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Trade on the Silk Road was important and its control highly contested in OTL, too. Sassanids and later Arabs, Chinese, Göktürks and later Uyghurs and Kyrghyz attempted to control it and conducted wars over it, while local cultures like the Sogdians conducted many of the caravans along the route, from Balkh over Samarqand and Kashgar to Karakhoja. Great cities blossomed along the road, often in oases. They were places of cultural exchange and transmission. Frequent wars and highwaymen made the Silk Road unsafe, though. They increased prices for goods transported from West to East and vice versa, and thus limited the trade volume.
In this timeline, the economic boom of Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East beginning in the 4th century, caused by the technological innovations after the abolition of slavery in the Roman Empire and the peace and stability in and between the large Roman, Celtic and Sassanid Empires, made this road even more important for Sui and later Tang China, and the trade volume is higher than in OTL. This contributed to the secession of wealthy and powerful Bactrian and especially Sogdian cities from the crumbling Sassanid Empire in the 6th century. The cities along the Tarim Basin further to the East were under Chinese or Tibetan control, as in OTL (although China dominated more clearly than in OTL). Both Sogdians and China repeatedly had to deal with Göktürk incursions. In the second half of the 7th century, the Sogdian Federation hires Tuwinian and Eastern Chasar mercenaries to fend off attacks from Ashina-led federations.
In 699, an army formed by Turkish mercenaries who are paid by the Sogdian Federation to protect their cities and trade along the Silk Route turns against its clients and bites the hand that feeds them. Kül Tigin attempts to conquer Samarkand and bring the Sogdian Federation under his control. The Sogdians have to request military aid from Tang China.
The Chinese army defeats the insurgent Turks and is duly paid by the Sogdians. Most Chinese soldiers return to their garrisons in the Pacified West (Tarim Basin), but a minor presence remains to provide a Tang-favourable scenery for the discussions between Sogdians and Tang ambassadors about future cooperation in protecting the Silk Road and perhaps a permanent Chinese presence in Sogdia...
The idea, which would soon be called "the Sogdian Solution" and which would change the course of global history to a considerable extent, is rumoured to have originated from a racist joke among Sogdian councillors from different cities, present in Samarkand to conduct the negotiations with the Chinese: "It´s good to know that, when you`ve been betrayed by the Turks you`ve hired to protect your town from the other Turks who demanded tribute, and the Turks who are supposed to protect your caravans are too few to help you, you can always call on the Chinese to send you their army full ofTurks."
Sogdians had tried to defend themselves, but centuries of drought and famine (3rd-5th c.) and the bubonic plague (6th-7th c.) had left them with too few men to withstand Turkic aggression; they had hired mercenaries, and they had appealed to Tang for help - why not try a completely new approach now and lay the protection of trade in the hands of all those who want their products traded along the Silk Route through Sogdia? Why not have Romans, Indians, Persians and Han Chinese protect their goods, which they want to sell to each other, themselves? If there were enough foreign soldiers from different countries in Sogdia, they could even defend the cities, who would not have to depend on one single country.
The idea was immediately popularised in Sogdia because it promised the greatest degree of independence in these dangerous times.
The Sogdians invite representatives from Gandhara, Kushana and all of India, from Persia, the Roman and the Celtic Empire to the talks which had begun with Tang China and extended the talks into the greatest international conference ever.
The Sogdian plan is radical, but comprehensive: We, the Sogdians, will no longer charge any customs payments along the Silk Road, if our commercial caravans are guarded by small escorts of soldiers from either the producing or the buying empire. All parties must agree that these military escorts must not attack each other or any Sogdians, and that in the case of a military aggression against one of the trading cities, all soldiers from all escorts of all countries which are at that moment present in the city in question will co-operate under the single command of a general from the Sogdian guardians. In case of large-scale attacks on more than one city, all soldiers present in Sogdia must cooperate.
The ambassadors of the world`s most developed nations react with a mixed echo:
- The Romans propose, as an alternative, to build a wall against the Turks in the North. Sogdians, Chinese, and Gandharans know that the building of fortifications of such length and in such difficult mountainous terrain would exceed the powers of the Sogdians by far. The Romans offer contractual work by a Roman enterprise, financed through a government loan, but the trade-happy Sogdians know what indebtment means and decline.
- Romans, Celts, Persians, and Indians generally view the idea favourably, but they insist that such a solution would only makesense if the escort could really proceed from buyer to seller and ensure safety along the entire trade route, i.e. it would have to include Choresmia, Bactria and Gandhara in the West, and either the route North of the Tien-shan, or either of the Tarim Basin routes in the East.
- This touches upon Chinese interests, who control the Tarim Basin and its oasis cities. The Tang delegation is divided. One faction argues in favour of Sogdian vassalage. The old Empress Wu is wary of enlarging the army, where several of her enemies had their powerbases, though. Ambassadors loyal to her view the plan favourably, as they see it as a chance for China to keep the West pacified without much Tang effort, which could be concentrated on containing the Tibetans, the Khitan etc., or to cut down on military expenditures and privileges.
