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Silk Road Newsletter

"A ray of the rising sun touched the scalloped ridge of ice-fields in the Tibetan Alps and threw a pink veil over their snowy slopes, but the great mass of the mountain range was still in the grip of death-like hue which marks the last resistance of night to the coming day. The morning star was still visible, but it was grey dawn on the plain below, and light was rapidly gaining...

At the foot of the mountain lay the old travel road, wide and deeply marked, literally cut to bits by the sharp, nail-studded wheels of countless caravan carts. The ruts parted and merged, then spread again, as the eddies of a current mark the face of a river. On this road myriads of travellers had journeyed for thousands of years, making of it a ceaselessly flowing stream of life, for it was the great highway of Asia, which connected the Far East with distant European lands."
Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Missionaries,
quoted in The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia by Frances Wood, p. 10

This month we are presenting Silk Road Perfume. This fragrance includes aromatics that were traded along the maritime and caravan routes or fragrant plants that may have been encountered by travelers along those ancient highways.

When one hears the word "Silk Road" uttered it brings to mind a world of adventure, mystery and romance that were embedded in the ancient world and its sophisticated trade networks that allowed precious goods of many types to move between the Europe and the Far East. High on the list of goods that were coveted by people of the various countries through which the Silk/Caravan Road passed were perfumes, attars, unguents, resins, spices, and precious aromatic woods that were widely appreciated both for their secular and religious value.

The Silk Road itself was not merely a single trading route that stretched from the Mediterranean countries into China but a collection of overland and maritime routes that were connected to the central overland route to China. The name "Silk Road" is of relatively recent origin and were coined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877 who made seven expeditions to China along it from 1868-1872. Prior to that this ancient road was often referred to as the Caravan Road. The main overland route stretching from Constantinople into the heart of China was itself over 4000 miles in length. This route passed through Ancient Persia and China but through its overland(which included the Incense Road from Arabia) and maritime spice shipping offshoots, it was many thousands of miles longer and encompassed Indonesia, Arabia, Egypt, Tibet, India, the Mediterranean and Africa.

All along this intricate network of towns and cities there were lively bazaars through which the caravans passed were precious aromatic wares were bought and sold. For over 3000 years these interconnected routes served as highways not only for the passage of material goods, but also as a conduit for the spread of of cultural, religious, political, technological and social knowledge. It was indeed an "information highway' that greatly impacted the foundation of the modern world.

The history of the Silk Road is vast and intriguing and for the sake of this newsletter we will only present a few insights into the trade in aromatics that existed along and within it.

Silk Road Perfume

2 1/2 oz Mandarin, Red EO
1/2 oz Coriander Seed EO or C02
1/2 oz Black Pepper EO or CO2
1/2 oz Bay Leaf EO
3/4 oz Seville Lavender Absolute
1/2 oz White Ginger Lily Absolute
3/4 oz Jasmin sambac Absolute
1/2 oz Orange Blossom Absolute
1/4 oz Orris Root CO2
3/4 oz Rosa damascena Absolute
1/4 oz Clove Bud CO2 or Absolute
1/2 oz Labdanum Incense note Absolute
3/4 oz Opoponax EO
1 oz Frankincense/Cedarwood Absolute
3/4 oz Vetiver EO

Silk Road in Literature

The Silk Road was a series of ancient trade routes stretching across Central Asia to Europe, and its name still evokes exotic images of camel trains laden with bales of fine Chinese silk, spices, and perfume, or desert oases surround by snow-capped mountains, of bustling markets thronging with travelers buying and selling grapes, coriander, Baltic amber, and Mediterranean coral.
--from The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia
by Frances Wood

The Romans also carried spices overland using the Silk Road that passed from Xiam in China, around the Himalayas in North India and across Persia and then by ship over the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean.
They brought back cumin, ginger, cloves, nutmeg and cassia, and Constantinople, the Roman Empire's eastern capital, became known as the "spice city".
--from Handbook of spices, seasonings, and flavorings
by Susheela Raghavan

For thousands of years, the Silk and Spice Routes stretched across the vast continent of Asia. They linked its eastern lands with those of its west and Europe--the Silk Route by land that the Spice Route by sea. They were trade routes. Along their many paths, caravans and ships carried precious goods. Spices and incense, silks and porcelain were some of the many luxuries of the East exchanged fro western commodities, such as silver and gold and woollen and cotton cloth. There were huge profits to be made.
--from Cultures and Civilizations
by Straun Reid

You hear? The camels are being driven to the Gate of the Moon. At midnight starts the great summer caravan for the cities of the Far North East, divine Bokhara and happy Samarkand. It is a desert path as yellow as the bright sea-shore: therefore the Pilgrims call it The Golden Journey.

