Yes, and it’s SO interesting!
Surviving trade goods like textiles, beads, and small, portable artworks are actually one of the reasons we know that the Silk Road has been in use pretty much since there have been humans. It’s such a fascinating history, no matter where you start or where you end up!
You can find Egyptian beads in Irish graves, and Persians silks and Chinese beads in Viking funeral ships.
The Silk Road has been in use since about 500 B.C., and the pre-Historic Silk Road trade route was called the Steppe Road.
In the Middle Ages in Europe, one of the most highly prized trade items was cloth from The Middle East and Asia. It was often called “Tatar cloth”, and there are even paintings like this that show Asian traders with these kind of precious goods:
[Italy, c. 1350]
The incredible value of this cloth caused a trend in Medieval European art: “Psuedo-Kufic" characters, which were basically imitation Arabic letters, added to painted garments in Medieval European paintings to make the cloth look richer:
Tatar People (Brittanica.com)
The Silk Road in Antiquity (the Met Museum)
Commercial Exchange and Diplomacy Between Venice and the Islamic World
A little more about Venice and the Mamluks, the Ottomans, and the Safavids
By the time the cloth got to Italy, it was already expensive. By the time it got to Northwestern Europe, it was nearly priceless.
There’s also the history regarding how both supply and demand for goods from Asia was generated by the massive population movement during the Mongolian invasion of Europe, and how much cultural exchange, especially in the form of fashions, there really was.
Although there was some trade in textiles between African nations and empires during the European medieval period, most of the trade took the form of gold and salt, the most highly prized commodities. The Ghana and Malian Empires exported almost unspeakable amounts of gold. In the days of Mansa Musa, Mali was providing half the entire world’s supply of salt and gold. That’s basically where the money for the European Renaissance came from.
I’m sure you’ve read about or maybe even seen “cloth-of-gold”. Ancient and Medieval textiles always have a fascinating history behind them. This is the story behind this piece of cloth-of-gold:
Beginning in 1211, Genghis Khan invaded the Jin Empire, then proceeded across Central Asia to conquer eastern Iran and the territories east of the Oxus River (today Amu Darya) known as Transoxiana. The artisans and master craftsmen from conquered cities were enslaved and distributed among members of the Khan’s family and distinguished generals.
The nomadic Mongols took these artisans, who fashioned luxury items and other highly desirable articles, to cities in Mongolia and eastern Central Asia. Historical accounts and travel narratives of the period mention them, yet little has survived of the objects, particularly the textiles, they produced.
This magnificent cloth of gold is one of the few silk and gold textiles that can be associated with those craftsmen. It is woven with pairs of winged lions within aligned, tangent roundels and pairs of griffins in the interstices. The background is densely filled with scrolling vines and palmettes. Both the overall design and the animals are Persian; yet the cloud-like ornamentation of the lions’ wings, the cloud scrolls at the terminals of the vines filling the background of the roundels, and the dragons’ heads at the ends of the lions’ tails are based on Chinese models.
The synthesis of Eastern and Western elements is purely Central Asian, which is not surprising considering that captive craftsmen from the former Jin territories were working in the same cities as the captured artisans from eastern Persia and Transoxiana. The density of its design and the fact that the design was entirely woven with gold thread are characteristic of textiles produced during the Mongol period.
The artistic and technical quality of this textile is unsurpassed among the silk and gold textiles that have survived from the early Mongol period. Given that it was once preserved in a Tibetan monastery, this textile was probably woven during the middle of the thirteenth century.
The Mongols only began to make contact with Tibet in 1240 and did not sign a treaty until 1247. In honor of that occasion, gold, silver, and two hundred precious robes were given as imperial gifts to Tibetan monasteries. A few years later, starting in 1251, members of Genghis Khan’s family began to patronize different Tibetan sects, which involved presenting gifts that, in those days, always included precious textiles. A textile of the extraordinary quality and value of this cloth of gold would almost certainly have reached Tibet as an imperial gift.
The Cleveland Museum of Art