The Silk Road is the world’s oldest, and most historically important overland trade route. The name evokes images of caravans wading through desert sand, and smell of exotic spices, and continues to fascinate travelers.
When was the silk road DISCOVERED?
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes, formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, which linked the regions of the ancient world in commerce. As the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, the term ‘Silk Routes’ has become increasingly favored by historians, though ‘Silk Road’ is the more common and recognized name. Both terms for this network of roads were coined by the German geographer and traveler, Ferdinand von Richthofen, in 1877 CE, who designated them ‘Seidenstrasse’ (silk road) or ‘Seidenstrassen’ (silk routes). The network was used regularly from 130 BCE, when the Han officially opened trade with the west, to 1453 CE, when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes.
What wERE the routeS of the Silk Road?
The ancient trade route linked China with the West and carried goods and ideas between the two great civilizations of Rome and China. Originating at Xi’an (Sian), the 4,000-mile (6,400-km) road, actually a caravan tract, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamirs (mountains), crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Levant; from there the merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea.With the gradual loss of Roman territory in Asia and the rise of Arabian power in the Levant, the Silk Road became increasingly unsafe and untraveled. In the 13th and 14th centuries the route was revived under the Mongols, and at that time the Venetian Marco Polo used the road to travel to Cathay (China). In Asia the road passed through Samarkand to the region of Fergana, where, near the city of Osh, a stone tower marked the symbolic watershed between East and West. From Fergana the road traversed the valley between the Tien Shan and Kunlun Mountains through Kashgar, where it divided and skirted both sides of the Takla Makan Desert to join again at Yuanquan. The road then wound eastward to Jiayuguan (Suzhou), where it passed through the westernmost gateway (the Jade Gate, or Yumen) of the Great Wall of China. It then went southeast on the Imperial Highway to Xi’an and eastward to Shanghai on the Pacific Ocean. From Kashgar, trade routes to the south passed over the mountains to the great trading centre of Bactria and to northern Kashmir.
The road now partially exists in the form of a paved highway connecting Pakistan and the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China.
travellING along Silk Road
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 kilometres 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.
image source: http://windhorsetour.com/silk-road-tour
WhICH precious goods were transported?
The goods carried on the Silk Road moved basically from the East to the West. Judging by the road’s name silk was the main commodity in the list. Thanks to its light weight, compactness, enormous demand and high price it was ideal for trade and long-distance transportation.
At the initial stage of the Silk Road development Chinese received expensive horses and the seeds of lucerne and grapes. The ancient world had cultivated grapevine and made wines from time immemorial. But for Chinese, separated from other civilizations, grapes were a novelty. Moreover, Chinese envoys were very surprised when they found that it was possible to make wine not only from rice but also from berries unknown to them. Later Chinese discovered for themselves other agricultural crops – string beans, onions, cucumbers, carrots, pomegranates, figs etc.
Various woolen goods, carpets, curtains, blankets and rugs, came to China from Central Asia and East Mediterranean. They made huge impression upon Chinese who were unfamiliar with methods wool and flax processing, carpet manufacture and weaving. Highly appreciated in Ancient China were Parthian tapestries and carpets.
Central Asia exported camels which were very appreciated in China, military equipment, gold and silver, semi-precious stones and glass items. Samarkand made glass was especially valued due to its high quality. It was considered as luxury goods. Other goods were skins, wool, cotton fabrics, gold embroidery, exotic fruits – water-melons, melons and peaches; fat-tailed sheep and hunting dogs, leopards and lions.
From China caravans carried the well-known Chinese china – snow-white vases, bowls, glasses, and dishes with graceful patterns. Only Chinese owned the secret of making the thinnest and resonant porcelain, therefore, it was very expensive in European markets. Bronze ornaments and other products from this metal, ornate bronze mirrors, umbrellas, products from the well-known Chinese varnish, medicines, and perfumery were also popular. Chinese paper, one of the most remarkable inventions of Chinese technical genius, was highly appreciated too. Gold, skins and many other things were exported as well. Merchants also carried tea and rice, woolen and flax fabrics, corals, amber and asbestos. The sacks of merchants were filled with ivory, rhino horns, turtle shells, spices, ceramic and iron items, glaze and cinnamon, ginger, bronze weapons and mirrors.
India was famous for its fabrics, spices and semi-precious stones, dyes, and ivory. Iran – for its silver products. Rome received spices, fragrances, jewels, ivory, and sugar and sent European pictures and luxury goods.
Eastern Europe imported rice, cotton, woolen and silk fabrics from Central Asia and exported considerable volumes of skins, furs, fur animals, bark for skin processing, cattle and slaves to Khoresm. Northern Europe was the source of furs, skins, honey and slaves.
image source: https://www.aliexpress.com/popular/decorative-silk.html
effects on western civilization
The greatest value of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture. Art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization was exchanged through the Silk Road along with the commercial goods the merchants carried from country to country. Along the network of routes disease traveled also, as evidenced in the spread of the bubonic plague of 542 CE which is thought to have arrived in Constantinople by way of the Silk Road and which decimated the Byzantine Empire. The closing of the Silk Road forced merchants to take to the sea to ply their trade, thus initiating the Age of Discovery (1453-1660 CE) which led to world-wide interaction and the beginnings of a global community.
Info sources: https://www.britannica.com/technology/road#ref592024