Religions of the Silk Road
Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century
BY RICHARD C. FOLTZ
NEW YORK: ST. MARTIN’S PRESS, 2000
186 PAGES PLUS PREFACE, PAPERBACK, ISBN 0-312-23338-8
The Internet, one might say, is the new Silk Road: it is a place that links various parts of the world; a place where people and other larger entities conduct business (e.g., e-commerce); a place fraught with danger (e.g., “hackers”); and a place where people exchange goods and ideas. While this picture of the new Silk Road works well as an explanatory device, Richard Foltz’s Religions of the Silk Road situates the dynamics of cross-cultural contact and trade along the ancient Silk Road.
Foltz’s intriguing work first surveys the variety of individuals who traveled the Silk Road; discusses the role of religion and trade along ancient trading routes; documents when, where, why, and how Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims traveled it; and concludes by reflecting on the collusion and collision of faith(s)—all the while demonstrating that both commerce and religion constituted the most important dynamics of the Silk Road’s history.
As pioneering and commendable as Religions of the Silk Road is, non-specialist readers may balk at the barrage of details and unfamiliar names and places, many of which come without proper introductory context; several low-quality maps contribute to this critical commentary.
Such observations aside, Religions of the Silk Road brilliantly captures the complexity of contact along the Silk Road: peoples from Asia to Europe traveled and traded along this commercial and cultural highway. This “conversation of cultures” (144), as Foltz puts it, depended upon individuals with economic savvy and religious conviction, and individuals committed to demanding journeys and participation in networks of various kinds. Also, Foltz innovatively covers a broad range of history and expertly examines a wide swath of individuals and cultures, reflecting a multidisciplinary aim representative of new directions in the writing of world history.
With a helpful introductory lecture or two, students (advanced secondary and undergraduate) will most likely find the chapters “The Silk Road and Its Travelers” and “The Islamization of the Silk Road” most intriguing as the former uncovers the humanity of Silk Road travel while the latter demonstrates the fluidity with which Islam moved along spectrums of trade.
The following quote not only captures the experiences of ancient travelers along the Silk Road, it also describes ones encounter with Foltz’s important book: “The Silk Road was more than just a conduit along which religions hitched rides East; it constituted a formative and transformative rite of passage” (8).