Journey To The Ancient Silk Road: A Caucasus Adventure

When I was researching for my novel Shadow of the Dome I became fascinated by the idea of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes that once connected Europe with China. Although my novel mostly takes place at sea, it is based around the travels of Marco Polo, who travelled the Silk Road on more than one occasion. So I was very happy to find myself exploring some of the places he mentioned in his writings, in the Caucasus countries of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan.

What Was The Silk Road?

The Silk Road (or Silk Route) was a trading route followed by merchants from the 6th century onwards. In practice, there was not one single route, but a series of paths that could be followed. Traders with their camel caravans would travel in convoy, stopping at purpose built caravanserais (overnight lodging places) along the way.

As the name implies, silk was an important commodity for these merchants, but spices, ceramics and other consumer goods were also traded. But the ancient Silk Road was also a place where ideas and customs were shared, a way of exchanging knowledge between East and West.

Silk Road And The Caucasus

Today most Silk Road trips concentrate on the “Five Stans” of central Asia. However one route from Europe to Asia went via Constantinople (now Istanbul) and the Black Sea, crossing the northern Caucasus on the way to the Caspian Sea. It would have passed through current day Georgia and Azerbaijan, reaching the Caspian at Baku.

At one time this route was so important that it led to conflict between the empires of Persia and Byzantium as they fought for control of the trade routes. Merchants continued to follow the road through the Caucasus until 1453, when it was cut off by the Fall of Constantinople.

Massive wooden door with stone surround. The word "Karvansaray" is written above the door.
Medieval merchants would stay in caravanserais like this one in Sheki

Marco Polo And The Silk Road

Marco Polo was a 13th century Venetian merchant who spent many years in the service of Kublai Khan in China, recording his experiences in The Travels of Marco Polo. He would have followed the ancient trade route from Venice to China on more than one occasion but, despite his detailed record keeping, it is not entirely clear which route (or routes) he took.

The Travels do contain some tantalising hints. Although Marco Polo mentions Armenia the towns he names are actually in modern day Turkey. However references to Mount Ararat (close to the border between Armenia and Turkey) and to the northern border with Georgia suggest that he must have travelled through the land we now know as Armenia. References to silver mines and carpet making (both of which Armenia is still famous for) are further clues.

And we know that his travels took him to Azerbaijan, because he mentions Baku by name and describes seeing “a spring from which gushes a stream of oil”: then, as now, the country was known for its oil wells.

Massive flame gushing from the ground.
Did Marco Polo see this “eternal flame” at Yanardag?

In The Footsteps Of Merchants

Although we don’t know Marco Polo’s exact route, it is easy to imagine that you are following in his footsteps when travelling through remote areas of the Caucasus. He would certainly have encountered the tree covered mountains of Armenia and the semi desert of Azerbaijan. There would have been narrow mountain passes, long gorges and misty mornings. And remote dwellings scattered throughout the countryside

Today there are cows wandering along the roadside and gaggles of geese crossing the road, but in the Middle Ages there would also have been bears in the forests. There would have been brigands too, keen to assault travelling merchants laden with valuable goods. People would have had to travel in convoy for safety.

Following Marco Polo In The Caucasus

On my trip I went to several places that might have been known to Marco Polo. Given his description of the oil wells close to Baku it is tempting to think that he visited Yanardag, a sacred place with a flame that has been burning for a thousand years. Or perhaps that he went to the Ateshgah Fire Temple, an ancient place of worship for the Zoroastrian religion. In fact the latter is a distinct possibility because the flames were surrounded by a caravanserai, a place where Marco Polo and his retinue might well have lodged.

I saw other caravanserais, which even if not visited by Marco Polo, would certainly have been used by merchants on the Silk Route. The Karvansaray in Sheki is the largest in the Caucasus (and now a rather impressive hotel). And in Georgia the Tbilisi Historical Museum is housed in a former caravanserai.

