Religious Exchange along the Silk Road

Not only silk and other commodities traveled along the ancient trade route from China to the west but also with people from different regions coming in contact with each other there was an exchange of ideas and cultures. Knowledge about art, music, fashion, farming skills and much more was exchanged along the Silk Road between people from different cultures. One of these cultural elements was religion.

The transmission of ideas included religious philosophies; for the first time westerners were exposed to Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and minor ethnic beliefs while the east met Judaism and Christianity. Islam also made its way into other regions with travelers, traders, pilgrims and adventurers. Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road would offer shelter and a place to stay for the night to travelers taking the harsh route. In this way the monks shared their religious knowledge with the travelers who went home and told others about it. The Buddhist philosophy had an impact on those who experienced the monk’s kind, tranquil and hospitable way of life. Some beliefs began to merge and others took on various tenets of religions they were newly exposed to.

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Buddhism

It was in the 1st century BC that Buddhism made its way from India across the Silk Road via a Chinese ambassador from the court of Chinese Emperor Ming. Buddhism was brought to Yutian (present day Hetian) and from there spread through the west. Buddhism spread through Southeast Asia, East Asia and Central Asia via the Silk Road and specifically in the form of Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism. Later in the 4th to 6th century BC Buddhism spread rapidly along the Silk Road. In the Tang Dynasty (618-907) emissaries traveled the Silk Road to India to study sutras. The spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road diminished towards the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.

Zoroastrianism

From the 5th to 1st century BC this unique religion reached western China and is considered one of the first religions to take Silk Road tours. At one time Zoroastrianism (Parsiism) was the official religion of Persia (present day Iran) but with the rise of the Islamic Empire Zoroastrianism moved east. Today it is practiced by small communities in India and Iran.

Manicheism

This religion which combines the beliefs of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and ancient Greek beliefs became very popular among the Chinese via the Silk Road. It reached its peak in the 3rd to 7th century.  Manichaeism, a religion founded in Iran by the Prophet Mani during the Sasanian Empire was also disseminated through other regions thanks to the movement of people along the Silk Road. The religion lasted until about the 14th century when it faded away.

Nestorianism

The Syrian Christian beliefs of Nestorianism would never have reached China if it wasn’t for the Silk Road. The doctrines, which differ from conventional Christianity, were introduced to China via the Silk Road in about 635. Under the Tang Emperor Tiazong a temple was built for worship and the religion remained popular in the east for about 150 years.

Islam

Muslim traders began using the Silk Road and sea routes in about the 7th century AD, with them came Islam. During the Tang Dynasty Islam became a primary belief in the Guangdong and Quanzhou Provinces and remains a popular faith among some sections of the Silk Road.

Christianity

Christian doctrines first traveled the Silk Road as part of Nestorian beliefs but in the 13th century a new wave of Christianity reached China with Catholic missionaries. The dissemination of Christian believes via the Silk Road came much later than other religions. As recently as 1949 Christian missionaries have taken to the Silk Road in an effort to convert the Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Province.