The International ECO - Silk Road Food Festival

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ECO region with an area of more than 8 million square kilometers stretching from central to south and south-west Asia and a population of around 450 million inhabitants is well-known for its natural beauties, as well as diversity of its historical-cultural heritage. In this respect the region has a significant potential to be one of the major tourism destinations in the world, albeit not duly explored. The Region is one of the world’s richest in terms of historical and cultural heritage and echoes memoires of the ancient Silk Road.

As one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world, tourism is well-positioned to foster economic growth and development at all levels and provide income through job creation. The ever increasing and contribution of tourism to the world economy and less investment requirements and environmental effects makes it inevitable to adopt plans and strategies for development of tourism on national and regional basis.

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Human beings have always moved from place to place and traded with their neighbors, exchanging goods, skills and ideas. Throughout history, Eurasia was criss-crossed with communication routes and paths of trade, which gradually linked up to form what are known today as the Silk Roads; routes across both land and sea, along which silk and many other goods were exchanged between people from across the world. Maritime routes were an important part of this network, linking East and West by sea, and were used for the trade of spices in particular, thus becoming known as the Spice Routes.

These vast networks carried more than just merchandise and precious commodities however: the constant movement and mixing of populations also brought about the transmission of knowledge, ideas, cultures and beliefs, which had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the Eurasian peoples. Travellers along the Silk Roads were attracted not only by trade but also by the intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the Silk Roads, many of which developed into hubs of culture and learning. Science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies were thus shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other.

'Silk Road' is in fact a relatively recent term, and for the majority of their long history, these ancient roads had no particular name. In the mid-nineteenth century, the German geologist, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, named the trade and communication network Die Seidenstrasse (the Silk Road), and the term, also used in the plural, continues to stir imaginations with its evocative mystery.

Silk Production and the Silk Trade

Silk is a textile of ancient Chinese origin, woven from the protein fiber produced by the silkworm to make its cocoon, and was developed, according to Chinese tradition, sometime around the year 2,700 BC. Regarded as an extremely high value product, it was reserved for the exclusive usage of the Chinese imperial court for the making of cloths, drapes, banners, and other items of prestige. Its production was kept a fiercely guarded secret within China for some 3,000 years, with imperial decrees sentencing to death anyone who revealed to a foreigner the process of its production. Tombs in the Hubei province dating from the 4th and 3rd centuries BC contain outstanding examples of silk work, including brocade, gauze and embroidered silk, and the first complete silk garments.

The Chinese monopoly on silk production however did not mean that the product was restricted to the Chinese Empire – on the contrary, silk was used as a diplomatic gift, and was also traded extensively, first of all with China’s immediate neighbors, and subsequently further afield, becoming one of China’s chief exports under the Han dynasty (206 BC –220 AD). Indeed, Chinese cloths from this period have been found in Egypt, in northern Mongolia, and elsewhere.

At some point during the 1st century BC, silk was introduced to the Roman Empire, where it was considered an exotic luxury and became extremely popular, with imperial edicts being issued to control prices. Its popularity continued throughout the middle Ages, with detailed Byzantine regulations for the manufacture of silk clothes, illustrating its importance as a quintessentially royal fabric and an important source of revenue for the crown. Additionally, the needs of the Byzantine Church for silk garments and hangings were substantial. This luxury item was thus one of the early impetuses in the development of trading routes from Europe to the Far East.

Knowledge about silk production was very valuable and, despite the efforts of the Chinese emperor to keep it a closely guarded secret, it did eventually spread beyond China, first to India and Japan, then to the Persian Empire and finally to the west in the 6th century AD. This was described by the historian Procopius, writing in the 6th century:

    About the same time [ca. 550] there came from India certain monks; and when they had satisfied Justinian Augustus that the Romans no longer should buy silk from the Persians, they promised the emperor in an interview that they would provide the materials for making silk so that never should the Romans seek business of this kind from their enemy the Persians, or from any other people whatsoever. They said that they were formerly in Serinda, which they call the region frequented by the people of the Indies, and there they learned perfectly the art of making silk. Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk, nature itself forcing them to keep always at work; the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises of the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire.

