The Silk Road, a historical labyrinth of interlinking trade routes, stretches across East, South, and Western Asia and connects to the Mediterranean, European, and African continents. In addition, traders used sea routes extending from the Red Sea to China, East Africa, India, and Southeast Asia. The Silk Road received its name from the lucrative silk trading business, which started with the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE and 220 CE. Zhang Qian was the earliest traveler of the Silk Road who expanded it around 114 BCE through his missions and explorations. The Silk Road contributed to the development of great civilizations, including China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Ancient Rome. The Silk Road was an open gate for various goods, such as silk, hemp, satin, musk, spices, jewels, perfumes, and even slaves. Other non-tangible items, such as ideologies, cultural influence, and diseases traveled along the Silk Road. Concisely, the Silk Road paved the way for modern trade and barter.
The Earliest History of the Region
Traders were exchanging nephrite jade from the regions of Yarkand and Khotan to China during the 2nd millennium BCE. The nephrite jade mines were relatively close to the lapis lazuli and spinel mines of Badakhshan. Travelers would use routes across the Pamir Mountains before the development of the Silk Road. Earlier relics, such as the Tarim mummies, suggest that ancient contacts between the East and West civilizations did occur. The introduction of gold from Central Asia allowed for imitation steppes, artistic designs of animals in combat, to blend across cultures through the existing trade routes.
Scythian cultural expansion from the Hungarian plain and the Carpathians toward the Chinese Corridor linked Iran and the rest of the Middle East to Northern India and the Punjab. The Scythians joined forces with the Assyrian Esarhaddon to invade Ancient Egypt. These nomadic tribes were influenced by the settled civilizations for various technologies and commodities. Over time, long distance merchants settled down along these trade routes as a source of income. Soghdian Scythian merchants would later play an important role in the latter stages of development of the Silk Road.
The Nature of the Silk Road
The original trade routes began from the capital in Changan, reached into the Gansu corridor, and ended in Dunhuang near the edge of Taklimakan. The northern route connected through Yumen Guan and the Gobi desert to Hami and then finally through the Tianshan mountains. The southern route split at Dunhuang and passed through the Yang Guan, while nestling through the southern edges of the desert. Numerous other branches parted from the southern and northern routes. There was no sole purpose for the construction and use of the Silk Road. In fact, traders would exchange an array of goods, including silk, gold, ivory, exotic plants and animals, precious stones, glass, furs, jade, bronze objects, lacquer, iron, and even slaves. The Silk Road served as an intermediary between civilizations that allowed for cultural influence, adoption of ideologies, ideas, and innovation.
The Development of the Silk Road
The expansion of the Silk Road attracted both merchants and bandits due to the transportation of precious goods through the Gansu Corridor and the Taklimakan. Bandits knew the terrain well enough to plunder existing caravans. In fact, caravans harboring goods were equipped with defensive forces, which added to the cost of merchants transporting their merchandise. Fortifications were built along portions of the Gansu Corridor, Yumen Guan, and the Great Wall of Jiayuguan. Despite these efforts to defend the Silk Road, most of the efforts were in vain as the Chinese regularly lost control of these sections.
The Hans dynasty constructed their local government near the northern border of Taklimakan to protect the states within the area. Other settlements positioned themselves along the way, whereby the trade and cultural influence could positively sustain the nomadic tribes. Most merchants traversed a percentage of the Silk Road to sell their wares and other items before returning home. As a result, goods tended to exchange hands several times before finding its owner. Local people guided the caravans over the most dangerous sections of the Silk Road.
The regular trade between the nomadic tribes and other merchants led to the spread of religion, especially Buddhism, which came from India to China along the northern branch of the Silk Road. In fact, large clusters of grottos can be found along the Silk Road, which now serve as storehouses for ancient documents revealing intimate details about this magnificent trade route. Christianity also had an impact on the development of the Silk Road. In 432 AD, the Roman church outlawed the Nestorian sect, which forcibly pushed these peoples to the East. The first Nestorian church was consecrated at Changan around 638 AD and survived many attempts to wipe them completely off the Silk Road.
The Greatest Years
The Silk Road did not reach its pinnacle until the reign of the Tang Dynasty during the time of internal stability within China. During this reign, Chinese traveler Xuan Zhuang traversed the region with the intention of obtaining the Buddhist scriptures from India. Upon return to the Tang capital at Changan, Zhuang was permitted to build the “Great Goose Pagoda,” which housed more than six hundred scriptures from India. Zhuang was a significant influence in the development of Buddhism in China.
The Tang Dynasty also contributed to the connection between art and civilization. Changan developed into the one of the largest and structural cities of the time, with more than two million people residing in the city itself. Changan housed more than five thousand foreigners from Turkish, Iranian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Malays descent. Many of these foreigners were missionaries, merchants or pilgrims. Despite trading many exotic and valuable imports, the Chinese often regarded these foreigners as barbaric.
The traffic along the Silk Road subsided after the Tang Dynasty, mainly because of the future dynasties incapability to maintain internal stability. Western territories were not fully aware of China’s foothold on the Silk Road before the days of the Alexander the Great. Trade relations were only greatly affected after the rise of Islam, which caused an overall rift between the east and west. However, the Mongols would create the most tumultuous time for the Silk Road and its inhabitants.
The Mongols were strong advocates of merchants and trade. Silk Road merchants provided Genghis Khan with information about the surrounding cultures, and served as diplomats for the Mongols. The Mongols relied on these merchants for goods since they produced little of their own. Merchants and ambassadors with the proper documentation could pass through Mongol territory unscathed. Stores arose due to the increasing overland trade of the Silk Road. One of the best known travelers to travel to East was Marco Polo. Rabban Bar Sauma, a Chinese Mongol monk, made a comparable journey by traveling from East to West. William of Rubruck, a European missionary, also traveled to the Mongol court on orders from the Pope to convert those receptive to the message.