Bazaar in an underground cavern. The walls are covered in goods for sale including colourful scarves and hats. On the floor are wagons piled up with more clothes.
The Meidan Bazaar in Tbilisi

Finally, also in Tbilisi, I visited the Meidan Bazaar. This was once an important stop for Silk Road merchants, a meeting place for traders from around the world. Plaques on the floor show the range of goods on offer: “row of wine”, “row of cotton”, etc. It still has the feel of an old fashioned bazaar with lots of different goods available, a link to Marco Polo and those who travelled the Silk Route.

Marco Polo is a central character in my novel “Shadow of the Dome”, available on Amazon.

The London Chocolate Houses Of The 17th And 18th Centuries

It is hard to imagine now, but chocolate was once an exotic luxury, available only to the wealthy. It was taken as a drink, and in 17th century London chocolate houses opened to serve the rich and powerful. But these fashionable new establishments were often rowdy and scandalous places…

Chocolate Comes To London

Chocolate was introduced to Spain from the New World in the 16th century, and gradually spread across Europe. It arrived in London in the 1650s, and soon became popular at the court of King Charles II.

The new drink was initially served in the London coffee houses, but it wasn’t long before dedicated chocolate houses started to appear. The earliest was opened by a Frenchman in 1657, in Queen’s Head Alley off Bishopsgate.

Af first the cocoa was just mixed with water and spices, but sugar was later added to mask the bitter taste. Sir Hans Sloane, a London physician and naturalist, introduced the idea of adding milk following a visit to Jamaica in 1689.

Historic exterior of the shop of Berry Bros & Rudd. Outside has arched windows and doors and is painted black
Berry Bros and Rudd supplied cocoa to the early chocolate houses

Fashionable Meeting Places

Although chocolate was fashionable, and considered to have health-giving properties, it wasn’t the main reason to visit the chocolate houses. These were places for socialising and networking, and their patrons could be sure that anyone who could afford chocolate was as influential and wealthy as themselves.

Many of the chocolate houses were in the elite areas of London, particularly St James’s. They included White’s, established in 1693, and The Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall. The chocolate houses bought their cocoa from the shop of Berry Bros and Rudd on St James’s Street, which opened in 1698 to supply local businesses with chocolate and coffee. (You can still visit the shop, although today it is a wine and spirit merchant.)

Circular entrance hall of a grand clubhouse, with antique furnishing and a vintage car in the middle of the floor
The Cocoa Tree is now a grand clubhouse for the RAC

Dens of Iniquity

The chocolate houses were an all-male environment. They were places to drink chocolate and have a meal, and to discuss business and politics. Unfortunately the debate was not always gentlemanly, and the atmosphere could become quite rowdy. Charles II tried (unsuccessfully) to have the establishments banned, because he considered them to be “hotbeds of sedition”.

Another popular activity – which contributed to their bad reputation – was gambling. Entire fortunes could be won and lost, and seemingly bizarre wagers were placed. On one infamous occasion the bet was on whether a sick man would live or die.

Public opinion was reflected in William Hogarth’s series of satirical pictures, “The Rake’s Progress”, where the gambling sequence shows a scene of debauchery in White’s gaming room. Elsewhere in contemporary culture, Jonathan Swift described White’s as “the bane of the English nobility”.

Gentleman’s Clubs

The chocolate houses fell out of fashion towards the end of the 18th century. The Cocoa Tree became a private club, and its later members included Lord Byron. It is now a grand clubhouse for the RAC.

Exterior of White's Club, a grand building with columns, tall windows and external decorative features
The present day White’s Club

As for White’s, it burnt down and moved to its present location on St James’s Street in 1771. Today it maintains its status as the oldest gentleman’s club in London, an exclusive meeting place for the elite. In some ways not too different from its earliest clientele!

Marco Polo And Korčula

I visited Korčula, in Croatia, when I was researching my novel Shadow of the Dome. I was particularly keen to explore the Marco Polo House – you might be surprised to know that this claims to be the birthplace of the great explorer!

Most historians are of the opinion that that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was born in Venice, but the old walled town of Korčula, on an island of the same name close to Dubrovnik, has a strong rival claim. The evidence for either birthplace is not conclusive, so I set out to find the connection between Marco Polo and Korčula.

