Cities in the Sand WEA Sydney

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For two millennia the Silk and Incense Routes wound their way from western China and southern Arabia through oasis towns, Central Asian and Arabian emporia, and Levantine entrepôts, before reaching the shores of the Mediterranean. Although both served as conduits for conquerors, philosophers, and religions it was the highly lucrative profits gained by merchants transporting textiles, spices, and other cargoes that led to the establishment of extremely wealthy towns and cities throughout this trade network. We shall explore some of the most spectacular and romantic of the great desert caravan cities that flourished during Graeco-Roman times along these routes.


  • Face-to-Face


  • C. Baumer 2000: The Southern Silk Road. In the Footsteps of Sir Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, White Orchid Books, Thailand
  • I. Browning 1982: Jerash and the Decapolis, London
  • B. Fowlkes-Childs & M. Seymour 2019: The World Between Empires. Art and Identity in the Ancient Middle East, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
  • G. Markoe (ed.) 2003: Petra Rediscovered. Lost City of the Nabateans, Thames & Hudson


  • Leaving the Jade Gate: To the west of the legendary Jade Gate the remains of once flourishing trading cities, now covered by the sand of the Taklamakan desert, continue to be unearthed.
  • Pompeii of the East: Dura-Europos on the Euphrates is a striking example of the mingling of art, architecture, and culture which occurred along the great trade routes.
  • Bride of the Desert: The colonnaded streets, oriental temples, and caravanserais of Palmyra bear witness to a caravan city that considered itself a worthy rival of Rome.
  • Jewel of Jordan: With its unique forum, impressive theatres, and mighty temples Jerash presents a striking picture of life in an opulent Roman city of the east.
  • The Land of Frankincense: The ‘Incense Route’ had its origins in ‘Arabia Felix’ whose stunning mountains, deserts, and ancient cities (now being slowly revealed) remain relatively
  • Rose-Red City: For centuries Petra, with its stunning rock-hewn temples and tombs, remained hidden from the west before emerging as one of the greatest cities of the ancient world.


By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain knowledge about some of the great trading centres of antiquity
  2. Become familiar with the various peoples who travelled these routes
  3. Get to know the various religions which influenced both east and west

John Tidmarsh

MA (Hons), PhD
Dr John Tidmarsh was formerly President of the University of Sydney's Near Eastern Archaeology Foundation and currently Chairman, Executive Committee of the Australian Archaeological Institute at...