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.

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