Polo Family Links With Korčula

On the one hand, Marco Polo was certainly a Venetian citizen, and it is known that he spent at least some of his early life in Venice and that he eventually settled there. On the other hand, Korčula was a part of the Venetian republic in the 13th century and it is also true that the Polo family had long trading links with the Croatian town.

Looking from the sea to a medieval town with a large tower, defensive walls and old houses. There is a ship and cars in the foreground
The island town of Korčula

The Croatian tradition is that Marco Polo was born to a local family of merchants and shipbuilders who moved to Venice soon afterwards. The records show that some members of the Polo family were active in the shipbuilding industry in Korčula at the time and, indeed, the name Depolo has been prominent in the town to the present day. It is also likely that Marco’s father and uncle had business interests in both Korčula and Venice.

However, the known facts of Marco Polo’s early life are that he was born after his father and uncle had set out for their first trip to China and that he met his father for the first time 15 years later. During that time Marco’s mother had died and he had gone to live with an aunt and uncle in Venice. Would an orphaned Croatian boy have travelled across the sea to live with relatives in a distant city? Or is it more likely that he was already in Venice at the time of his mother’s death?

Later Connection With Korčula

Whatever the truth of the matter, Marco Polo does have a later (if tenuous) connection with the island. Though he spent many years of his life in China (accompanying his father and uncle on their second trip to the court of Kublai Khan), he did eventually return to Venice. He was unwilling to settle immediately into the relatively sedentary life of a prosperous merchant and became involved in the war between Venice and Genoa.

He was commanding a ship in the naval battle of Korčula when he was captured and taken to prison in Genoa. It was here that he related his experiences to his fellow prisoner Rusticello who wrote them down and created the book that we now know as Marco Polo’s Travels.

Narrow street with steps leading downwards. There are tall stone buildings on either side and a stone archway across the road
The narrow streets of Korcula

Marco Polo And Modern Day Korčula

Today the town abounds with allusions to the explorer, with a Marco Polo hotel, Marco Polo restaurant and countless reminders in the shops. Every year in July there is a Marco Polo Festival of Song and Wine although, apart from the name, it is difficult to tell what connection the festival has with Marco Polo!

Tourists can visit the Marco Polo House, the house in which he is reputed to have been born. This has now been opened as a small museum with items related to the explorer’s travels, but the chief item of interest is the tower which gives panoramic views across the old town.

Side of old stone house with an external staircase up to the roof
The Marco Polo House in Korčula, now a museum

And in 1997 the International Marco Polo Centre was set up in Korčula with the aim of studying Marco Polo’s life and work, encouraging tourism in Korcula and establishing cultural ties between Europe and Asia. As the town’s tourist website acknowledges, the truth about Marco Polo’s birthplace will never be known, but his legacy in spreading understanding between different cultures will always remain.

Visiting Korčula

Quite apart from the Marco Polo connection, the town of Korčula is a great place for a day out. It is a bit like a miniature Dubrovnik, with a maze of narrow streets, an old city wall and restaurants on every corner. Elsewhere on the island you can enjoy hiking, cycling, watersports or vineyard visits.

Ferries run to Korčula from Dubrovnik and from the neighbouring island of Hvar.

(You can read more about the research I did to write Shadow of the Dome, from the South China Sea to a shopping mall in Dubai…)

Pirates Of The Malacca Strait

When I was writing my novel Shadow of the Dome I discovered that piracy was a big problem for seafarers in the 13th century. And when I went on a cruise of southeast Asia as part of my research I realised that it can still be a problem today!

The Malacca Strait, which runs between Malaysia and Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been a favourite haunt of pirates for over a thousand years. In recent years 40% of the world’s pirate attacks have taken place in this region. 

Protection From Pirates

I sailed through the Malacca Strait as part of the cruise and I idly wondered whether we would have any “close encounters”. But the ship’s lecturer on piracy assured us that pirates would have no interest in a shipload of British holidaymakers who kept demanding cups of tea every half hour! However I did notice that the ship had razor wire around the edges as well as water cannons. And some of my fellow passengers informed me that they had been on a cruise around East Africa when pirates had tried to mount their ship at night. Fortunately on that occasion the intruders were scared off…

In the middle ages ships would travel in big convoys for protection but even that didn’t always stop the pirates from attacking. It is easy to imagine big battles at sea, with fierce looking pirates mounting the side of a ship under cover of darkness, brandishing machetes, while the ship (if it detects them in time) fires cannons and tries to push the pirates into the water. Clearly the pirates were often successful, as they acquired a sort of mythology among Chinese seafarers, being compared with sea dragons, and were reputed to have magical qualities including invisibility and an inability to sink.

