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The Ancient Silk Roads: Global Connectivity & Innovation


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. It is not accessible for BA students.


The complex networks that connected the Mediterranean region, East Africa and the Indian Subcontinent from the early 1st millennium CE are often referred to as the ‘ancient Silk Roads’. This course provides an in-depth review of the latest historical and archaeological evidence available for reconstructing and interpreting the main nodal points and connective hubs along these ancient networks. These, subsequently, form the basis for the course’s main synthesis, which asks questions of global connectivity and innovation in Antiquity, and the impact of these processes on ancient societies, from trans-regional, socio-economic, and cultural perspectives.

The course will incorporate several thematic focus points in its debates/discussions, including: (1) globalization and network theory, (2) the impact of ancient religions along the Silk Roads, (3) the development of scientific and cultural diversity through trade hubs, (4) the lasting impact of colonial (19th century) scholarship on our understanding of global networks, (5) the importance of climate and natural processes in the development of ancient (trade) connectivity. Throughout, relevant questions of historical heritage management will also be discussed.

In review of these main thematic points, the course will deal with multiple sites and sources from Roman Egypt, Aksum (East Africa), Petra and Palmyra (Levant), Maurya and Gupta India, Han Dynasty China, and the early Islamic Empire. Textual sources will include well-known Greco-Roman authors, such as Strabo, Pliny and the Periplus Maris Erythraei, but also texts from contemporary Indian, Persian and Chinese authors, such as Al-Khazini, Varahamihira, the Arthashastra and Han Hanshou (which will be provided in translation). Archaeological sources will include new finds from Gujarat and the Karakorum (India/Pakistan), Aksum (Ethiopia), and datasets from Palmyra (Syria), as well as a critical review of previous colonial excavations up until the mid 20th century in India and East Africa. Especially by considering textual and archaeological sources in tandem, rather than as part of separate scholarships, new insights and discussions will be encouraged.

This variety of sites and regions is necessary for a comprehensive consideration not only of the ancient Silk Roads networks themselves, but especially of their widespread impact on world history. Through the interdisciplinary approach and thematically focused framework this course offers, students will get to actively debate complex global processes and the many different variables involved.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  • 1) The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 2) The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  • 3) The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 4) The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  • 5) The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  • 6) The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  • 7) The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  • 8) The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  • 9) The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  • 10) (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  • 11) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subspecialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Ancient History: unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history.

  • 12) Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:
    -in the specialisation Ancient History: the comparative method; application of socio-scientific methods; specialized source knowledge, in particular of documentary sources, and more specifically epigraphy.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  • 13) Will gain knowledge based on textual and archaeological sources pertaining to the ancient Silk Roads, by means of interdisciplinary interpretations of complex historical themes and narratives.

  • 14) Will actively engage in class discussions with their peers and are encouraged to develop their analytical perspectives in such a debate environment, within the framework of the course.
    *15 ) Will develop oral presentation skills by preparing brief topical presentations and monitoring class discussions.

  • 16) Will develop academic writing skills through essay assignments that deal with multi-layered treatment of the course material.

  • 17) Will engage with theoretical frameworks of Globalization and network theory, and learn how to interpret detailed historical data within such wider scopes and global perspectives.

  • 18) (ResMA only – students will engage in peer review to deepen their consideration and interpretations of the class debates and theoretical questions raised. ResMA student are also encouraged to develop new angles and hypotheses for future research and current historical heritage issues.)


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)
    This means that students have to attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the teacher beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the teacher will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, he will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (ca. 6,500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13-18

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 15

  • Three written essays
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 13, 16, 17


  • Written paper: 60 %

  • Essays: 30%

  • Oral presentation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised.

Reading list

Main syllabus reading: Xinru Liu, 2010. The Silk Road in World History. Oxford.

All additional literature (on specific sites and theoretical interpretations) will be provided per each class.
All textual sources (in translation or otherwise) will also be provided in PDF.
Course files and syllabus readings will be shared with students via Brightspace.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. M.E.J.J. van Aerde