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The Silk Road has always been known as a trade route for material goods. Ideas
were also an important commodity. Religious ideas spread across nearly all aspects
of the Silk Road. Buddhism was most certainly the most prominent religion, but
Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and others were spread along the Silk Roads.
As early as the 2nd century B. C., Buddhist beliefs were transmitted along the Silk
Road. Buddhist missionaries were a major force is spreading Buddhist beliefs from
India into China. Although accounts differ, the spread of Buddhism seems to have
been commonly linked to the emperor Ming-ti, who had a dream involving a golden
figure in a glowing halo of light. Ming-ti's wise men interpreted the dream as a
representation of the Buddha (Angier School, par.27). As a result of this apparition,
Ming-ti dispatched representatives to learn more about Buddhism. The missionaries
came back with scriptures, priests, and artwork. These missionary trips continued
into the 4th and 5th centuries through the Northern Wei dynasty (Wild, par.19).
With missionaries traveling to India and back, Buddhism eventually gained a firm
hold in China. Buddhist monks, art, and paintings trickled into China along the Silk
Road. Monasteries, stupas, and grottos (caves) were constructed.
Donations from powerful local families and merchants helped fund the creation of
these works. Monasteries often functioned as a safe haven for travelers and the sick
(Hendricks, par10.). Cave temples also emerged during this time. The cave temples
located in Dunhuang are among the most famous; these cave temples contain
extensive wall paintings dedicated to Buddha, his saints, and his story ("Silkroad
Foundation," par. 25). Shortly afterward, in the 6th century A.D., Buddhist schools
are created and Buddhist scriptures are translated into the common language.
(Schirmer, par.17).
It was not only Buddhism that spread along the Silk Road. Around 432 A.D.,
Christianity began to make a brief appearance on the Silk Road. During this time, the
Roman Catholic Church banned the Nestorian sect of Christianity in Europe, so the
Nestorian beliefs fled toward the East. Merchants helped transmit Christian beliefs
along the Silk Road, and in 638 the first Nestorian church was created in Changan
(China). Evidence of Nestorian Christian writings can be found in previously
mentioned cave temples at Dunhuang (Wild, par.26).
Buddhism grew in importance during the 7th century with the Tang dynasty. During
this time, Xuan Zhuang, traveled to India to retrieve Buddhist scripture. With his
return to Tang, Xuan built the Great Goose Pagoda, which contains over 600
scriptures that he obtained on his travels to India. "He is still seen by the Chinese as
an important influence in the development of Buddhism in China" (Wild, par.28).
With the fall of Tang dynasty (caused by the Arabic invasion), the importance of the
Silk Road began to decline. Trade slowed down, and art and grotto construction
During the 8th century A.D., a significant number of conversions to Islam began.
Moslems destroyed symbols of Buddhism; wall paintings, stupas, monasteries, and
artwork were demolished (Schirmer, par.4). "Since Islam condemned the
iconography (physical representations of God, hence Islam has no images of Allah),
most of the Buddhist statues and wall-paintings were damaged or destroyed.
Buddhist temples and stupas were abandoned and buried beneath the sand"
(Silkroad Foundation, par. 23). By the 15th century, most of Central Asia had been
converted to Islam. In the 10th century, the Chinese government placed a ban on all
foreign religions.
Significant changes occurred with the Mongolian invasion. The Mongols were
nomadic, and had great skills in archery and horsemanship. Under the leadership of
Genghis Khan, the Mongols dominated over much of Asia. Although most of the
Mongols followed the beliefs of Islam, this was not the case with the Mongols in
Central Asia (Wild, par. 32). The Mongols were open and tolerant of new ideas and
other religions. Kublai Kahn, Genghis' successor, was known to have been
sympathetic to other religions. Consequently, many religions and nationalities
settled in China and took part in the trade along the Silk Road. Some of the other
religions that appeared at that time were Judaism, Christianity, Daoism, and
Confucianism (Wild, par. 34).
The fall of the Silk Road was not entirely caused by the frequent shifts in
governments and dynasties. Maritime trade gained prominence. The Silk Roads are
still used today, although not to the extent that it had once been. There are still
remnants of Buddhist grottoes, cave temples, and monasteries. The powerful
Buddhist paintings, murals, and sculptures serve as a reminder to the religious
beliefs transmitted along the Silk Roads.
Adapted from