Iran (Y&T #BF64): The Silk Road

Iran (Yvert et Tellier #BF64): Silk Road, 17 October 2018.

Sometime in my late teens, I received a large parcel from a relative — found when helping to clear out the home of a friend’s deceased parent. It contained thousands of stamps, postal cards and covers from Persia and Iraq, mostly dated to the early part of the twentieth century up until the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Thus began a lifelong fascination with the history of the region at least as it existed prior to the turmoil of the mid-twentieth century.  Following university, I had an opportunity to travel through many of the “Stans” (including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.) but, sadly, had to turn it down due to work commitments.  In the late 1980’s, this was still a relatively difficult area to travel — especially for those carrying U.S. passports.  I think travel in the area is even more dangerous nowadays although one should be relatively safe staying as far away as possible from Iran and Iraq.

I still add a few stamps from both of these nations whenever the designs and/or subject matter catch my eye.  Today’s stamp is one of those for a funny reason or two.  My interest in the Silk Route to China goes all the way back to my childhood living in Midland, Texas, out in the middle of the Permian Basin of West Texas.  Flat lands, dusty, tumbleweeds blowing down main street.  Probably a bleaker landscape than much of Iran itself.  Any holiday time we had out of school was either in the park or at the community swimming pool where some kids would yell, “Marco!” while others would reply with “Polo!”  I thought they were calling me a new nickname until my mother explained this was the name of a famous traveler.  I read a book and immediately wanted to emulate his adventures.

Marco Polo wearing a Tartar costume. From the Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d’Arvor.

I bought this stamp about a year ago because when I saw the design, my first thought was “I have seen that map before!”  It was modified from NASA’s Visible Earth images produced by the Goddard Space Flight Center for use on Wikipedia’s page on the Silk Road.  The image, with the same fonts for the lettering and lines for the routes has been on the Wikipedia page since May 2010 and was not changed at all for the stamp.  They did add some images around the borders that bleed into the souvenir sheet’s margins but that is about all the design work the Iranian Post’s team did before sending the stamps to the printer. That’s okay.  I liberally “borrow” maps, too.  I just thought it was funny that it went from Wikipedia to stamp rather than the reverse.

According to the aforementioned article,

“The Silk Road was a network of trade routes which connected the East and West, and was central to the economic, cultural, political, and religious interactions between these regions from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century. The Silk Road primarily refers to the land routes connecting East Asia and Southeast Asia with South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Southern Europe.

Map of the Silk Road in the first century AD.

The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in silk carried out along its length, beginning in the Han dynasty in China (207 BCE–220 CE). The Han dynasty expanded the Central Asian section of the trade routes around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese imperial envoy Zhang Qian, as well as several military conquests. The Chinese took great interest in the security of their trade products, and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route.

The Silk Road trade played a significant role in the development of the civilizations of China, Korea, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, Iran, Europe, the Horn of Africa and Arabia, opening long-distance political and economic relations between the civilizations. Though silk was the major trade item exported from China, many other goods and ideas were exchanged, including religions (especially Buddhism), syncretic philosophies, sciences, and technologies like paper and gunpowder. So in addition to economic trade, the Silk Road was a route for cultural trade among the civilizations along its network.[8] Diseases, most notably plague, also spread along the Silk Road.

In June 2014, UNESCO designated the Chang’an-Tianshan corridor of the Silk Road as a World Heritage Site. The Indian portion is on the tentative site list.

Caravan on the Silk Road, 1380.

According to the ancient maps, the Silk Road started from Huang City in China, and continued to Turkestan. Then, the route passed through central Asia and reached Samarqand and Bukhara. When it entered Iran, it passed the northern part of Iran including Merv, Sarakhs, Nishapur, Gorgan, Baam, Safiabad, Ray, Qazvin, Zanjan and north of Hamadan, and ended up in one of the harbors of Syria after passing Yerevan.

Iran, known as Great Persia at the time, was a major actor in the trading route. Silk fabrics were also made in Iran, so Persians would get material from the East, and sell the finished product to the Westerners. In fact, quite a few merchants would travel all the way from the Mediterranean to China and back. The journey was approximately 7000 km (4000 miles), and there were many hazards and dangers on the way. Many merchants would travel short distances to the next market and exchange their goods and return. Thus Iran’s location was substantial on the trade routes.

Taldyk Pass, Kyrgyzstan (height approximately 3600m). Photo taken by Gustavo Jeronimo on 10 August 2008.

The German term Seidenstraße (“the Silk Road”) was coined in 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. The term “Silk Route” is also used. Although the term was coined in the 19th century, it did not gain widespread acceptance in academia or popularity among the public until the 20th century. The first book entitled The Silk Road was by Swedish geographer Sven Hedin in 1938.

Use of the term ‘Silk Road’ is not without its detractors. For instance, Warwick Ball contends that the maritime spice trade with India and Arabia was far more consequential for the economy of the Roman Empire than the silk trade with China, which at sea was conducted mostly through India and on land was handled by numerous intermediaries such as the Sogdians. Going as far as to call the whole thing a “myth” of modern academia, Ball argues that there was no coherent overland trade system and no free movement of goods from East Asia to the West until the period of the Mongol Empire. He notes that traditional authors discussing East-West trade such as Marco Polo and Edward Gibbon never labelled any route a “silk” one in particular.

