Silk Road

November 16, 2012
WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your class?  

Urban: The story of the Silk Road(s) is the story of communication. Ideas spread along with the goods in commerce. It is this notion that makes the subject so interesting.

WIH Reporter: What were the results of the intermingling of cultures on the Silk Road?

Urban:  Communication fostered the exchange of ideas, along with a mutual understanding among these people from diverse cultures. This lesson is as true and important today as it was 2000+ years ago.

WIH Reporter: What were some of the lasting changes?

Urban:  The simple answer to that question is that various elements of material culture were adopted into other traditions. These elements fostered the growth of art, artisanship, even manufacturing. The more complex answer harks back to the idea of a better understanding among the various cultures found along the trading routes. Without this better understanding, how many traders and explorers would have ventured beyond their known worlds?

WIH Reporter: How did your interest get started in this subject?
Urban:  My interest in the subject developed, in part, throughh study of Asian art and cultures. It grew as I tried to piece together how what happened in one part of the world affected those events in other parts of the world. What I have found is that events were never isolated. There were always consequences, and those consequences can be traced over long distances. It’s a fascinating story.

WIH Reporter: Along with silk, what other commodities could be found along the Silk Road?
Urban:  Silk, of course, was among the most sought-after luxury goods to be carried. It was relatively lightweight and brought a high price. Similarly, gems and exotic spices were favorite commodities in demand. The answer depends in part on whether one is talking about land travel or sea travel, both of which carried commercial enterprise from before the era of the Romans.

WIH Reporter: Can you find paralles between that time and now?
Urban:  Yes, there are some parallels. Most obviously, wealth and patronage drive material culture to a certain extent. If there is no independent wealth or art, skilled artisans receive very little support and cannot enrich the culture they live in. On the other hand, the speed of communication in our own day seems to pass over some of the steps that might have enhanced the process in centuries long ago.

WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?
Urban:  Right now? I’m trying to read the autobiography of Mark Twain, but it is slow going. Not too long ago I read the Shahnama by Firdausi, the 10th century compilation of the Book of Persian Kings. I hope to talk about it a little bit during my lectures, as part of the rich culture fostered by the Islamic empire. The book served as inspiration to many generations of painters who were hired to illustrate their stories.

Melanie R. Urban received her Diploma in Asian Art from the Royal Holloway College of the University of London/British Museum.  A graduate of Purdue University, she received her J.D. from Lousiana State University and practiced law with the federal government for 15 years before moving to Singapore.  While in Singapore, Mrs. Urban began her studies in Asian culture, history, and art; she traveled extensively throughout regions from Central Asia to China, from Tibet to Viet Nam, and points in between.

East Meets West: The Silk Road begins on March 19, 2013.