Sep 24, 2020
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The Silk Road: A Historic Trade Route Connecting East and West

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Silk Road, the most important premodern trade route linking China and Europe. Named  for the precious Chinese cloth that was originally the most valuable and abundant commodity transported on it. Although historians traditionally date the origin of the Silk Road to the 2nd century BC, a trickle of goods—principally jades, bronzes, and silks—was conveyed across Central Asia as early as about 1000 BC. Commerce persisted on the Silk Road until ocean-borne trade surpassed and superseded trade on the land route in the late 15th and early 16th centuries AD.


The Silk Road originated in the 2nd century BC not from a desire for trade but from considerations of defense. Chinese Emperor Wudi (reigned 141-87 BC) of the Han dynasty sent a court official named Zhang Qian to Central Asia to seek allies against the Xiongnu, pastoral nomads from Mongolia who repeatedly raided Chinese settlements during this period. However, the Xiongnu captured Zhang while he was en route and detained him for ten years. Zhang finally escaped from his captors and completed his journey to Central Asia, only to have the local rulers rebuff his overtures for an alliance with China. Although Zhang’s mission failed in its original objectives, the information he conveyed to China about Central Asia, and vice versa, made people in each area desire goods produced in the other. The Central Asians, and later the Persians and the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, learned of and began to covet Chinese products, particularly silk, leading to the development of trade.

Political developments were vital in the operation of the Silk Road. As caravans traversed Eurasia (the combined landmass of Europe and Asia), they were vulnerable to wars, thieves, and other forms of economic and political turmoil. The stable conditions that fostered trade required strong, centralized governments. Stability was particularly necessary in China and Persia, the two most important centers for Silk Road commerce. As interest in trade was rising during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, China’s Han dynasty and the empire of Parthia in Persia were reaching the heights of their power, thus ensuring optimal conditions for commerce. Simultaneously, the Roman Republic (and later the Roman Empire) was flourishing. It controlled parts of western Asia and provided a large market for luxury products, such as silk. Both the Han and Roman emperors built roads within their own domains, thereby facilitating caravan travel.


The Silk Road consisted of several principal routes. The different routes developed in response to environmental obstacles and changing political circumstances. All caravans traveling from east to west left from Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in northern China. They traveled along the Hexi Corridor (in modern Gansu province) between the Gobi Desert to the north and the Nan Shan mountains to the south. At Jiayuguan the caravans left the protection of the wall along China’s northern border (rebuilt centuries later as the network of walls known as the Great Wall) and headed for Anxi.

The first major obstacle along the route was the inhospitable Takla Makan desert, which lay just beyond Anxi. Here, some travelers continued south, while others went north. The southern route passed through Dunhuang, an oasis town that later emerged as a center of Buddhist learning and art. At Dunhuang the path diverged again, one fork skirting the Takla Makan to the south and the other to the north. The southern fork entered the Tarim Pendi (the basin of the Tarim River) and then skirted the northern flank of the Kunlun Mountains. Travelers rested at Hotan, an oasis town that became an important jade center. The caravans then continued along the Kunlun to the town of Kashi (Kashgar), in the foothills of the Pamir Highway, where they rejoined travelers who circumvented the Takla Makan via the northern fork.

The longer and more circuitous northern route from Anxi detoured sharply north along the fringes of a desolate sector of the desert. Once a caravan had reached Hami, however, it had completed the most arduous and perilous leg of the journey. The caravan then followed the southern foothills of the Tian Shan mountains via the towns of Turpan and Yanqi. The northern route met up with the northern fork of the southern route at Korla before reaching Kashi.

The route from Kashi to western Asia varied considerably as new towns and empires waxed and waned during the approximately 1,500 years of trade along the Silk Road. All travelers, however, had to cross one of the rugged mountain ranges that stretch across Central Asia. One route headed west to cross the Tian Shan mountains, descending to Samarqand and Bukhara (both in present-day Uzbekistan). This route then crossed the Amu Darya river and continued to Merv (present-day Mary, Turkmenistan). The other route ran south through the high Pamirs to Bactra (now Balkh, Afghanistan) before winding its way to Merv. From Merv, travelers journeyed to Nishapur (now Neyshābūr, Iran). Then, passing south of the Caspian Sea, some continued west to Palmyra and the Mediterranean Sea, while others headed north for Byzantium (later Constantinople; now İstanbul, Turkey). In later periods, the Persian cities of Tabrīz, Shīrāz, and Eşfahān became vital political centers. As such, these cities were important destinations for the merchants plying the Silk Road.

