How Did Religion Spread Along the Silk Road? Crash Course Geography #31
Around 45 BCE, silk was introduced toRome. Depending on what route you take, this luxurious fabric travelled over6400 kilometers on its way from China and likely would’ve changed many hands. It wasn’t long before spices, produce,and other cloth was moving east to west, south to north, and everywhere inbetween all over Asia, the Mediterranean, and North Africa — which some stories say tookanywhere from several months to almost 10 years. And the routes got more elaborate orsimple depending on who controlled them, and what taxes and feestraders were trying to avoid. This collection of routes — which thrived foralmost 1600 years — became known as the Silk Road. .
But today they are more often called theSilk Roads to acknowledge just how many routes, people, and places were part of this network. And even today — over 2000 years since silkfirst appeared in Rome — exploring the Silk Roads can tell us a lot about how worldviewsand other ideas spread along those trade routes and eventually influenced the beliefsof billions of people through time and space. I’m Alizé Carrère, and thisis Crash Course Geography. INTRO In Cultural Geography, we’re specificallyinterested in how and why culture changes. 1600 years of trading along the Silk Roads offerslots of examples of how diffusion, or the spread .
Of ideas across space, happened as traders mingledand left artifacts like maps and statues behind. Imagine those late nights as travelersfrom all over the world were staying at an inn, a monastery, or other lodging. Maybe after an evening meal, they’d sharefolklore from their homelands. These are stories that were passed on, often by spoken-word,that educate a community about their history. Or, maybe they’d skip the stories and go straightto how they see current conditions in the world. Either way — and in other ways too! — they’dshare a little bit about their worldview which is a set of beliefs, morals, and attitudesabout the world and a person’s role in it. Our worldview is transmitted to us by acommunity, but then shaped and changed by .
Our life experience. It helps us answer questionsthat come from our natural human curiosity like, what is the meaning of life? How didthe universe form? What is my purpose? What is Truth? Is there banana in this soup? The way we approach these questions and the way we develop and share knowledge isa fundamental cultural trait, one of those building blocks that make upour unique cultural identity, like language. Specifically, a religion is a belief system andset of practices that help a community define what is acceptable. Religions can be drivenby theology, or belief in a divine power, but there are also belief systemsguided by morals and principles .
Without the presence of something beyond humans. Now I just want to take a moment to saytalking about culture is really hard. If you're taking an AP test or an intro togeography class, you might see some religions put into categories that don't perfectly match howthey exist and are practiced in the world today. And that makes being a human geographerreally hard, but also really exciting. People are complicated, and there's so muchnuance to what we're studying. So we'll do our best to explain the definitions we're using, thetime period we’re talking about, and why or how certain religions fall into different categories.But just remember, the lines are pretty blurry. Like in Malaysia we saw how belief systems canliterally imprint on a space as people travel, .
Just like we imagined with those late nighttravellers. Which is eventually how we end up with places of worship built with bothChinese and European elements, or people in Malaysia and Indonesia practicing the samedenomination of Islam as people in Saudi Arabia. And to us geographers, the movement of people’sbeliefs and how they build their identity through those beliefs can tell us a lot about the movementof power, empire, and people around the planet. In fact, relics from the time ofthe Silk Roads show belief systems mingling and moving — if you know where to look. Around 150 CE, Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek scholarliving in Alexandria, wrote a book that contained what Europeans would eventually use to create(what they thought was) the map of the world. .
His descriptions of how to draw a 2 dimensionalmap of our 3 dimensional world have been so celebrated that Western geographerssometimes call him the father of geography. Now we know that his map projectionswere really amazing for the time, but there were a lot of meaningful geographicadvances before his book and between when Ptolemy published his calculations and whenByzantines rediscovered them 1,145 years later. Ptolemy’s calculations are exciting becausethey use latitude and longitude lines, which we might take for granted now but are reallyan amazing mathematical innovation. He’s also credited for working out the rough boundariesof land, even land he hadn’t seen before. And even though we don’t have any versions hedrew himself, the math behind the map tells us .
About Ptolemy’s worldview. Mapmakers beforePtolemy had sized different countries based on how important they were. So even though manyof his calculations were later proven incorrect, Ptolemy introducing mathchanged cartography forever. And to the careful geographic eye this mapalso reveals a lot about the worldview of the cartographer who later drew the map. Like the way“Ethiopia” is sort of all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Or how it looks like people areblowing the wind around the world, which gives a slight nod tocherubs and Greek mythology. Along the Silk Roads we’d also find mapsthat reveal other belief systems and multiple religious hearths, or places of origin,from which different religions diffused out. .
Today, the former lands of the SilkRoads are still known for a large number of people practicing an ethnic religion, which is one of the two broad categoriesof faiths and includes religions that are typically tied closely to a place orgroup of people from a particular culture. Like within ethnic religions thereare often animist traditions, or ethnic religions that worship based onthe local environment. Animist traditions often understand that non-humans in nature havespiritual power to help, harm, and teach humans. Within geography, belief systems we’dfind on the Silk Roads like Shintoism, Taoism, and Confucianism are often consideredethnic religions because of how the cultural .
