Contact between China and the Near East predates the advent of Islam in the seventh century; sea and land routes connected the two regions as early as the third century B.C. The main route was the Silk Road, named after the most important commodity that was traded along it—Chinese silk (see map). The ease of travel across Asia and the Middle East was facilitated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by the Pax Mongolica (literally, "Mongol peace")—the unification under the Mongol conquerors, who swept through Asia establishing control over territories stretching from East Asia to eastern Europe (see map).
In addition to traveling by land routes, merchants also traded via sea routes, carrying luxury commodities such as ceramics, carpets, rice wine, musk, perfumes, paper, dyestuffs, pearls, ink, and ivory in great quantities.
During the reign of the Abbasids (750–1258) there was remarkable expansion in international trade. Sea routes stretched all the way from Iraq to Indonesia, and ships traveling back and forth would stop at many ports along the way to buy and sell goods. Abbasid merchants returned home with finished goods (such as ceramics, paper, silk, and ink from China) as well as raw materials (like spices from India and teakwood from Southeast Asia). This boom in trade transformed Iraq into an international marketplace in which prized Chinese and Southeast Asian imports such as silk, paper, tea, and ceramics were sold.
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Denise Leidy: The term "Silk Road" is, of course, a metaphor for a series of overland trade routes, some of which ran north and south, but the two biggest of which ran from east—so, technically from China—all the way through what we often refer to as central Asia and into the Islamic world, and, ultimately, of course, from the Islamic world into the European world. So it was probably the first great global highway in world history. If silk and a certain kind of luxury textile went from east to west, then a taste for luxury metalwork clearly went from west—in which case, I mean the ancient Near East and the Islamic world—to east, because the Chinese prior to the sixth century or so really didn't have gold and silver very much.
Maryam Ekhtiar: Another material that was brought into the Islamic world from China is paper.
Denise Leidy: That's a very good point. You know, it's one of these commonplace things that we take for granted but in fact it changed how the world wrote, and how they recorded things. In museums, we tend to end up focusing on things that are very tangible—ceramics or textiles or even paper—but in fact so much more was traded.
Maryam Ekhtiar: That's right.
Denise Leidy: Spices.
Maryam Ekhtiar: Spices and pearls and ivory and incense.
Denise Leidy: And so it's, I think, very interesting to look at all the great objects in a museum and imagine them moving with all these other things as people discovered each other through their visual and material cultures.