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Incense in Exchange for Gunpowder

The Silk Road: a trade route that altered the world.

Robbers attacking camel caravans, wars fought over silk and oriental spices, wild love stories in the middle of the desert: all manner of exciting legends have grown up around the Silk Road. The poetic name is a fairly recent invention for an ancient network of trade routes spanning the 6,500 kilometres that separate the Far East from the Mediterranean.

Some 200 years before Christ, the intricate network of roads gradually spread that enabled traders from Italy and Turkey to travel to China, crossing Syria, Uzbekistan and Mongolia to get there. They transported cardamom and curcuma, pepper and tea, bronze receptacles, porcelain and medicine over thousands and thousands of miles, travelling on foot or by camel through deserts with temperature differences of up to 75 degrees, across the snowbound passes of the Pamir Mountains at altitudes of 4,000 metres, and running the gauntlet of bands of thieves and highwaymen.

Silk Road

The festival at Easter, from 9-14 April 2020, at the Elbphilharmonie: a musical journey of discovery from Venice via Uzbekistan to China, from throat singing to Beijing opera.

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Since the creation of Adam, no man has seen so many and such amazing things as I have.

Marco Polo

The men who embarked on the long journey risked their lives – but many returned with emeralds, rubies and fantastic stores to tell. The most famous of all these travellers was the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who set out for China in 1271 and didn't return to the lagoon city until 1295. Contemporaries could hardly believe the tales he told: he claimed to have been appointed to the highest offices at the court of the powerful Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in Beijing, to have counted no fewer than 10,000 concubines at the court, and to have introduced Christianity to the Far East at the Pope's behest. To this day, academics still argue about whether Marco Polo actually set foot on Chinese soil at all.

Marco Polo on his travels
Marco Polo on his travels © Wikimedia Commons

Silk: Valuable Caterpillar Spittle

One commodity was so sought-after among the merchants that it even gave its name to the trade route: silk. At the time, silk was the most precious of all materials; it was as valuable as gold, and extremely expensive to produce. Some 1,700 silkworm cocoons are needed to make a single silk dress.

No wonder, then, that the secret of silk manufacture was strictly guarded in China. Legend has it that anyone caught smuggling silkworms out of the country could reckon with the death penalty. In the end, the state secret is supposed to have been revealed by an Imperial princess of all people. But the hype didn't suffer as a result, and silk remained the most sought-after commodity in Eastern Asia.

The moth whose caterpillars spin the silk threads was domesticated some 5,000 years ago. The silkworm secretes protein from the salivary glands on its head, which it spins into a single thread several hundred metres long; it then encloses itself in the cocoon thus formed.

Silkworm cocoon
Silkworm cocoon
Silk threads at a market in Laos

Globalisation at Walking Pace

The mutual exchange on the trade routes was by no means confined to commodities. Armies, religions and cultural techniques like printing, the manufacture of paper, postal systems and such chemical knowledge as distillation made their way along the mighty branches of the Silk Road, not to mention ideologies, languages and entire peoples: this was the earliest form of globalisation.

The name »Silk Road« is fairly recent in origin. The trade route has been in existence since the 2nd century BC, but it was only given its name in the 19th century by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.

The Elbphilharmonie Easter Festival features music from the Silk Road

Over Easter 2020, the exotic scents of the Silk Road waft through the Elbphilharmonie too. Ten concerts and a variety of workshops present music from the countries along the traditional trade route, and bring many masters of regional music styles to Hamburg in the process. The programme is as diverse as the Silk Road itself: from Marco Polo's Venice and Ottoman, Persian and Mongolian music to a spectacular Beijing opera, based, of all things, on Wagner's »Ring of the Nibelung«.

Text: Anastasia Päßler, last updated: 28 Oct 2019


Tan Dun

The festival opens with a real highlight: Oscar prizewinner Tan Dun puts on his colossal oratorio »Buddha Passion« at the Elbphilharmonie, which was inspired by cave paintings along the Silk Road that are thousands of years old.

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Following the Footsteps of Marco Polo

The Greek group En Chordais, accompanied by the wonderful Maria Farantouri and the Ensemble Constantinople, brings his accounts of his travels to life in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern music.

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With Dombyra and Bass Guitar

The young virtuoso Mamer belongs to the Kazakh minority in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The meditative sound of his long-necked lute reflects the solitary expanses of the grassland and the way man is united with the forces of nature.

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The horsehead fiddle and tingling overtone singing: the music of the Mongolian nomads is full of fascinating sounds. The group Egschiglen blends this traditional style with classical music, while the sextet Khusugtun from Ulan-Bator integrates it into cat

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Roza Amanova


The charismatic singer Roza Amanova and her trio transport the music of their native Kyrgyzstan into the present: shaman sounds, pastoral melodies and century-old epic songs.

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Dorothee Oberlinger

From Venice to China

All the colours of the Silk Road: recorder queen Dorothee Oberlinger and the Turkish-Greek ensemble Sarband combine Baroque music by Vivaldi with Balkan dances, Tartar, Anatolian and Chinese songs and desert sounds from the pop band Yello.

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Musiktheater in Peking

Valkyrie in Beijing

Wagner's mystical and elemental »Ring of the Nibelung« as an exotic Beijing opera? Sounds absurd, to be sure, but the result is spectacular when the China National Peking Opera Company and celebrated producer Anna Peschke blend Chinese with European cultu

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Ensemble Safar


Afghanistan is one of the most interesting cultural areas along the Silk Road, notwithstanding all the political turmoil in the country. The six-part ensemble Safar devotes its concert to Sufi music and to pieces from the golden age of Afghan music.

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Alireza Ghorbani


The great Iranian singer Alireza Ghorbani and lute virtuoso Majid Derakhshani present love songs by Persian poets that range in mood from delicate intimacy to ecstasy.

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Gulzoda Khudoynazarova

Usbekistan & Turkmenistan

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are two of the countries on the Silk Road particularly rich in legend. The festival's closing concert presents the highly ornamented Uzbekian song cycle Shashmaqam as well as Sufi poetry and the songs of the Bakshi bards.

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At a Glance: All »Silk Road« Festival Events

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