In the 1870s, the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen coined the name die Seidenstrasse—the Silk Road—to refer to the 5,000-mile-long trade route that connected China and the Mediterranean in ancient times.
Richthofen thus imbued the immense terra incognita of Central Asia with romance. But he also created something of a misnomer: There was not just one route connecting East and West, but several; and silk—craved especially by Roman women—was just one of the treasured commodities transported along these routes. Intrepid caravans carried spices, gems, gold, ivory, works of art, furniture, garments, perfumes, exotic animals and much else across the Eurasian steppes.
Even more important, the great east-west highway carried knowledge: ideas about medicine, printing, engineering and cosmology. Along these routes, monks traveled side-by-side with merchants, instructing those they met in the secrets of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity or Islam. From about 200 B.C. to the 15th century A.D., the oasis towns of Central Asia witnessed an exchange of cultures that had no precedent in human history.