Have you ever dreamed of turning the clock back many centuries and travel like a medieval merchant on camel back? Crossing deserts, mountains and vast plains, meeting countless civilizations along the way, eating their food and indulging in their culture?
In 1997 a heavily sponsored expedition of photographers and film makers set out to do exactly that. For 14 months, they traveled on camel back, starting in China in June 1996 and ending up in Canakkale/Turkey in April 1997. The aim was to follow the ancient silk route and a rather hilarious summary can be found here.
You might not be able to repeat the experience, or even travel as part of a caravan by camel, but there are still parts and stretches of the ancient silk route to be admired in Turkey today. You can even stay in a caravanserai and let your imagination run riot.
First, let’s take a look at history and see what the silk route actually was.
History of the Silk Route
The words silk road or silk route are interchangeable. Silk route might be the more adequate name, because the ancient trade path had many side routes and diversions. It wasn’t just one more or less straight stretch which ran from East to West.
The beginnings date back to China’s Han dynasty and 130BC. It ended with the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The name silk route was actually coined by German historian Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. But it wasn’t only silk which the merchants carried on their camels but also other coveted goods from the East, like spices which were exchanged for gold from the West.
During the times of the Roman Empire, the silk trade thrived, because silk became extremely popular in Rome. Despite many attempts by the Senate to forbid garments made from silk, the Roman ladies continued to cover themselves in the diaphanous fabric.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Byzantine one, silk and spices remained in high demand. So much so, that Emperor Justinian sent two monks to China with instructions the steal silk worms and bring them back.
The worms took to the climate and silk production began to flourish in Turkey, particularly in Bursa.
The caravans from China to the West took a long time for their journey and obviously, beast and men needed to rest along the way. That’s how the caravanserais came into being.
They are all built to the same blue print: huge rectangular courtyards for the camels and other animals, surrounded by several galleries with rooms for the merchants and servants. Add a mosque, kitchen and hamam and you get the picture.
Konya and Aksaray
Following trajects of the silk road brings you to some of the best and most interesting parts of the country. Not only because of the connection to the ancient trade road but also because of other historical and cultural sites.
Konya in Central Anatolia is just such a place. It was the capital of the Selcuk Sultanate of Rum from 1097 to 1243. Konya is best known as the home of Mevlana Rumi, the founder of the Sufi order and the whirling dervishes.
He is buried in a magnificent tomb in Konya and each year a huge festival attracts thousands of visitors to watch the performances of the whirling dervishes.
From Koya, follow a part of the silk road to one of its most important stop over: Aksaray in Cappadocia.
The town is a great starting point to visit the fairy chimneys and other marvels of the region.
It’s also near Aksaray that you will find Turkey’s biggest and best preserved caravanserai: Sultan Han.
Bursa’s Silk Bazaar
Head further north towards the Black Sea region and visit Bursa, another former capital of the Selcuks. It’s here were the stolen silk worms from Emperor Justinian ended up. The climate and soil were ideal for mulberry trees which are the preferred food for the worms and for nearly 500 years, Bursa became the most important center for silk production and silk trade.
Koza Han,built in 1490, the impressive silk bazaar bears witness to the importance of silk for Bursa. Sadly, the silk boom is over as Bursa silk can’t compete with (get this!!) the much cheaper Chinese products. Nearly a thousand years after the ‘theft’, the Chinese get their own back. Such is history.
The former rooms of the caravanserai are now small shops which still sell the most beautiful scarves and garments. From producing to designing, silk is still very much a part of life in Bursa.
From near the Black Sea head to the Aegean Sea and the lovely resort of Kusadasi. As I said before, the silk route had many branches and one of them veered towards nearby Ephesus and to the port of Kusadasi.
Apart from several other remarkable buildings, Kusadasi is home of the Okuz Mehmet Pasha caravanserai.
Much younger than the others, it was built in 1618 after trade on the silk road had been closed by the Ottomans. Kusadasi is a port town and the caravanserai catered to the sea trade as well as being a defense castle.
Here you can finally have the caravanserai experience, because it’s a hotel. In fact, one of my favorites in Turkey. The guest rooms are the former rooms of the merchants, with thick walls, small windows, carved wood, carpets and pillows galore. Don’t worry, bathrooms are modern and impeccable and there is even a mini bar.
The courtyard is a café and on several evenings you can enjoy performances of musicians and belly dancers.
The Turkish part of the ancient silk route may be comparatively small compared to the full length but it’s full of unforgettable impressions and sights. Why not make this the theme of your next trip to Turkey?