Teaching in the Exhibition

Traveling the Silk Road uses artifacts, models, maps, interactives, videos, and more to help students explore commerce, communication, and cultural exchange. This guide divides the exhibition into six numbered areas, which correspond to the map and to the text below.

1. Introduction

OVERVIEW: A network of rough trails, the Silk Road connected China to the cities and empires of Central Asia and the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Along with goods and materials, travelers exchanged technologies, religions, music and literature, and ways of thinking.

  • Map of the Silk Road: Explain that camel caravans slowly made their way from one settlement to the next and back again. On the map, have students identify challenges such as deserts and mountain ranges that shaped travelers' routes.

  • Camel models: Invite students to imagine how it might have felt to trek alongside these animals. Ask them to imagine different items the camels might be carrying, and why camels were so important to Silk Road trade.
    (Answers may include: Camels might carry goods for trading, such as textiles and spices, and goods for survival, such as food and water. Camels were valued for their ability to carry heavy loads long distances across rough terrain in both hot and cold weather.)
2. Xi'an

OVERVIEW: The biggest city in the world during the Tang Dynasty, this highly diverse and cosmopolitan trading center was the capital of China.


Top: The tiny caterpillars must be protected from drafts, loud noises, and even strong smells.
Bottom: A single cocoon can unwind into a silk filament about 3,000 feet (914 meters) long!

©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • Silk and sericulture: Students can explore the stages of silk making, from cocoon to cloth. Ask them how silk is different from other textiles. How was the material used by the Chinese? What did it represent to foreigners? Why was silk making such a closely-held secret?
    (Answers may include: Very soft to the touch, silk was also strong enough to be used for musical instrument strings, fishing lines, and bowstrings. Silk clothing is cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Foreigners prized Chinese silks for their utility, rarity, and great beauty. The fact that China was the only source of silk made the cloth enormously valuable.)

  • Wine peddler and foreign dancer statues, and rhyton: Point out to students that these objects made in China depict people who are not Han Chinese. Ask them what this suggests about life in ancient Xi'an.
    (Answers may include: Unlike anywhere else at the time, Xi'an was home to thousands of foreigners, who brought their diverse cultures, cuisines, and styles along with them.)

This moon lute is similar to the instruments first played in China over 2,000 years ago. During the Tang dynasty, lute strings were often made of twisted silk.
©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • "Play Music" interactive: Students can investigate the sounds made by different musical instruments, individually and played together. Have them describe which instruments look familiar. How might music have connected travelers from different places and traditions?
    (Answers may include: Xi'an was home to many musicians from across Asia, and its music reflected both native and foreign influences.)

  • Buddhist artifacts: Tell students that Buddhism originated in India around 450 BC. Have them describe the artifacts and where they are from. Ask students why it's significant that the artifacts were found in those places across many centuries.
    (Answers may include: These objects—a reliquary, a statue of Buddha, a manuscript, and a painting—come from China, Tibet, and Pakistan. They show that Buddhism spread along the Silk Road.)
3. Turfan

OVERVIEW: A sophisticated underground irrigation system transformed this and other Central Asian oases into agricultural centers.


In the ancient world, many plant, mineral, and animal products were traded. Top: indigo-tinctoria pigment, yellow ochre pigment, cloves. Bottom: Turkish pistachios, saffron, whole yellow mustard seeds.
©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • Nighttime market: Students can survey the astonishing array of exotic goods and delicacies found in Turfan's market. Have them examine a few raw materials and finished products. Ask why they think the market happened at night. Suggest that students sniff the scented oils. Ask which smells in the marketplace might have been the strongest, or sounds the loudest. What does the variety of goods suggest about life in Turfan?
    (Answers may include: The market happened at night to escape the stifling heat. The varied goods on sale reflected both the array of fruits and vegetables grown in the oasis, and Turfan's role as a trading center for exotic products from faraway places.)

  • Karez water system: Tell students that this technology remains in use in Turfan today. Ask them where the water originated, and how the karez system affected life in this desert city.
    (Answers may include: These underground canals carried rain and snowmelt trapped in the ground below distant mountains. By watering orchards and camels alike, irrigation systems transformed Turfan into an important Silk Road waypoint.)
4. Samarkand

OVERVIEW: In present-day Uzbekistan, this city was the center of Sogdian civilization, whose traders were go-betweens in commerce that extended to India, China, and Persia.