After the succession of Genghis Khan, Ogedei and Guyuk allowed the merchant and partnership business to flourish for the benefit of the Mongols. Merchants traded clothing, food, and other goods with royalty in exchange for tax exemptions. Merchants were requited for any losses that were accrued from thievery. The Great Khan Mongke imposed some restrictions on merchant businesses due to money laundering and over-taxation. In fact, Khan Mongke imposed commercial and property taxes on all merchants.
The Decline of the Silk Road
The Mongol Empire was the fabric to hold the Silk Road together. Once it collapsed, the entire political, cultural, and economic structure fell apart. As a result, Turkish tribes took control of the western end of the Silk Road, which was the earliest stages of the Ottoman Empire under the Sunnis. The native Chinese overthrew the Yuang Dynasty in 1368, which launched the Ming Dynasty and the promotion of an isolationist economic policy. Additionally, it became increasingly more profitable for nations to trade via sea route, mainly because of tribal politics and middlemen. However, sea traders found themselves victims of horrible storms and pirates. In short, the political climate of the time vastly contributed to the deterioration of the Silk Road.
A resurgence of interest among western scholars in the Silk Road occurred around the 19 th century. During this time, various countries had explored the region with interests of expanding their power and territories. The British wished to consolidate some of the neighboring Indian land. Swede Sven Hedin, an established cartographer and linguist, explored the Silk Road with an interest in learning the landscape, investigating legends, and recording the ruins he discovered along the route. Hedin’s exploration triggered a surge of archaeological explorations, including famous western scholars, such as Sir Aurel Stein of Britain and Albert von Le Coq of Germany. Most focused on the discovery ancient Buddhist origins. The treasures and ruins of the Silk Road are now scattered across museums in over a dozen different countries, with highlights of manuscripts with a scholarly interest in deciphering their meaning. The Chinese have understandably frowned upon these archaeological explorations citing the action as “treasure seeking” with no appreciation of cultural preservation.
The Present Day
The Silk Road increased its overall importance in modern times. Modern excavations have focused on unearthing oil reserves underneath the surrounding desert. In fact, many industries have made efforts to westernize this area, including the present capital of Xinjiang. The Silk Road has also been opened for modern trade between the former Soviet Union and Xinjiang. The Central Asian republics relied heavily upon the contributions of the Soviet Union for their industrial development. The Silk Road has been heralded as one of the major influences in the progression towards a socialist market economy in China. Additionally, many nationalities have engaged in cross-border trade across the Silk Road, including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Restoration and Tourism
The Silk Road has attracted the interests of western tourists to explore this ancient trade route in the last century. The composed letters by Stein, Hedin, and others have opened the eyes of tourists aiming to explore the mystery behind this route. Many are intrigued by the stores of Marco Polo and other travelers. The Chinese have made efforts to restore and preserve this route by tapping into the potential of opening it to the general public. The Mogao grottos attract annual tourists due to the artistic displays layered within the structures. The Silk Road still has many different areas that need excavation and restoration before it can be opened to tourists. Even in the well-developed areas, tourists find it difficult to travel around due to harsh climate and rugged territory.
Follow these links to learn more about the mystery of the Silk Road:
- Trade Routes: Trade and Transport on the Antique Silk Road: The Silk Road earned its name with the trade of one of the most important articles of merchandise during its time. The Silk Road was often traversed between the 2nd century BC and the 8th century AD.
- The Silk Road: An article describing the roots of the original routes of the Silk Road, a trade route connecting between the Mediterranean Sea and China.
- Silk Road – Introduction: An introduction to the historical background of the Silk Road. It was first traveled by General Zhang Qian of the Han Dynasty between 206 BC and 220 AD. The Silk Road flourished during the Tang Dynasty between 618 and 907 AD.
- Silk Road: Spreading Ideas and Innovations: An essay describing how the Silk Road helped facilitate the spreading of people, goods, ideas, ideologies, and innovations.
- The Silk Road and Arab Sea Routes: A detailed map and description of the Arab Sea Routes connecting to the Silk Road. The Silk Road was the longest endured trade route in human history, with a time span of nearly 1,500 years.
- Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia: A thematic essay describing the trade between the Roman, Parthian, Kushan, and Han Empires along the Silk Road, which consisted of the spreading of ideas, beliefs, and customs.
- The Origins of The Silk Road: An article revealing the origins of the Silk Road, including the early history of the region, the nature of the route, the development of the route, the flourishing years, the barbaric invasions, the decline of the route, foreign influence, and present day influences, including restoration and tourism.
- Silk Road Exhibitions at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and Freer Gallery of Art: The Smithsonian Institute’s tribute to the Silk Road, including various art galleries and exhibitions, such as sacred sites, hidden caves used as places of worship, relics based on Hamza, and the cultural arts of the Silk Road Empires.
- Historic Silk Road: The Silk Road was referred to as the “Silu” in ancient Chinese. The Silk Road was ancient strategic transportation channel used to trade goods, fortify defenses, spread economic and cultural influence, and promote ancient Asian Empires.
- Traveling China’s ancient Silk Road: A modern account of China’s ancient Silk Road as described by MSNBC’s correspondent Elizabeth Dalziel.
- Exploring the Silk Road: A website dedicated to teaching users about the Silk Road and the culture that emerged from it.
- Xi’an and the Silk Road: Information about the development of the Silk Road and China’s history.
- An Introduction to the Silk Road: Maps and basic information about the Silk Road.
- Silk Road Resources: A collection of links about the Silk Road and Asian culture that has influenced world cultures.
- Silk Road Trivia: Questions, answers and fun facts about the Silk Road.
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