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Silk Route Journey
Lily Johnson 03/19/2020 03:40 AM CST


Day 1. Our journey has begun in Marib – an ancient city in Yemen that is of the greatest archaeological importance in the whole Arabia. In the distant past, Marib was the capital of the Sheba kingdom. Many centuries ago, there began the construction of the famous Marib Dam – the giant complex of hydraulic structures, consisting of ten dams, hundreds of locks and canals. The Great Dam was one of the biggest engineering wonders of Arabia for 1000 years since it allowed the locals to capture the monsoon rains and irrigate the desert land of Marib, thus, making the city rich in crops, flowering gardens, and fish. However, the construction collapsed in the year of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, which led to the displacement of some people and the extinction of others. In time, the great Sabaean Kingdom was dominated by sand.

Near the Marib Dam, we met the local named Abdullah and hired him as our guide in Arabia. The ruins of the Great Dam are astoundingly beautiful, especially, if considering the fact that the whole construction was absolutely essential for the development of the rich civilization in Marib. Except the Great Dam, the city of Marib was famous for cultivating trees from which the locals produced aromatic resin commonly used in embalming, medicine, religious and secular ceremonies. Another reason of Marib’s prosperity and wealth was its location at the crossroads of trade routes to India and China. 

Day 2. After spending a night in a Bedouin dwelling, we went through the desert to the next trading hub in Arabia. Concerning the structure of typical Bedouin tent in Saudi Arabia, it is normally covered with six rough strips of black or brown cloth made of goat or sheep’s wool. Being stitched together, the mentioned strips form a rectangular canvas that is based on the poles and ropes stretched at the edges. Interestingly, the tent’s size usually depends on the prosperity of its master. Regarding the interior of Bedouin dwelling, there are normally curtains that serve a dividing line between male and female part of a tent. Furthermore, the tent’s back is always oriented towards the direction of prevailing winds; if the wind suddenly changes its direction, the metal studs are attached to the side of the tent that became the back one: the studs outweigh the strips of the cloth and the wind cannot rip the tent apart.

In Saudi Arabia, Bedouin tent remains in one place for 8-9 days; then all its inhabitants migrate for 15-20 km further. In summer, tents are put tightly around the well; in contrast, in winter, they are situated at a distance of 200-400m from the well. This does not prevent the defense options because the fire comes from all sides. Furthermore, the guide told us that a desert is rather a dangerous place because many local tribes, who are not converted to Islam, constantly attack the travelers while fighting for own independence. “Do not go very far away and do not walk in unfamiliar neighborhoods and without being accompanied by, sometimes people are very unpredictable,” warned us Abdul and then took us to the next stop.

Day 3. In the Qaryat al-F?w, we found famous bazaar that is built in the Islamic style and resembles an enormously large palace with numerous towers and domes. In addition to carpets, silk shawls, and jewelry made of gold and jade, the locals sold extremely beautiful silver daggers there. Considering the export of the Sabaean Kingdom, an incredible quantity of goods was transported predominantly to China: starting with the fabrics, precious stones, gold, tea, leather, and wool, and finishing with exotic fruits, hunting dogs, leopards, and lions. As for imported goods, the Arabs received the Chinese paper, gunpowder, compasses, porcelain, lacquered ware, tea, rice, spices, and many other valuable commodities.

The main products in two countries were silk fabric and raw silk: they were highly valuable and the most convenient for transportation over long distances because of their little weight. Consider an example, in Byzantium, the silk was even more expensive than gold. The guide also told us the legend according to which China, the birthplace of silk, maintained a monopoly on silk products to approximately 5-6 centuries BC, but later the Byzantine emperor asked one of his monks to steal silkworm eggs.

Moreover, at the modern market, one can find high-quality porcelain, tea, and woolen and cotton fabrics, which in the distant past were taken from Central Asia through the Silk Road to China. In addition, there came a new caravan fully laden with pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves, which were previously used for the preservation of the products and the manufacture of drugs. I found there two things that I bought for my travel back home – myrrh and frankincense. It was eureka for me: what if I establish my first perfume shop after returning to Europe. Interestingly, one of the traders told us the story of Arab scientists who developed the theory of the unity of consciousness: the mind and the body are a whole, and accordingly, the disease is seen not as a problem of one separate organ but as a violation of all functions of human body. Thus, myrrh and frankincense will be useful not only for some organs of mine but for the whole body as well as mind and will help me to increase the energy level.

Day 4. On the next day, we arrived in El-Riah. In this city, we had our caravanserai that combined the functions of hotel and warehouse. The major peculiarity of this place is that for the foreigners, local merchants usually organize special markets with the most popular goods being sold. In the caravans, people of many professions work – translators, moneychangers, prostitutes, camel drivers, caravans’ guards, and tax collectors. We were told that in the time of the Silk Road, the merchants actively used gold and silver Byzantine and Sassanid Arab coins. However, in modern times, the cash is not enough for the local traders: to buy myrrh, we had to change a leopard’s skin. Thus, we used widely practiced in Arabia barter transactions (goods for goods), having paid in cash only the difference in the cost of the mentioned goods.

Moreover, I found an old hospital in El-Riah – a unique thing for Europe of that time; however, it would have been a good idea to establish a similar institution, for example, in England. The El-Riah hospital was established by Caliph for the general population. It was funded by the state, had numerous doctors and non-medical workers. Nearby, there were also created a library and medical school. The school’s training was both theoretical and practical: pupils accompanied by a teacher visited ill people at the hospital as well as at their homes. Moreover, one can find the pharmacy there: to cure the patients, Arabic doctors developed numerous drugs and even created special drug preparation rules. They published these rules in the form of original pharmacopoeia. Interestingly, Arabs shunned the use of potent drugs and recommended to add lemon juice, different roots, and other natural substances to the medicine. For instance, for the treatment of patients, they widely used senna and tamarind. Regarding our experience, the day has passed so fast for us, and we already had to leave El-Riah and head to the Babylon – the place where the East and West meet.

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