Beyond Silk; a diversity of routes and cargos

However, whilst the silk trade was one of the earliest catalysts for the trade routes across Central Asia, it was only one of a wide range of products that was traded between east and west, and which included textiles, spices, grain, vegetables and fruit, animal hides, tools, wood work, metal work, religious objects, art work, precious stones and much more. Indeed, the Silk Roads became more popular and increasingly well-travelled over the course of the Middle Ages, and were still in use in the 19th century, a testimony not only to their usefulness but also to their flexibility and adaptability to the changing demands of society. Nor did these trading paths follow any one trail – merchants had a wide choice of different routes crossing a variety of regions of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Far East, as well as the maritime routes, which transported goods from China and South East Asia through the Indian Ocean to Africa, India and the Near East.

These routes developed over time and according to shifting geopolitical contexts throughout history. For example, merchants from the Roman Empire would try to avoid crossing the territory of the Parthians, Rome’s enemies, and therefore took routes to the north, across the Caucasus region and over the Caspian Sea. Similarly, whilst extensive trade took place over the network of rivers that crossed the Central Asian steppes in the early middle Ages, their water levels rose and fell, and sometimes dried up altogether, and trade routes shifted accordingly.

Maritime trade was another extremely important branch of this global trade network. Most famously used for the transportation of spices, the maritime trade routes have also been known as the Spice Roads, supplying markets across the world with cinnamon, pepper, ginger, cloves and nutmeg from the Moluccas islands in Indonesia (known as the Spice Islands), as well as a wide range of other goods. Textiles, woodwork, precious stones, metalwork, incense, timber, and saffron were all traded by the merchants travelling these routes, which stretched over 15,000 kilometers, from the west coast of Japan, past the Chinese coast, through South East Asia, and past India to reach the Middle East and so to the Mediterranean.

The history of these maritime routes can be traced back thousands of years, to links between the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization. The early middle Ages saw an expansion of this network, as sailors from the Arabian Peninsula forged new trading routes across the Arabian Sea and into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, maritime trading links were established between Arabia and China from as early as the 8th century AD. Technological advances in the science of navigation, in astronomy, and also in the techniques of ship building combined to make long-distance sea travel increasingly practical.  Lively coastal cities grew up around the most frequently visited ports along these routes, such as Zanzibar, Alexandria, Muscat, and Goa, and these cities became wealthy centers for the exchange of goods, ideas, languages and beliefs, with large markets and continually changing populations of merchants and sailors.

In the late 15th century, the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, navigated round the Cape of Good Hope, thereby connecting European sailors with these South East Asian maritime routes for the first time and initiating direct European involvement in this trade.  By the 16th and 17th centuries, these routes and their lucrative trade had become subject of fierce rivalries between the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. The conquest of ports along the maritime routes brought both wealth and security, as they effectively governed the passage of maritime trade and also allowed ruling powers to claim monopolies on these exotic and highly sought-after goods, as well as gathering the substantial taxes levied on merchant vessels.

The map above illustrates the great variety of routes that were available to merchants bearing a wide range of goods and travelling from different parts of the world, by both land and sea. Most often, individual merchant caravans would cover specific sections of the routes, pausing to rest and replenish supplies, or stopping altogether and selling on their cargos at points throughout the length of the roads, leading to the growth of lively trading cities and ports. The Silk Roads were dynamic and porous; goods were traded with local populations throughout, and local products were added into merchants’ cargos. This process enriched not only the merchants’ material wealth and the variety of their cargos, but also allowed for exchanges of culture, language and ideas to take place along the Silk Roads.

Routes of Dialogue

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Silk Roads has been their role in bringing cultures and peoples in contact with each other, and facilitating exchange between them. On a practical level, merchants had to learn the languages and customs of the countries they travelled through, in order to negotiate successfully. Cultural interaction was a vital aspect of material exchange. Moreover, many travellers ventured onto the Silk Roads in order to partake in this process of intellectual and cultural exchange that was taking place in cities along the routes. Knowledge about science, arts and literature, as well as crafts and technologies was shared across the Silk Roads, and in this way, languages, religions and cultures developed and influenced each other. One of the most famous technical advances to have been propagated worldwide by the Silk Roads was the technique of making paper, as well as the development of printing press technology. Similarly, irrigation systems across Central Asia share features that were spread by travellers who not only carried their own cultural knowledge, but also absorbed that of the societies in which they found themselves.