Hiding Places For Pirates

Modern pirates are more likely to be of Indonesian origin. Pirates flourish when a number of conditions are present. Firstly, they need somewhere to hide. Then there has to be something worth stealing. And finally, piracy thrives on weak local governance or political unrest. Historically all of these conditions have existed in the Malacca Strait.  

Bay surrounded by rocks and forest.
There are lots of hiding places for pirates in the Malacca Strait (photo copyright tian yake, creative commons licence from Flickr)

The Strait is 900 km long but only 1.7 km wide at its narrowest point, making it a choke point for the merchant vessels that pass through. It is studded with thousands of little islands and the shoreline is a mass of tangled mangrove swamps, inlets and reefs. In mediaeval times pirates would hide out among the mangroves and launch raids upon nearby villages as well as on passing ships, and today the area continues to offer a wealth of hiding places.

Valuable Cargoes

The Malacca Strait is part of the most direct sea route from India to China and it has been a busy trade route since the earliest times. In the middle ages cargoes would include Chinese porcelain and silks as well as peppercorns and other spices. Spices were particularly valuable as they often had limited habitats and were much in demand for culinary and medicinal purposes. Passengers or crew members might also be taken as slaves.

Today around a third of the world’s trade passes through the Strait, including half of all oil shipments from the Middle East. The route continues to be used despite the threat of piracy as alternative routes are long and costly. Pirates target cargoes, onboard cash and valuables, and prisoners for ransom; or they may simply take over the ship itself.

Political And Economic Conditions

In early times piracy was a way of life, with rich pickings from passing ships. Pirates effectively controlled the Strait, often demanding tribute from ships and port authorities. Local rulers later took advantage of this, working with the pirates to take charge of the area and to fight off potential invaders.

There was an increase in piracy in the 18th century as European traders sought to dominate the spice trade. This was partly a protest against colonisation but also a response to the loss of livelihood as lucrative trade was drawn away from the region.

More recently piracy has been fuelled by political unrest in Indonesia and the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Modern pirates fall into three categories: organised crime, terrorists and small opportunists.

Combatting Piracy On The Malacca Strait

The geography of the Malacca Strait region makes piracy hard to suppress. Historically, conflict between neighbouring states ruled out any collaborative approach and mediaeval traders would sail in convoy, often with naval ships, to minimise their exposure to pirates.

In the 19th century the British and Dutch colonial powers agreed a demarcation line, with the Dutch controlling the waters by Sumatra, and the British monitoring the Malaysia/Singapore side of the Strait. This, together, with increased political and economic stability in the region, led to a decrease in pirate activity.

Piracy In The 21st Century

In recent times there has been a renewed imperative to eliminate piracy in the Malacca Strait. Commercial companies have to face possible loss of life and goods, as well as increased insurance premiums. There are also concerns about terrorist activity and the potential for a major oil spillage.

Multinational controls over the Strait have now been established. Despite initial resistance from local governments, who saw it as a threat to their sovereignty, these measures do seem to be working, with only two attacks in 2010.

The Dilmun Civilisation: Archaeological Sites Of Bahrain

Bahrain might be a modern oil state, but it is also home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. The Dilmun kingdom flourished here more than 4,000 years ago, and there are several archaeological sites around the island. Here you can see the places where these ancient people lived, worshipped and were buried. Two of Bahrain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites are remains from the Dilmun era.

The Dilmun Civilisation

Dilmun was an important trading centre that existed at the same time as the Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia. The exact boundaries are unclear, but the island of Bahrain was the most important part of the kingdom.

Ancient stone steps.
Steps down to the well at the Temple of Barbar

Dilmun is sometimes known as the “Land of the Living”. In mythological terms it is likely to have been the place where the hero Gilgamesh travelled to find the secret of eternal life (the Epic of Gilgamesh is the world’s oldest written story). Dilmun has also been proposed as the location of the Garden of Eden.

