In 1877 the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen introduced the name ‘Great Silk Road’ for a chain of age-old trade routes through Central Asia that connected the Far East to the West. For some 1,700 years, the Silk Road was the world’s largest trade network. Caravans of up to a thousand camels, horses, oxen and donkeys crossed deserts and high mountains to carry coveted goods from East to West and West to East. The first archaeological digs were carried out in the late nineteenth century, mainly by Russian expeditions. Vanished cities, cave monasteries, and necropolises came to light in Mongolia, western China, the Central Asian republics, and the Caucasus. Many treasures were found beneath the sands, from centuries before Christ and up to the Middle Ages: murals, silver, gold, painted silk, sculptures, and jewellery, all of high artistic quality and bearing witness to astonishing interactions between cultures and religions. Lost cities like Khara-Khoto, Panjakent, and Varakhsha were restored to their former glory. Ancient and sometimes forgotten empires were put back on the map: Sogdia, Parthia, Ustrushana. What the Silk Route revealed to Russian scholars is now waiting to be discovered in Amsterdam, with more than 250 treasures from the Hermitage.
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