  • Paper making: Point out that this technology was invented in China and spread west. Ask students to consider how paper differed from other materials on which people wrote. How do they think this invention contributed to the spread of ideas in the ancient world?
    (Answers may include: Paper was light, flexible, and inexpensive to make—an ideal surface for recording and dispersing ideas, stories, and images.)

This Sogdian carving depicts a heavily laden camel, along with powerful horses for which the Chinese traded silk.
©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • Camel model and caravan artifacts: Have students look carefully at the camel's physical features and describe its adaptations to harsh conditions. Ask them to list some ways in which travelers benefited from joining a caravan rather than traveling alone.
    (Answers may include: Wide, padded feet help camels walk across sand; eyebrows, eyelashes, and narrow nostrils protect against blowing sand; shaggy coats keep them warm in freezing temperatures; and camels can eat scrubby desert vegetation and go long periods without water. Traveling in a caravan provided protection, companionship, and expert guidance.)

  • "Explore the Silk Road" interactive map: Invite students to gather around this table to investigate different routes across deserts and mountains, as well as the religions, languages, technology, and artwork found along the way.

  • Metalworking: Point out that metal was an important commodity traded along the Silk Road. Have students examine these intricately worked objects, and ask them why they were so highly prized.
    (Answers may include: These silver and gold artifacts took a great deal of skill to make and were traded for precious commodities such as silk, furs, honey, and amber.)
5. Baghdad

OVERVIEW: The capital of the Islamic world and present-day Iraq, Baghdad was an intellectual center where scholarship flourished in architecture, literature, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology, and geography.

  • Glassmaking: Tell students that glass made in Islamic cities was highly prized in China. Ask them to describe the challenges of making, shaping, and transporting glass.
    (Answers may include: Glass can be shaped and decorated in many ways, but they require great skill. The first steps involve intense heat and much fuel. Glass objects are easily broken.)

Astrolabes like this bronze one from Persia helped astronomers navigate and predict sunrise and sunset.
©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • Water clock and astrolabe: Have students observe the water clock and explore the astrolabe interactive. Ask them how the water clock works and how these devices were used.
    (Answers may include: As water flows through the water clock, a system of pulleys turns the pointer that shows the time of day. A form of calculator, an astrolabe could tell the time, estimate altitude, and predict the hour of sunrise or sunset.)

  • Samples of Islamic calligraphy: Have students examine these artifacts and describe what they see. Ask them what these objects show about the uses of calligraphy.
    (Answers may include: The Arabic language was a visual art that moved beyond the page and onto household goods, clothing, and buildings.)
6. Trading by Sea

OVERVIEW: Baghdad and other cities became major centers for maritime trade, which was made possible by advances in technology and eventually overshadowed the caravan trade. Sea travel was faster, and carried artistic styles and new kinds of goods throughout Asia.


This Islamic drawing of a trading ship shows merchants in their cabins, sailors bailing out water, and a look-out boy.
©AMNH (click to enlarge)
  • Model of ship's hold: As students walk through this replica of a heavily-laden vessel that traveled between east Asia and China some 1,200 years ago, they can observe the way it was constructed, the different kinds of cargo it held, and how skillfully it was packed. Ask them how walking across Asia in a camel caravan might compare to the experience of traveling by sea.
    (Answers may include: This ship was made of durable teak or coconut planks stitched together with coconut fiber. Cargo might include Chinese ceramics stored in stoneware jars, glassware, and clay pots. The voyage between Baghdad and China took about six months, while a caravan could take as long as a year. Seafarers were at risk from storms and pirates.)

  • Ceramics: Point out that the overseas trade inspired potters to develop new styles and techniques, with white Chinese porcelain and colorful glazes especially prized in the Middle East. Have students compare and contrast design motifs and describe their favorite object.
Also at the Museum Beyond Planet Earth


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Traveling the Silk Road Online Educator's Guide