The Discovery Of Dilmun

Remarkably, until the 20th century the Dilmun civilisation was virtually unknown. The ancient burial mounds that cover Bahrain were thought to have been offshore graves for people from the Arabian mainland, and no evidence of human settlement had been discovered. The discovery and excavation of towns and temples was largely the work of a Danish archaeological team who worked in Bahrain (and subsequently elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula) in the 1950s and 60s. It was this team that first connected their discoveries with the “lost” Dilmun civilisation.

If you are planning to visit Bahrain, or are just interested in ancient history, I recommend that you read Looking for Dilmun by Geoffrey Bibby, one of the leaders of the Danish team. Although the book was written in 1969, it is still the definitive work on Bahrain and the Dilmun civilisation (it is also very readable and gives an insight into the changes to Middle Eastern society in the second half of the 20th century).

UNESCO World Heritage

Two of Bahrain’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Burial Mounds and Qal’at al‑Bahrain – are from the Dilmun era (the third is the Pearling Heritage of Muharraq). A further site – the town and burial chambers of Saar – is on the UNESCO Tentative List.

Large circular stone structure surrounded by sand.
A reconstructed burial mound at Saar

Dilmun Sites In Bahrain

There are several archaological sites around the island. There are also museums where you can learn more about the sites and their history.

I have marked the places mentioned on this map. Note that it does not include Diraz, a minor site that I didn’t manage to visit. And that new excavations and discoveries are being made all the time, such as the recent discovery of a Dilmun Garden near Maqabah.

Museums

The Bahrain National Museum in Manama has lots of information about the archaeological sites and about the Dilmun culture and society. It has artefacts recovered during excavations, and reconstructions of burial chambers.

The Bahrain Fort Museum includes information about the different phases of Dilmun civilisation.

Dilmun Burial Mounds

There are more than 11,000 burial mounds on Bahrain, spread over 21 different sites. A mixture of mass graves and individual tombs, the mounds date back as far as 2200 BC. Typically they consisted of low cylindrical towers with separate chambers inside. The chambers were filled with rubble and over time the brickwork has been damaged and plundered, so that the graves degenerated into the rubble mounds that you see today.

Large number of stone mounds with modern buildings in the distance.
Burial mounds at Aali

You are likely to see burial mounds as you drive around Bahrain or visit the archaeological sites. One of the best places to see a large concentration of graves is beside the Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Highway in Aali.

Bahrain Fort (Qal’at Al-Bahrain)

Qal’at al-Bahrain was the major city of the Dilmun era, and included a trading port as well as public and religious buildings. However, the site was subsequently occupied by the Babylonians and the Persians, and eventually the Portuguese built the massive Bahrain Fort on top of the Dilmun town, meaning that much of it is now lost.

Stone walls of medieval fortress with ruins of a much older town in front.
The remains of the Dilmun town outside the walls of the more modern Bahrain Fort

There are different periods of excavations around the Fort, but the area adjoining the walls is from the Dilmun period. I also found another partially excavated site not far from the fort (see map). The existence of mounds showed that this site was also Dilmun, and possibly associated with Qal’at al-Bahrain, but I haven’t been able to find any further information.

Saar

Saar is one of the best places to explore the Dilmun civilisation. There are two separate parts to this site. The first is the remains of the town, with a street, houses and a temple. A short walk from the town is the burial area. One of the mounds has been reconstructed to show how it would originally have looked.

Looking into a dark space inside a stone burial mound.
Inside a reconstructed burial mound at Saar

At present there are no information boards or visitor centre at Saar. This is likely to change if it becomes a World Heritage Site but for now visitors can enjoy the isolation and the ability to wander around as they please.

Barbar

Barbar is a complex of three different temples, centred around a fresh water spring. It is not known for certain which god was worshipped here, but Inzak (local equivalent of the Sumerian Enki, god of wisdom and fresh water) is a strong contender.

There is a visitor centre at Barbar with more information about the site.

Ruins of ancient town with stone walls and buildings.
The ancient town of Saar