Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Silky Southeast Sailing

Ancient road number three: the Maritime silk road.

A ship's passage from the Gulf of Oman to the southern coast of China, through the Strait of Malacca.  Does this count as a road?  I would argue yes.  Especially since it was the safer alternative to the overland Silk Road after Central Asia became unstable about a thousand years ago.  We have been in Singapore and Melaka (an old port city in Malaysia) the past few days and here is what surprised me:

1.  The Arabs were intensely successful at seafaring and religious conversion!  Crossing the ocean on boats made of wood sewn together with coconuts husks.  I can't imagine.  They did a lot of trading here, and apparently a lot of preaching too.   Malaysia has tons of Muslims now.  It is really different from the rest of Southeast Asia (other than Indonesia) in that respect.  I wonder if the Malays were more interested in Islam than in other outside religions because the Arabs were such awe-inspiring mariners.

2.  The whole European conquest thing is way more complicated than I thought.  On the one hand, they destroyed a lot of the Malay settlements that existed in Melaka and elsewhere.  On the other hand, they did restore and rebuild Singapore after it had been destroyed by the Siamese and the Javanese.  The legacy they left is still felt in the language (mind the gap when alighting, etc.) and in the names of many parks and buildings.  But Singapore seems to have rebuilt itself so often that it can feel surreal.  Check out these giant concrete trees they built. 

3.  There were so many peoples trading here during the heyday.  Yet we always see plaques and depictions of the same few groups: Chinese, Indian, Arab, Javanese.  I now wonder why the Burmese, Mon, Khmer, Cham, and other groups we saw and heard about in Cambodia and Myanmar, were not featured in these Maritime silk road histories.

Tomorrow, we leave the maritime silk road for its terrestrial cousin.  Uzbekistan, here we come!

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