Travellers on the Silk Road carried more than trade goods – they also brought stories with them. Here are a few tales from travels long-ago that might seem familiar to you
In this Chinese folk tale, many wishes come true, but happiness is still hard to find.
On a hot summer day in ancient China, a stonecutter worked long and hard swinging his hammer under the blazing sun. As he wiped the sweat from his brow, he thought to himself, “Surely the sun is the most powerful being in the world. I wish I could be the sun!” he cried. A fairy heard his wish and the sun he became.
Without wasting a second, he began to send hot sunbeams down to the land. It was wonderful to shine so bright! Then a cloud came drifting along and his light grew dim. How could that be? A cloud mightier than him! Now a white, fluffy cloud was what he wanted to be.
That wish too was granted and he became a cloud, happy just to float through the blue Chinese sky. Then along came the wind. It fluttered and whirled around him and would not let him be. “If I can’t have my peace, then I’d rather blow free,” he declared. “I want to be a fierce wind!”
The fairy listened and once more she offered help. Now he twisted and twirled. He teased branches and chased leaves. He dashed here and there, until he blew against a rock that stood in his way. He blew as hard as he could, but the stone didn’t move. “If I were a stone,” he thought, “no one would bother me. A stone is the best thing to be!”
So the fairy turned him into a big, heavy rock. He sat very still and watched time go by. Until one day a group of stonecutters came his way. They pounded away at him – just doing their job.
“Please, fairy!” he begged. “Being a stone is not what I want after all. From now on I want to be nobody else but me.”
One last time, the stonecutter got his wish. He picked up his hammer and went back to work under the sweltering sun.
This Greek story is one of Aesop’s fables and was told in many lands along the Silk Road. The scenes shown here are based on a mural illustrating the tale, found near Samarkand in the ruins of a merchant’s home.
There once was a man who owned a wonderful goose. Every morning, the goose laid for him a big beautiful egg – an egg made of pure, shiny, solid gold. Every morning, the man collected the golden eggs.
And little by little, egg by egg, he began to grow rich.
But the man wanted more. “My goose has all those golden eggs inside her,” he kept thinking. “Why not get them all at once?”
One day he couldn’t wait any longer. He grabbed the goose and killed her. But there were no eggs inside her!
“Why did I do that?” the man cried. “Now there will be no more golden eggs.”
This tale appears in an ancient Indian book of stories. In the time of the Silk Road, the book became very popular in the Middle East after it was translated into Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew.
In ancient times, a ferocious lion lived in the forest, killing without remorse. The other animals were terrified. To stop the lion’s deadly hunts, some animals offered to provide him with food each day. Some animals would still die, of course, but the rest would live in peace. The lion agreed and enjoyed months of the easy life.
One day it was the hare’s turn to present himself to the lion. Although small, the hare was very crafty. “Lion, lion,” the hare cried out as he approached. “Help me, help me! Another lion is trying to eat me. But I am to be your dinner! You must stop him!”
Furious that someone was trying to steal his food, the lion demanded, “Take me to the thief. I will make him pay for this mischief!”
The hare and the lion made their way through the forest, eventually reached a deep well. There the lion looked down and saw his own reflection in the water. Thinking he had found the creature who tried to steal his food, the lion jumped down, ready to fight.
Alas, the lion never came out of that well, and the animals lived in peace from that day on.
These three short stories have been taken from Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World (Published by Sterling, £27.99). From the secrets of silk and ancient architecture to the art of making paper and the life of the silk worm, Traveling the Silk Road contains an abundance of information about the routes connecting Europe and Asia as well as those living on them.
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