Indeed, the man who is often credited with founding the Silk Roads by opening up the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, General Zhang Qian, was on a diplomatic mission rather than a trading expedition. Sent to the West in 139 BC by the Han Emperor Wudi to ensure alliances against the Xiongnu, the hereditary enemies of the Chinese, Zhang Qian was captured and imprisoned by them. Thirteen years later he escaped and made his way back to China. Pleased with the wealth of detail and accuracy of his reports, the emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BC to visit several neighboring peoples, establishing early routes from China to Central Asia.

Religion and a quest for knowledge were further inspirations to travel along these routes. Buddhist monks from China made pilgrimages to India to bring back sacred texts, and their travel diaries are an extraordinary source of information. The diary of Xuan Zang (whose 25-year journal lasted from 629 to 654 AD) not only has an enormous historical value, but also inspired a comic novel in the sixteenth century, the 'Pilgrimage to the West', which has become one of the great Chinese classics. During the Middle Ages, European monks undertook diplomatic and religious missions to the east, notably Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, sent by Pope Innocent IV on a mission to the Mongols from 1245 to 1247, and William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk sent by King Louis IX of France again to the Mongol hordes from 1253 to 1255. Perhaps the most famous was the Venetian explorer, Marco Polo, whose travels lasted for more than 20 years between 1271 and 1292, and whose account of his experiences became extremely popular in Europe after his death.

The routes were also fundamental in the dissemination of religions throughout Eurasia. Buddhism is one example of a religion that travelled the Silk Roads, with Buddhist art and shrines being found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Manicheism spread in the same way, as travellers absorbed the cultures they encountered and then carried them back to their homelands with them. Thus, for example, Hinduism and subsequently Islam were introduced into Indonesia and Malaysia by Silk Road merchants travelling the maritime trade routes from India and Arabia.

Travelling the Silk Roads

The process of travelling the Silk Roads developed along with the roads themselves. In the middle Ages, caravans consisting of horses or camels were the standard means of transporting goods across land. Caravanserais, large guest houses or inns designed to welcome travelling merchants, played a vital role in facilitating the passage of people and goods along these routes. Found along the Silk Roads from Turkey to China, they provided not only a regular opportunity for merchants to eat well, rest and prepare themselves in safety for their onward journey, and also to exchange goods, trade with local markets and buy local products, and to meet other merchant travellers, and in doing so, to exchange cultures, languages and ideas.

As trade routes developed and became more lucrative, caravanserais became more of a necessity, and their construction intensified across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, and continued until as late as the 19th century. This resulted in a network of caravanserais that stretched from China to the Indian subcontinent, Iran, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia and Eastern Europe, many of which still stand today.


Caravanserais were ideally positioned within a day’s journey of each other, so as to prevent merchants (and more particularly, their precious cargos) from spending days or nights exposed to the dangers of the road. On average, this resulted in a caravanserai every 30 to 40 kilometers in well-maintained areas.

Maritime traders had different challenges to face on their lengthy journeys. The development of sailing technology, and in particular of ship-building knowledge, increased the safety of sea travel throughout the middle Ages. Ports grew up on coasts along these maritime trading routes, providing vital opportunities for merchants not only to trade and disembark, but also to take on fresh water supplies, with one of the greatest threats to sailors in the middle Ages being a lack of drinking water. Pirates were another risk faced by all merchant ships along the maritime Silk Roads, as their lucrative cargos made them attractive targets.

The legacy of the Silk Roads

In the nineteenth century, a new type of traveller ventured onto the Silk Roads: archaeologists and geographers, enthusiastic explorers looking for adventure. Coming from France, England, Germany, Russia and Japan, these researchers traversed the Taklimakan desert in western China, in what is now Xinjiang, to explore ancient sites along the Silk Roads, leading to many archaeological discoveries, numerous academic studies, and most of all, a renewed interest in the history of these routes.

Today, many historic buildings and monuments still stand, marking the passage of the Silk Roads through caravanserais, ports and cities. However, the long-standing and ongoing legacy of this remarkable network is reflected in the many distinct but interconnected cultures, languages, customs and religions that have developed over millennia along these routes.  The passage of merchants and travellers of many different nationalities resulted not only in commercial exchange but in a continuous and widespread process of cultural interaction. As such, from their early, exploratory origins, the Silk Roads developed to become a driving force in the formation of diverse societies across Eurasia and far beyond.