The latter faction prevails, so the Sogdian Solution is given a chance. But its extension onto the Tarim Basin raises new controversies. Representatives from the Xiyu cities are invited to join the conference, too. Until they arrive, several new factions have formed.
Negotiations are lengthy and protracted, but in 702, a consensus is finally reached:
- The solution would not comprise the Northern Route North of the Tien-Shan, where Turkic dominance was too strong. It would extend from Taxila in the South and Choresmia in the West over Sogdia and Kashgar to Anxi in the East, with a Northern and a Southern route around the Taklamakan Desert.
- The route would be administratively divivded into four sections: the Western Arm, the Southern Arm, Sogdia and the Tarim.
In each section, there would be a council of military attachés from all member parties, who would oversee the administration of the military balance (see below) and the training for co-operation and declare the state of defense and elect a military leader for the joint operation in such cases.
- In the Western Arm, the council would be seated in Choresm and elect two leaders in case of defense: one from among the Choresmian guards and one from among the foreign powers
- In theSouthern Arm, the council would be seated in Balkh and elect two leaders in case of defense: one from among the Bactrian guards and one from among the foreign powers
- In Sogdia and Dayuan (Ferghana), the council would be seated in Samarkand and elect two leaders in case of defense: one from among the Sogdian guards and one from among the foreign powers
- In the Tarim Basin, the council would be seated in Kashgar and elect four leaders in case of defense: one from among the Chinese commanders of Pacified West, one from among the Xiyu oasesstates` guards and two from among the foreign powers.
Headed by the councils, a co-operative administration would regulate the transition from one section into another and ensure that no single country has an absolute majority of soldiers present in one section at any moment in time. Customs would be gradually lowered and finally abolished twenty years after ratification to recompensate the merchants for the costs of paying military escorts. Excises would be similarly capped according to a complicated calculation. The Tarim Basin would remain a part of Tang and the Four Garrisons would remain stationed there to prevent regional quarrels, albeit with less soldiers, who would be recruited to a greater extent from among the local population, but the cities would receive a great degree of autonomy. Civil Tang administration would be gradually established, but with limited powers (laid down in excruciating detail). It takes until 704 before all parties have ratified the treaty, and all four councils are established and working only in 707. (In the meantime, another Turkish attack establishes Turkish control over Dayuan, before Tang armies defeat them.)
But from 707 on, all caravans along the Silk Road are accompanied by small military escorts. The new permanent council and liaison offices are established and lead to a new diplomatic culture. The new security solution proves viable. Turkish invasion attempts are fought back successfully by the international ad hoc alliances in 726, 734 and 757, although one attack in 744 leads to an international defeat and a ramsacking of Bukhara. A Tibetan attack on Khotan is repelled in 731. The convoys provide good safety against highwaymen, and frequent campaigns against nests of robbers are conducted by international corps (sometimes raising criticisms because of maltreatments of suspected civilian populations and executions without trial etc.).
The new structures lead to a much higher and diversified perflux of (well-paid) people from all over the world, which influences the societies along the Silk Road:
- It brings them enormous wealth. Bactrian, Sogdian, Dayuan and Xiyu / Tokharian economies grow, catering to the needs and caprices of traders, soldiers, ambassadors and bureaucrats.
- New forms of entertainment are invented (new forms of music in Kucha, new forms of drama in Bukhara), and old ones grew beyond control (e.g. prostitution, everywhere).
- New standards of cuisine are reached; especially the Khotan excel at fusing all sorts of influences and creating both tasty and easily prepared take-away meals, and standard-setting creative meals for the wealthy, which would be copied around the civilised world.
- Private mail companies develop andjoin the international mail association, facilitating communication across Eurasia from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
- Religions from all over the world build their churches and temples along the Silk Road, and new varieties came up, for example a Christian church founded in Karashahr in the early 10th century, which bears some similaritiesto OTL Calvinism.
- Sogdian cities improved their already good education system. The University of Samarkand, and other universities across Sogdia, too, become the hot spot of philosophical, mathematical and technological innovation worldwide. Gunpowder`s potential for military use is discovered here, and so are new chemical methods for testing metals.
- Chinese economic theory, which often lay dormant from the days of the Han dynasty, is taken up and further developed especially in the Tarim Basin cities, but also in Sogdia. It is translated into Sogdian and other languages here.
- Paper money is issued by many city states and even private subjects from the 9th century on and the double-entry book-keeping system is invented in Kashgar in the late 9th century. The newly organised Silk Road becomes the birthplace of capitalism in this timeline (instead of the city states of Northern Italy in 14th c. OTL).
