a video or an essay which started there and built on trade routes, arguing that trade is a driver not only of wealth but cultural advancement. And the European skill with large craft on North America’s waterways completely changed North American trade patterns.

        • No, this was an English author, or at least the individual in the photo was a Person of Pallor and the author name wasn’t Thomas Sowell.

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