Today, the Silk Road goes to sea. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The storied Silk Road is
truly the stuff of ancient romance. It was a route
that reached from China to ports on the eastern end
of the Mediterranean. Camel caravans of tea, silk,
gems, and spices, moving slowly through Tibet,
Siberia, Samarkand, and Baghdad -- trying to evade
bandits and other dangers along the way. But the
last leg of the Silk Road was usually a long
sea voyage on the Mediterranean -- often
as far as Rome.
Ocean-going merchant ships were already well
developed. Typically, they were large, slow-moving,
square-rigged vessels. They could be as long as 180
feet and carry as much as a thousand tons of goods.
And there hangs our story:
For archaeologists have now found another equally
important route for oriental goods that was almost
entirely by sea. Science writer John Noble
Wilford tells of excavations on the Red Sea in
southern Egypt over a thousand kilometers from
Cairo or Alexandria.
These ancient ruined cities reveal a thriving ocean
trade from all the way across the Indian Ocean --
from present-day Pakistan, Calcutta, and even as
far as Canton and Java. The cities were becoming
major seaports two hundred years before the birth
of Christ. A stretch of southern Egyptian coast
turns out to've been a major way station in a vast
oceanic version of the old Silk Road. Small wonder
that Roman imports grew so large that Emperor
Tiberius had to worry about Rome's balance of
The ships came in around the Arabian Peninsula to
these ports halfway up the Red Sea. But why did
they stop there? The reason is that the coast of
Egypt is dangerously rocky, and it's constantly
raked by north winds. It was much safer to unload
goods in the south without trying to sail the
Egyptian coast. So goods were unloaded and taken
two or three hundred miles by caravan to the Nile
River. Then they traveled by boat to the port of
Evidence of many kinds testifies to how heavy the
traffic through the Indian Ocean became. These
ancient ruins have yielded documents written in at
least eleven languages. Archaeologists are finding
casual remains of sapphire, peppercorns, and beads
from the Orient. And there is evidence of outbound
products -- like wines and Egyptian glass.
They also find that some oriental ships were made
of valuable teak wood. They carried one rich load
of goods from the Orient. Then they were taken
apart to be made into expensive furniture.
All this ended in the late days of the Roman
Empire. The ports silted over, and the cities died.
Another six hundred years, and Marco Polo would go
to China to renew Europe's awareness of the rich
culture far to the East.
And only now do we discover just what a vast global
trade was routinely being carried on -- well over a
millennium before Marco Polo.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wilford, J. N., Under Centuries of Sand, a Trading
Hub. The New York Times, SCIENCE TIMES,
Tuesday, July 9, 2002, pp. D1, D9.
Representation of an Egyptian wall painting -- the
earliest known image of a boat (from
The Story of the Ship, 1919)
An Egyptian boat model, Museum of Fine Arts,
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.