restricted access The Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (review)
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Journal of World History 13.1 (2002) 211-213



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Book Review

The Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century


The Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. By RICHARD C. FOLTZ. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999 . Pp. 224 . $24 .95 (cloth); $14 .95 (paper).

This concise, compact work explains how cultural traditions, especially in the form of religious ideas, accompanied merchants and their goods along the overland Asian trade routes in pre-modern times (ca. 1000 B.C.E.-1400 C.E.). Professor Foltz makes the point that long-distance trade is only a part of "a much broader historical dynamic of cultural interaction, exchange, and cultural [religious] conversion" (p. 7 ). The various religions--Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Manichaeism, Nestorianism, Zoroastrianism, and related minor sects--all were part of the topography that we see as the Silk Road complex. His aim is to "weave some two thousand years of Asian history around a particular thread--that of the movement and transformation of religious ideas--into a readable and informative account" (p. vi). Professor Foltz modestly states that this book has been written first and foremost with the student and general reader in mind. The extent of his coverage, his sources, and an excellent wide-ranging bibliography containing sources in languages besides English, make this a work of use to specialists as well. As Hans-J. Klimkeit, Director, Religionswissenschaftliches Seminar, Bonn University, notes on the jacket, this synthesis of different religions on the Silk Road "up to now is the only one of its kind."

"The" Silk Road was not one but many, and our romantic name for this network of roads was coined only in the late 1800 s, by a player in the Great Game, Ferdinand von Richthofen, who invented the term 'Seidenstrasse'. Foltz's excellent maps and outline of the history of the Silk Road astutely lay the foundation for this book. Despite common wisdom that the Silk Road developed with the Chinese Emperor Han Wudi's dispatch of a mission by Zhang Qian in 139 B.C.E., trans-Asian overland trade probably linked the West with China much earlier than Han times. He notes that "silk has been found in Egypt from around 1000 B.C.E. and in Europe from around 300 years later" (p. 3 ). By the fifth century silk was no longer shipped out of China across the Silk Road, and the Silk Road was past its prime by the 1400 s C.E. Of course Foltz points out that trade goods moved along the many routes of the Silk Road in relays, transferred from one carrier to another until journey's end. Caravan pace was set by camels (along with yaks, mixed yaks and cows, donkeys, mules, horses, and oxen), at four miles per hour [End Page 211] unloaded and two-and-a-half to three miles per hour loaded. With an average load of three hundred pounds per camel, a caravan might cover thirty miles per day.

The earliest of the religions to take this path eastward were the "mobile" religious systems, the Iranian and the Hebraic, which were not proselytizing faiths. Later, missionary religions won converts at least as much through their prestige as foreign, cosmopolitan traditions as they did through active proselytization; historian Jerry Bentley terms it "conversion by voluntary association." The Sogdians of Transoxiana (roughly today's Uzbekistan), an Indo-European, Iranian, people "were like cultural bees, cross-pollinating ideas and traditions from one civilization to another" (p. 13 ). Sogdian scribes translated most of the religious texts of Buddhism, Manichaeism, and Christianity into the various languages of the Silk Road, from Indian Prakrits (vernacular dialects), Armaic, or Parthian into Bactrian, Tokharian, Khotanese, Turkish, or Chinese, either via Sogdian or directly.

Professor Foltz excels at concise explanations of the development of the many religions scattered throughout the central Asian area of the Silk Road. He deftly wends his...


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