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Information Note


Gastronomy is one of the most valuable cultural products and along with accommodation, is among the basic requirements in tourist destinations. Besides local and traditional properties, food diversity has always been of primary attraction of tourist destinations. Due to recent economic developments, globalization and increasing cultural interactions, nowadays gastronomic traditions of different regions worldwide has suffered seriously, leading to gradual disappearance of healthy nutrition and replacing it with industrial foods. This trend has given a decline in food-related tourist attraction of ancient nations particularly ECO and Silk Road Region. Therefore, holding tourism events with an exclusive focus on gastronomy and healthy traditions will promote the old traditions across our region and help revitalize the ancient Silk Road. To contribute to this cause and also to promote friendship and peace among nations, the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism (ICHTO) of Zanjan Province (Iran) and Economic Cooperation Organization initiated Page

The ECO-Silk Food Festival, first of which was held in 2015. Investing on the two previous successful experiences in 2015 and 2016, the organizers are determined to continue this move on annual basis in Zanjan. The Third International ECO-Silk Road Food Festival on 10-12 of May, 2017 is once again the manifestation of will and desire to contribute to introduction and preservation of ancient traditions and help people better understand each other. The proclaiming the year 2017 as International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by United Nations provided further encouragement to this effect.

Theme and the contents of the Festival

The theme of this year Festival will be: Together for Sustainable Tourism

Presenting and introducing various types of local food in ECO and Silk Road nations, the participants will have the opportunity to:

1- Exhibit tourism attractions of their countries;

2- Present anthropological background about local foods of their countries;

3- Provide information on food and cooking through brochures and booklets;

4- Perform cultural programmes including folk music and traditional programs.

How to participate?

The interested countries are kindly requested to inform their participation through their Embassies in Tehran or via the following contact persons:

1. Mr. Abolfazl Ajalli (ICHTO- Zanjan)

 Tel: +9824-33362707 Cell: +98- 919 997 0700 Email:

2. Mr. Akbar Khodaei ( ECO Secretariat)

 Tel: +9821- 22831733 (ext. 120) Fax:+9821-22831732 Cell:+98 (0) 9122408447


Eligible participants

The Festival is meant for showcasing the local foods by individuals/groups from the ECO Member states and the Silk Road countries, namely, Afghanistan, Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,

Bulgaria, Albania, Bangladesh, China, Croatia, Republic of Korea, Georgia, Greece, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Romania, Russia, Spain, Syria, Ukraine and Lebanon. Embassies of the above mentioned countries in Tehran as well as their nationals residing in Iran are also encouraged to participate in the Festival. Expected to Visa requirement

All the interested participants from outside Iran are required to hold valid passport and obtain entry visa through the Iranian Embassies or Consulates in their own countries prior to departure.

Important Note: Participants from the following countries are exempted from Visa requirements and are only requested to carry valid passport: Republic of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Syria, Turkey

Visa on Arrival will be issued for Lebanese nationals.

Hospitality Details

The host authorities will provide the following facilities to the participants during their stay (not exceeding 5 days and 3 nights):

1- Free accommodation + meals for two participants from each participating country;

2- Free local transportation including domestic airport transfer;

3-Free local transportation will also be provided for participants from Embassies\Missions in Tehran;

4- Free stalls for cooking and selling dishes,

5- Free cooking facilities and utensils,

Note 1: The participants are expected to purchase food ingredients and shall cover such expenses. All food ingredients are available in the local market. In exceptional cases, however, participants are required to prepare them in advance. Note 2: The participants wishing to stay further should indicate while applying for participation and Visa. The host authorities will not cover any cost of further stay or extra service requested.

Note 3All interested participants are required to arrive one day ahead of the start of the Festival.


There will be designated hotels and residential complexes for accommodation purpose. The interested participants are requested to inform confirmation of their participation well in advance for timely booking. The booking will be on the basis of first come first served.

Sightseeing excursion

A one day tour will be organized for the participants on the sidelines of the Festival to visit Soltaniyeh (UNESCO Listed World Heritage). Soltaniyeh is one of the largest brick domes in the world and the third largest dome in the world after the domes of Florence Cathedra (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore ) and Hagia Sophia.

The participants may also visit the ancient city of Zanjan throughout the Festival.

Further considerations

- The participants are required to observe the Islamic dress code and the laws and regulations of the Islamic Republic of Iran during their stay.

- Alcoholic beverages and additives are legally prohibited in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

- All foods to be served at the Festival shall be Halal products.

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