Travel and Travelers in Medieval Eurasia

Travel and Travelers in Medieval Eurasia

By Daniel C. Waugh

World History Connected, Volume 10:1 (2013)

A closeup of the Catalan Atlas depicting Marco Polo traveling to the East during the Pax Mongolica

Introduction: Pre-modern travelers in Central Eurasia were numerous, but few left a record of where they went and what they saw. The purposes of travel—economic, political, or religious—were eminently practical and might not require that the results be documented in the way we expect of modern exploration. Of necessity, our focus here is what we can learn from written accounts which open but a narrow window into the larger world of Eurasian travel.

When should we begin our narrative? The archaeological record attests to active exchange across Eurasia going back several millennia. Lacking written materials we can only hypothesize about patterns of exchange possibly involving long-distance travel but more likely a series of linked interactions over shorter distances. The written record, when it appears, informs us first of all about the peripheries of inner Asia. For example, Herodotus’ account concerning Western Asia in the fifth century BCE describes interactions on the ill-defined borders of Central Eurasia and the cultures of the steppe peoples with whom the Greeks dealt. Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late fourth century BCE provided new first-hand information about the western half of Asia and created the mechanisms for the penetration of Hellenistic culture even to the towns in the Tarim Basin. Active Roman trade with the East in succeeding centuries along caravan routes through Mesopotamia and in the Indian Ocean expanded knowledge of the products of Asia and their places of their origin. However, little was yet known about inner Asia and the Far East. There is no solid evidence of direct relations between Rome and Han China, least of all by overland routes.

The view from East Asia about the lands along the roads to the West is not dissimilar from the western perspective. Our main written source about early inner Asian nomads is the Chinese annals, which filter personal observation and official records through the lens of sedentary biases. Diplomatic missions brought ambassadors and marriage partners into the steppes north of China proper, and representatives of the nomadic Xiongnu came to the Han capital of Chang’an. Conventional histories of the “Silk Road” linking East and West begin with this interaction. Indeed the Han era (ca. 200 BCE to 200 CE) provides one of earliest instances where we can document long-distance travel. Sent in 138 BCE to build a coalition against the Xiongnu, Zhang Qian survived captivity and returned twelve years later with first-hand observations of the peoples, towns, and products as far away as the Tien Shan Mountains, Sogdiana and the Ferghana Valley. On the basis of indirect information, he also reported about the Parthians and the Roman Orient. His assessment, transmitted by the “grand historian” Sima Qian and later dynastic histories, emphasized the “Western Regions'” strategic and economic value. Han administration extended for a time into Central Asia, but the narratives of military campaigns rarely provide us with the kind of descriptive detail we would hope to obtain from travel accounts.

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