The Travelling Merchants

The Silk Road was a system that really work well for all countries and merchants who used it. It allowed for the mixing of cultures, the selling of items, travelling, diplomatic relations, etc. All the cities on the Road naturally flourished as well as the centres where all the goods arrived, for example Baghdad and later Venice, Damascus, etc. If it wasn’t, however, for the travelling merchants who were willing to travel the great distances through difficult and dangerous terrains, the Road might have been less effective.

One such group of merchants who literally travelled from France to China continuously for nearly 500 years during the Middle Ages, was the Radhanites. Very little is known about their origins, apart from that they were Jews, and many academic discussions have been had around the name itself, but according to surviving accounts, especially those written in 870AD by ibn Khordadbeh in his "Book of Roads and Kingdoms", the four main trade routes travelled by the Radhanites all started in the Rhone Valley in France and ended on the east coast of China. Looking at the map detailing their routes makes it clear that the Radhanites, probably more than anyone, carved out and utilized the Silk Road to the fullest extent. It was also likely them that made Europe fall in love with the exotic and luxurious items from the East and thus creating the desire of Europe to strengthen trading ties. Not only that, they introduced the East to Western items that would become equally as desirable and thus trading between West and East happened through the Radhanites. During the middle Ages the Middle East, North Africa and Christian kingdoms in Europe refused to trade with each other or to allow each other’s merchants to even enter their countries, so the Radhanites were the neutral travellers and merchants that could trade on behalf of these kingdoms with each other. They were highly regarded in both the East and West because of the revenues they brought to each and because of their neutrality and enjoyed many privileges that other merchants did not. The Radhanites were multi lingual too. Ibn Khordadbeh records that they were fluent in Arabic, Persian, Roman, the Frank, Spanish and Slav languages.

They traded in items that were light to carry, since much of their routes were on foot, but high in value such as spices, perfumes, jewellery, silk, oils, weaponry, furs and slaves. Furthermore they developed the system of letters of credit to transport large sums of money to reduce the risk of it being looted by bandits on the way, thus becoming the forefathers of the banking system as far back as 500AD to 1000AD. They are credited, amongst many other things, with introducing Chinese papermaking to the West as well as the Arab-Hindu numerals.

Their demise would ultimately be the fall of the Tang Dynasty and Khazar Khanate that caused much of the Silk Road to collapse for many centuries. New mercantile Italian city-states, such as Genoa and Venice, took the opportunity to make themselves desirable trading centres and they viewed the Radhanites as unwanted competitors and made the Radhanites’ purpose redundant. After 1000AD the Radhanites were no more but the effects of their travels remained intact for future merchants to use and thrive.