--from Hassan: The Story of Hassan of Baghdad and How He Came to Make the Golden Journey to Samarkand
by James Elroy Flecker

You reach it by the Great Trunk Road of India, the most notable thoroughfare in the empire, which has been the highway from the mountains and northern provinces to the sacred River Ganges from the beginning of time, and, notwithstanding the construction of railroads, is to-day the great thoroughfare of Asia. If followed it will lead you through Turkestan and Persia to Constantinople and Moscow. Over this road came Tamerlane, the Tartar Napoleon, with his victorious army, and Alexander the Great, and it has been trodden by the feet of successive invaders for twenty or thirty centuries. To-day it leads to the Khyber Pass, the only gateway between India and Afghanistan, where the frontier is guarded by a tremendous force, and no human being is allowed to go either way without permits from the authorities of both governments. Long caravans still cross the desert of middle Asia, enter and leave India through this pass and follow the Grand Trunk Road to the cities of the Ganges. It is always thronged with pilgrims and commerce; with trains of bullock carts, caravans of camels and elephants, and thousands of pedestrians pass every milestone daily.

--from Modern India
by William Eleroy Curtis

Now as to the products of the Eastern Sea. China produces white silk, coloured silk, damask silk, musk, aloeswood, saddles, marten furs, porcelain, cinnamon and galanga. India produces various kinds of aloeswood, sandalwood, camphor, camphor water, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, cubeb, coconuts, vegetable cotton cloths and elephants. Sir Lanka produces all kinds of rubies and such stones. Kerala produces pepper. The southern islands brazilwood. Sind offers putchuk, rattan and bamboo.
--from Book of Roads and Kingdoms
by Ibn Khurdadhbih-Arabian geographer, c. 850 C.E.

Concerning the spices of Arabia let no more be said. The whole country is scented with them and exhales and odor marvelously sweet.
--from The Histories, Book III, c. 430 BCE
by Herodotus

Amongst the plants introduced into China from the west was saffron(from India, Bokhra and Kapisa, brought in both dried and plant form). It was used as and aromatic, to perfume clothes and hair and to flavour wines.
--from The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia
by Frances Wood

The bazaar of Stambul contains a great deal besides. On the northern side is a line of old caravanserais, massive stone buildings of several storeys, with galleries, passages, and rooms, and with a large open court in the centre. Here resort the wholesale merchants, and here are their warehouses and stocks. Lastly, cafés and eating-houses are found in the tunnelled streets, baths and small oratories, so that a man can pass his whole day in the bazaar without needing to go home. He can obtain all he wants in the vicinity of his shop.
--from From Pole to Pole
by Sven Anders Hedin


These sailors had no dread at all of a sea called the Mediterranean, upon which they made voyages without fear of danger. This sea was named the Mediterranean because it was supposed to be in the middle of the land that was then known. On this body of water the sailors were very bold, fighting, robbing, and plundering strangers and foes, without any thought of fear.
They sailed through this sea eastward to Constantinople, their ships being loaded with metals, woods, and pitch. These they traded for silks, cashmeres, dyewoods, spices, perfumes, precious stones, ivory, and pearls. All of these things were brought by caravan from the far Eastern countries, as India, China, and Japan, to the cities on the east coast of the Mediterranean.
This caravan journey was a very long and tiresome one. Worse than this, the Turks, through whose country the caravans passed, began to see how valuable this trade was, and they sent bands of robbers to prevent the caravans from reaching the coast.
--from Discoverers and Explorers
by Edward R. Shaw

Further Reading

"Trading the Silk Road"  Saudi Aramco World
"Ancient Trading Routes of the Silk Road"   Interbank FX
"The Silk Road: Linking Europe and Asia Through Trade"  ThinkQuest
"Maps of the Silk Road"   The SilkRoad Project
Silk Road Map: 1.bp.blogspot

For those who wish to go through a comprehensive history of the Silk Road there is an entire online book which one can read. It clearly reveals how this route evolved and was maintained through the centuries.