- Multilingualism becomes a sign of the new upper classes. The Sogdian language (an Eastern Iranian language, but in contrast to OTL due to the long Sassanid rule not written in the Aramaic, but in the Persian alphabet) survives and influences other languages around the world, and so does the Tokharian language (another Indo-European language spoken around the Tarim Basin, written first in the Brahmi script, but due to Chinese letterpress printing influence, later on almost exclusively in Chinese symbols), which would coin most modern economic terms. More trade along the Silk Road influenced the trading countries, too:
- It allows China to decrease its military expenditures and keep the Fubing system, preventing An Lushan`s rebellion and the downfall of the Tang. Instead, Emperor Xuanzong is able to concentrate on reforming the administration, keeping the census up to date, and further improving the large empire`s infrastructure. During the 8th century, China only expands Northwards by annexing the Kumo Xi, and previously conquered nations of Turkic, Mongolian and other descent increasingly Sinicise, so ethnic tensions are low. Under stable Tang rule, China continues itsegalitarian land policies as well as its active economic regulation. Government craft shops are not privatised, instead they are transformed to adapt foreign innovations as quickly and efficiently as possible. And there are many of them! Water wheels, windmills, glass blowing, chemical discoveries, Greek fire, mechanical looms - Chinese government shops copy them all. From along the Silk Road, impulses in economic theory echoe back into China, fuelling heated controversies between the old schools of conservatives and reformists about economic policies. Also under Sogdian influence, education - even for girls - gains greater importance among wider spheres of society, and the role of women never assumes its marginalised, decorative position. (This is in line with a different Chinese view on Empress Wu, who played a vital role in establishing the Sogdian Solution.) Chinese enterprises, whose operations on the Silk Road concentrate on the Tarim Basin cities, but begin to expand beyond to the less regulated Sogdian cities in the 10th century, grow enormously rich in spite of heavy regulations.
- Europe, the Middle East and North-East Africa no longer only receive the products of China`s modern furnaces and mines. They also acquire the know-how of steel production and modern mining, which add a new dynamic to economic development in the West. Chinese economic theory and Silk Road capitalism soon grow deep roots in the societies of the West, where professorships of Economics are created, too. Later Chinese inventions like the compass would also traverse much more quickly to the West.
- High trade volumes strengthen the role of cities in Southern Asia, tipping the balance between rural Mazdakist communities and guild-controlled towns in favour of the latter in Persia and contributing to the centuries of small republics in India.
- Since everyone who wants to buy or sell something across the Silk Road must be able to shoulder the costs - and acquire the actual resources - of a military escort, which also raises questions of the internal state monopolies, the Roman Empire solves this problem by endowing the cursus publicus with its own armed forces, divided into small units fit for Silk Road escorts. The Celtic Empire and the Persian Republic follow this model of militarised post services, turning the aedils in charge of the mail system into rather powerful magistrates. Because Indian empires are not quick enough to implement similar solutions, private mail operators (owned by rich businessmen who become even richer this way) flourish and hire all sorts of people, especially from poorer regions, for their military escorts,further contributing to the great cultural mingling in the Indianised world and the spread of Central Asian influences as far as the Indonesian archipelago.
- Those who find the Silk Road trade too cost-intensive often shift to the sea route, which further increases the importance of continental and insular Indochina.
But the Silk Road did not only have an effect on those who immediately participated in it. The unimaginable wealth which is amassed and transported here - yet which is really hard to lay your hands on due to ever-increasing safety measures - as well as the model of peaceful international co-operation practised here leave deep impressions on the less developed societies to its North and South, i.e. the Turks and Tibetans. After many failed military attacks, and with increasingly drastic measures against waylaying, both countries begin to participate peacefully in the trading business. Tibet joins the Samarkand Protocol in 783, and Talas is the first Turk-speaking city state which adheres in 791. Consequently, all the above-mentioned developments slowly reached the Turks and Tibetans, too, and they also strengthened Buddhist influences in both countries.
The Sogdian Solution was not without its problems, either, of course:
- The different sections, and especially Sogdians and Tang-controlled Xiyu, were continually involved in power struggles, each of them attempting to set rules for the entire route. Restrictive Chinese alcohol policies contributed to a surge in organised crime, which meant that the Silk Road, although protected from major attacks, was never a safe place and instead rather a fertile ground for all sorts of social ills, too - and not only social ones. The increased internationality of the Silk Road contributed decisively to the quick global spread of the Black Death in the 11th century.
- The cities along the Silk Road grow far beyond the naturally sustainable limits especially of the Tarim Basin oases. Drastic water shortages in the late 9th and 10th century were met with the first basic sewage and water recycling solutions, but the Tarim Basin oases still relied heavily on food and coal imports from China and later the Turkish Talas Confederacy. When trade broke down during the
Black Death in the 1030s-1050s and the Silk Road was practically shut down, hundreds of thousands of people died of hunger and cold. Nevertheless, the Silk Road Treaty is considerered a forerunner of geopolitical structures which would become very widespread and important in the 2nd milennium AD.