Unsung merchants

I’ve always found it strange that although Europeans have been undertaking long-distance travelling for thousands of years, the habit of keeping a journal or a travelogue is a relatively recent literary invention. As far as I know, the earliest known travel report is that of the Greek Pausanias, a geographer from the 2nd century AD. Pausanias described ancient Greece from his own observations as he travelled from Attica to the Peloponnese, then central Greece and back.

Since Pausanias, only a handful of authors took up the challenge of recording their travels.

Before the first geographers turned to the description of the world during their travels, merchants had long zigzagged and criss-crossed entire regions and continents. Many of them covered long distances (think of the Silk Roads). Almost none of them thought about recording their wanderings and meanderings.

Imagine all the adventures these forgotten merchants went through that have been left unrecorded. Imagine the extinct corpus of stories we shall never know.

Perhaps fiction and adventure novels were invented to fill the void left by these unsung merchants, whose livelihood was a relentless gamble and whose existence was an epic poem.

Archeologists assure us that objects travelled from the East to the West, for North to South, from Asia to Europe and back. We find pottery in England that was made in Constantinople. We find gold from the confines of Scandinavia in the marketplaces of Southern Europe. But people forget to light a candle to the multitudes of merchants and traders who ventured of the rough seas and perilous highways, defying the localist culture of their time, pushing the borders and spinning the orb on their fingers.


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