Did You Know? The Maritime Silk Roads and the Diffusion of Islam in the Korean Peninsula

Woljeonggyo Bridge in Gyeongju, Korea © KoreaKHW

The Silk Roads were fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread across this vast region via both land and maritime routes, as travellers absorbed elements of the new cultures they encountered and carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Roads merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from the Indian subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula. Similarly, Buddhism was introduced to parts of China, South East Asia and the Korean Peninsula from its origins in the Indian Subcontinent. Some of those travelling the Silk Roads returned home after completing their endeavours whilst others settled permanently, constructing their own religious sites and monuments many of which survive today.

Amongst some of the first cultural elements to reach the Korean Peninsula from the western regions of Central Asia via China were those associated with Buddhism, which was introduced around the 5th century CE where it later became the predominant religious influence.

However, later, Islam also reached the Korean Peninsula. Islamic cartography and geographic knowledge was well developed in the 7th century and throughout the rest of the medieval period because it incorporated a considerable amount of preexisting knowledge from the Indian Subcontinent and Iranian Plateau. Sources from the historical record suggest Arab merchants first made contact with the Korean Peninsula sometime during the latter half of the Unified Silla period (661 – 935 CE). Muslim geographers synthesized the existing Ptolemaic geography of Ancient Greece and, after the 12th century CE, employed the theories of the polymath Al-Biruni (973 – 1050 CE) to aid cartography and navigation.

While trade was the initial driver of exchange, a number of elements of Islamic culture were introduced to the Korean Peninsula during this time. These exchanges are well documented in History, Geography and travel writing in work from scholars such as Ibn Khordadbeh author of one of the earliest surviving Arabic books of administrative geography from the mid-9th century CE. These accounts indicate that many Arab merchants remained and settled in the peninsula, becoming part of Korean society and exchanging many different elements with the local population.  

Alongside trade and other forms of interaction, religion and spiritual knowledge were key elements that were exchanged along the Silk Roads. Arab merchants in the Korean Peninsula are just one of numerous examples of diverse populations encountering religions that originated in different parts of the world.

All along the Silk Roads, there are a number of cultural heritages both tangible and intangible that attest to religions that have previously existed and those that remain as major world religions today. These sites and monuments not only represent the beliefs of various people, but also bear witness to the cultural interactions and dissemination of religions that took place in or around them, revealing the influence of religions from around the world, brought into contact via the historic Silk Roads.

The Exchange of Technical Knowledge used to Craft Silk Roads Goods

Silk Roads exchange and the Development of the Medical Sciences

Silk Roads Exchanges in Chinese Gastronomy

Mathematical Sciences along the Silk Roads

The Role of Women in Central Asian Nomadic Society

Ancient Trading Centres in the Malay Peninsula

Sri Lankan Harbour Cities and the Maritime Silk Roads

The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature

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