The Radhanites, Jewish merchants of the Silk Road


Did you know that the Radhanites were Jewish merchants that linked East and West centuries before Marco Polo?

The Silk Road was the ancient trade route that linked the Roman Mediterranean with China, carrying goods and ideas between these two great civilizations in Classical times.

After the fall of Rome, which had earlier united all of Europe within a single empire, and with the rise of Islam in the seventh century, this old world became divided into two camps, Christian and Muslim.

The frequent wars in the Middle East disrupted the relations and led in some cases to the virtual shutdown of the trade channels between the Islamic east and the Christian west.

These geo-political circumstances gave a group of Jewish merchants known as "Radhanites" the chance to become an international economic elite during the early middle ages (circa 500-1000).

The Radhanites (the origin of their name is not completely clear) functioned as neutral middlemen and messengers, keeping open the lines of communication and the established trade routes between the lands of the old Roman Empire and the Far East.

As a result of the revenue they brought to rulers on both sides of the divide, Jewish merchants enjoyed a significant privileged status which allowed them to move freely between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

While most trade between Europe and East Asia had historically been conducted via Persian and Central Asian intermediaries, the Radhanites were among the first to establish a trade network that stretched from Western Europe to Eastern Asia centuries before Marco Polo and ibn Battuta brought their tales of travel in the Orient to the Christians and the Muslims, respectively.

A Radhanite trader would set out from France southward into Spain, then sail across the Mediterranean into Morocco, from where he traversed by camel caravan the entirety of North Africa into the Middle East, passed through the major cities of Baghdad and Basra, and made his way across India before finally arriving at the route's terminus in central China.

The Radhanites could work such incredibly long trade routes thanks to the existence of a series of Jewish communities all along the way. They may also have helped establish new Jewish communities at various points following the old Silk Road, and were probably involved in the early Jewish settlement of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China and India. So they acted as cultural and social liaison between the world-wide-spread Jewish communities.

These communities allowed the Radhanites unrivalled access to the goods of the East, for they and the local Jewish merchants shared not only a common religion, but also at least one language (Hebrew), personal references and the first world-wide system of commercial credit.

Today we know about the Radhanites thanks mainly to a single source by Ibn Khordadbeh, who served the caliph of Baghdad in the ninth century. In "The Book of the Roads and the Kingdoms," Ibn Khordadbeh tells of "Jewish merchants called Radhanites," fluent in several languages, who "journey from west to east, from east to west, partly on land, partly by sea."

Ibn Khurdadbih describes the four different trade routes on which the Radhanites were active and his account makes it clear that Jews were active along all the world's major trade routes at that time, which implies the existence of diaspora communities of Jews living all along the various stages of those routes. The fourth route mentioned by Ibn Khurdadbih joined the Silk Route in Central Asia.

By the end of the 10th century, though, these trade routes became unstable and unsafe, and the Silk Road largely collapsed. This period saw the rise of the mercantile Italian city-states, especially Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi, and with the military successes of the Crusades, the blocked trade routes between East and West opened up again, but by now the Radhanites had fallen into obscurity.

However, the Jewish communities in Central Asia along the old Silk Road continued to flourish. The 12th century Spanish Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela heard about the fabulous city of Samarkand, in today's Uzbekistan, and described a community of 50,000 Jews, among them "very wise and rich men".

But with the declaration of state Shi'ism in Iran in 1501, Jews living in Sunni Central Asia gradually lost much of their contact with co-religionists to the west. The religious pluralism that had characterized the Silk Route communities was finished; Iranians and Turks alike had adopted Islam; Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and other religions were no longer seen in Central Asia. Only Judaism managed to survive the almost complete process of Islamization.

In the last decade of the XX century, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asian Jews - or Bukharan Jews, as they are also known, migrated to Israel and the United States in such a scale that the continued survival of Jewish communities in the region is not certain. Those who remain there are living testimony to the role of long-distance trade in the spread of cultures throughout world history.