Pluralism along the Silk Road facilitated the exchange of music styles and instruments

Silk Road (Image: Joshua J. Mark/Ancient History Encyclopedia)
Silk Road (Image: Joshua J. Mark/Ancient History Encyclopedia)

The Silk Road was an ancient network of routes stretching for over six thousand miles from China across Central Asia to the Middle East and the Mediterranean. For centuries, people travelled across the Silk Road carrying with them their commodities, music, poetry, and stories, which resulted in an incredible mix of Asian, Mediterranean, and European cultures. Similar to the World Wide Web, the Silk Road connected diverse communities across long distances.

Regular trade activity along the Silk Road began around 100 BC. Silk, invented in China around 3000 BC, was used as money. The highly valued silk cloth was also exported to Central Asia, where it was traded for fine horses for the army. Other valuable items such as porcelain, herbs, medicine, silver, and gold were also traded along the Silk Road. Most traders only went part of the way, sold their goods, and returned home while others carried the goods along the next stage of the trip, which meant things and ideas travelled much further than people did

Kithara (Image: Mark Cartwright/Greek Music)
Kithera (Image: Mark Cartwright/Greek Music)

Travellers also learned new kinds of music which facilitated the spread of musical styles and instruments to distant lands. For example, an ancient Greek instrument with many strings, the kithera, spread to various regions and is today known by many names such as the guitar, the zither, and the Indian instrument sitar.

The kithera, an instrument of the lyre family, had seven strings of equal length with a flat wooden body. Strings were stretched from a holder at the base of the instrument over a bridge to the crossbar that joined the two sidepieces. The musician made music by stroking across the strings.

The tar, (‘string’ in Persian), one of the most important classical Persian instruments, is a long-necked lute played in Iran, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, and Caucasus regions. The melodies performed on the tar were thought to have a calming effect on people. The sitar (‘derived from the Persian sehtar meaning ‘three strings’), seems to have descended from long-necked lutes taken to India from Central Asia.

Spirit & Life Catalogue, Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection, Published by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture
The Silk Road Project
Passport to the Silk Road, Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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