Mechanisms to teach the belief system arewoven into their place of origin. Like Shinto shrines are very important areas forworship and are rarely found outside Japan. That doesn’t mean those practices don’texist outside of those places and peoples or that other places won’t be added asthe belief system changes over time. It just means they’re usually closely associatedwith one group of people or one place. Now when a religion or belief system spreadsand becomes accessible to a wide part of the population outside of its hearth, a religionis said to be universal. In general, universal religions are seen as ones that spread easily,are easy for people in any location to convert to, and don’t need a person to come from a particularethnic group to fully participate in that faith. .
“Ethnic” or “universal” are examples ofthose messy categories we use to try and understand religion. Buuuuut, it’s complicated. Like as some people from what is now India movedalong the Silk Roads starting in the 4th century, they would’ve brought their belief systems withthem. What originally developed in the Hindu religious hearth was probably something calledBrahmanism. Then as people practiced this belief system, it would’ve changed, eventuallybecoming more recognizable as Hinduism, which has inspired what are considereddistinctively Indian cultural traits. But, those traits also can diffuse, often throughrelocation diffusion which is one of the broad categories of diffusion and is when people moveand take their beliefs. That ease of movement .
Occurs in part because this faith practice isalso able to incorporate a wide range of beliefs. So it’s common in geography texts to see Hinduism put into the ethnic religion categorybecause it’s most accessible in India. But Hinduism today has elements of both ethnic anduniversal faiths and is a major world religion. Faith leaders of all major religions would’ve also had places called caravanserais fortravelers to rest along the Silk Roads. For example, there were several Buddhistmonasteries on the road connecting Bactria to Taxila. While there was no fee forlodging, travelers often would make a donation as a sign of generosity. In return,the monks would impart spiritual guidance. .
So over time, some traders might’ve made a regularhabit of stopping to learn from particular monks, and through that habit, followers ofBuddhism increased. This is an example of a type of contagion diffusion,or the spread of ideas from contact, which is a type of expansion diffusion,the other broad category of diffusion. So maybe it's not a coincidence that amajority of the faiths we'd describe as “universal” can be traced to originsalong the Silk Roads, and that within each of these broad religion groups, there arehundreds of denominations and local practices. Today we can look back and see how otherideas diffused along the Silk Roads too. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa,the cultural importance placed on education, .
First from the Greeks, then Romans, then Muslims,led to one of the oldest existing and currently operating universities being established in Fez,in what is now Morocco in the 9th century CE. Fez became a center of education, which, alongwith the many large cities along the Silk Roads, often had hierarchical diffusion, anothertype of expansion diffusion that we see when a prominent populationpractices a cultural trait. Slowly the idea spreads to smallertowns and the surrounding area. As a product of those learning systems,by 1154 CE, there was a new map of the Silk Roads made by Muhammad al-Idrisi,an Arab-Muslim geographer, traveler, and scholar that came from the Almoravid empirein what is now called Morocco. This map came from .
Firsthand reports of travelers and geographersthat worked for him, as well as his own research. Artifacts like Al-Idrisi’s map leave behindclues about how people interacted with and saw the world, just like Ptolemy’s. Thismap was notable because like many maps by Muslim and Chinese cartographers, South wasoriented at the top of the map, not North. While there’s no definitive explanation forwhy maps were oriented that way, by orienting the map with South at the top of the page, theHoly Land of Mecca is often central to the map. Maps often reveal what was importantto the cartographers making them, and in fact, the Islamic Holy Landwould have been important to many people since it’s also holy to the otherAbrahamic Faiths, Christianity and Judaism. .
In 2020, the three major Abrahamic Faiths arepracticed by over half of the world’s population. That huge spread has several reasons, but onewould be various types of expansion diffusion, which is when a cultural trait developsin a center, and then moves outward. Though the Middle East and North Africawasn’t the only site of significant diffusion. By 1402 CE, what we now call Korea and Chinabecame places of great cultural mixing, especially along the trade routes betweenpresent day India, Tibet, China, and Korea. At that time, there was a Korean map calledthe Gangnido that would’ve been used that’s thought to have been completed withthe aid of Muslim and Chinese maps. And like the maps before it, the Gangnidois significant because it shows a worldview .
That’s centered on the homeland ofthe cartographers, and is one of the earliest maps to get the shape of Africaand the Arabian Peninsula mostly correct. Today’s religious map shows a world full of uniqueinterpretations of morality and beliefs. And this map is deceiving — remember, with a thematic maplike this, the nuance of the data is obscured. Like there are lots of cases of culturalacculturation along the Silk Roads, where people would pick and choosedifferent elements to combine. Ultimately we end up withsomething related, but different. In some of these cases, we end upwith faiths that combine the core beliefs from two or more religions,which are called Syncretic Religions. .
And thematic maps can’t show thiscomplexity, the merging and overlap of religions regionally, and that there aremultiple religions in each of these places. As we know, maps are often created fromthe worldview of the cartographer and can prioritize certain stories — like where thecenter of the world is — or can minimize others, like the location or prominence of ethnic faiths. But by comparing maps throughout history, we can see that the Silk Roads played a majorrole in facilitating the diffusion of knowledge, both academic and religious, along withthe movement of goods like spices and silk. Today, hundreds of years later, we stillfeel the impact of the way knowledge has .
Developed — like in the spices we use whenwe cook, the cloth we see as beautiful, and the traditions and rituals we practice.All of these changed along the Silk Roads and will continue to change as our culturesshare knowledge and make it their own. Thanks for watching this episode of CrashCourse Geography which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pierce Studio and was made with thehelp of all these nice people. If you want to help keep all Crash Course free for everyone,forever, you can join our community on Patreon.