Zeinodin Caravanserai, Iran on the Silk Road to China.. Photo taken by David Stanley on 29 April 2013.

The southern stretches of the Silk Road, from Khotan (Xinjiang) to Eastern China, were first used for jade and not silk, as long as 5000 BCE, and is still in use for this purpose. The term “Jade Road” would have been more appropriate than “Silk Road” had it not been for the far larger and geographically wider nature of the silk trade; the term is in current use in China.

On 22 June 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the Silk Road a World Heritage Site at the 2014 Conference on World Heritage. The United Nations World Tourism Organization has been working since 1993 to develop sustainable international tourism along the route with the stated goal of fostering peace and understanding. To commemorate the Silk Road becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the China National Silk Museum announced a “Silk Road Week” to take place 19-25 June 2020.

Bishkek and Almaty each have a major east-west street named after the Silk Road (Kyrgyz: Жибек жолу, Jibek Jolu in Bishkek, and Kazakh: Жібек жолы, Jibek Joly in Almaty). In Persian, the term is جاده ابریشم (Jâdeye Abrišam or Shâhrâh-i Abrešim).

Iran (Yvert et Tellier #BF64): Silk Road, 17 October 2018.

Today’s stamp was released by the Islamic Republic of Iran on 17 October 2018 and is denominated at 12,000 ﷼ (Iranian rials).  The one-stamp souvenir sheet is listed in the Yvert et Tellier French-language catalogue as #BF64.  It measures 87.5 mm wide by 32 mm in height and was printed using offset lithography by Ghadir Press Ltd., perforated 14.

There are a number of UNESCO-listed sites along Iran’s portion of the Silk Road, including two designated World Heritage Cultural Sites — Bam and the Tabriz Historic Bazaar Complex. Check out the Silk Roads website for much more information.

The Arg-e Bam (ارگ بم‎) was the largest adobe building in the world, located in Bam, a city in Kerman Province of southeastern Iran. It is listed by UNESCO as part of the World Heritage Site “Bam and its Cultural Landscape”. The origin of this enormous citadel on the Silk Road can be traced back to the Achaemenid Empire (sixth to fourth centuries BC) and even beyond. The heyday of the citadel was from the seventh to eleventh centuries, when it was at the crossroads of important trade routes and known for the production of silk and cotton garments. The entire building was a large fortress containing the citadel, but because of the impressive look of the citadel, which forms the highest point, the entire fortress is named the Bam Citadel.

Arge Bam, Bam, Iran before the 26 December 2003 earthquake.

An earthquake which struck at 01:56 UTC (5:26 AM Iran Standard Time) on 26 December 2003, almost completely destroying the Citadel along with much of the rest of Bam and the surrounding Kerman province of south-eastern Iran. The most widely accepted estimate for the magnitude of the earthquake is 6.6 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw); estimated by the United States Geological Survey. The earthquake was particularly destructive, with the death toll amounting to 26,271 people and injuring an additional 30,000. The effects of the earthquake and damage was exacerbated by the fact that the city chiefly consisted of mud brick buildings, many of which did not comply with earthquake regulations set in Iran in 1989, and that most of the city’s people were indoors and asleep.

Due to the earthquake, relations between the United States and Iran thawed. Following the earthquake the U.S. offered direct humanitarian assistance to Iran and in return the state promised to comply with an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency which supports greater monitoring of its nuclear interests. In total a reported 44 countries sent in personnel to assist in relief operations and 60 countries offered assistance and support. A few days after the earthquake, the President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, announced that the Citadel would be rebuilt.

The Grand Bazaar of Tabriz is worlds biggest in its kind, it has a large effect in economy and culture of Iranian people. Photo taken by Navid Sadighi on 3 July 2017.

The Bazaar of Tabriz (بازار تبریز‎,) is a historical market situated in the city center of Tabriz, Iran. It is one of the oldest bazaars in the Middle East and the largest covered bazaar in the world. A bazaar has existed on the same site since the early periods of Iranian urbanism following Islam. The bazaar was mentioned by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, who claimed to have passed through it while journeying on the Silk Road.

Located in the center of the city of Tabriz, Iran, the structure consists of several sub-bazaars, such as Amir Bazaar (for gold and jewelry), Mozzafarieh (a carpet bazaar, sorted by knot size and type), shoe bazaar, and many other ones for various goods such as household items. Tabriz and its bazaar were at their most prosperous in the 16th century, when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The city lost its status as a capital in the 17th century, but its bazaar has remained important as a commercial and economic center. Although numerous modern shops and malls have been established nowadays, Tabriz Bazaar has remained the economic heart of both the city and northwestern Iran.

The bazaar was inscribed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2010.

2 thoughts on “Iran (Y&T #BF64): The Silk Road

  1. Hi Mark! Just came across this great blog by chance! I’m headed to Uzbekistan in a couple weeks, as long as they’ll let me in….do you want me to pick up a few stamps (gifts to you of course, tiny and unbreakable!)?? Or have you got everything? I thought there might be something new….?
    Cynthia from Santa Fe, New Mexico


    1. Hi, Cynthia. Yes, I would love something from Uzbekistan if you manage to get there. Let me know if you would like something from Thailand in return. I do not have much from there in stamps or postcards but anything you could find would be most welcomed.
      Cheers and Good Luck on your trip.


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