Few caravans or merchants traveled the whole distance from Chang’an to western Asia. Goods were traded all along the route, and new caravans would be organized to transmit the cargo to the next commercial emporium. Oases, with supplies of food, water, and fresh horses and camels, were vital for the smooth operation of the Silk Road. Multiethnic local residents who spoke many different languages provided a valuable service, promoting communication and trade with the traveling caravans. Central Asians and Persians served as the principal traders on the route because Chinese rulers generally prohibited their own merchants from traveling abroad.


Journeys on the Silk Road entailed numerous hardships and obstacles, as attested by travelers’ reports of the corpses they encountered along the route. Some of the route’s difficulties arose from the inhospitable climate and terrain it passed through. Traversing the desert was extremely hazardous, as travelers had to cope with heat, thirst, and sudden sandstorms. Accidental spillage or theft of water was a potential disaster. At the high elevations of mountain passes, travelers encountered extremely low temperatures. Icy conditions, avalanches, frostbite, and altitude sickness threatened life and limb. To help overcome such obstacles, desert caravans relied on camels to serve as pack animals. Camels could carry more weight and required less water than any other available beast. Yet raising and maintaining camels required expertise and was time-consuming and expensive. Travel could be especially difficult in Central Asia, where the trade route generally took the form of irregular trails rather than well-designed, well-marked, and well-constructed roads. Winter snows and summer floods frequently obscured the trails, making them difficult to find or, at times, impassable.

Bandit raids, bribes, and customs duties added to the cost and danger of traveling on the Silk Road. Looters roamed the desert and steppes, preying on caravans loaded with silk and other valuables. Various kingdoms and towns along the route demanded payments in return for permitting caravans to pass through their territories.

Considering the expense and insecurity of Silk Road trade, its continuance for 1,500 years requires explanation. The elites of western Asia and Europe were willing to pay substantial sums for Chinese products, such as silk and porcelain, that no other people knew how to produce. Merchants recognized the potential profits to be made from these goods. With that incentive, they gambled on their ability to overcome the numerous obstacles of the route and deliver their cargo intact.

While the long-distance Silk Road trade enriched a few merchants, it had limited economic significance for the empires it linked. Trade goods had to be low in volume and high in value because they were carried on the backs of the limited number of camels in each caravan. Thus, of necessity they were luxury items, not bulky raw materials or essential goods for daily use. The oases and towns along the route, which were located in or near remote areas, profited from the Silk Road trade and relied on it for their existence. The great empires of Persia, China, and Rome, however, could easily have survived without the commerce in luxury goods.


Although the economic significance of the Silk Road was limited, its cultural impact was great. As merchants, artisans, and missionaries traveled along the trade routes, they brought with them new products, ideas, technologies, and aesthetic principles. For example, in the late 2nd century AD, when the Han dynasty was declining and China was in chaos, the Chinese people found stability and comfort in a new religion introduced to them via Silk Road travelers. The religion, Buddhism, had originated in northern India in the 6th century BC.

It began to appear in Central Asian oases and towns, finally spreading into China in the 1st century AD. Buddhism greatly influenced not only the spiritual views of the Chinese but also their diets, funerary practices, knowledge of the outside world, and arts, as well as the economic structure of their society. The pagoda style in architecture, new designs and motifs in painting, and sculptures of the historical Buddha and other Buddhist figures contributed enormously to Chinese art (see Chinese Art and Architecture). Spectacular Buddhist sculptures and paintings were produced in the Mogao caves of Dunhuang and in Kyzyl (in present-day southeastern Russia), two vital locations along the Silk Road.


The fall of the Han dynasty in the early 3rd century caused Silk Road trade to decline. However, the rise of the Tang dynasty in the 7th century revived this commerce. In fact, the Tang period witnessed an even greater quantity of goods flowing across Asia. Simultaneously, cultural transmission increased, as Islam, Persian mystery religions, and Central Asian music and dance reached China and influenced Chinese civilization.

The fall of the Tang in the early 10th century dramatically curtailed trade. This trend reversed in the 13th century, when the conquests of the Mongols ushered in an era of frequent and extended contacts between East and West. Carving out the largest contiguous land empire in world history, the Mongols expedited and encouraged travel across Eurasia. For the first time, western Asians and Europeans could journey as far east as China. Artisans, envoys, missionaries, and merchants—including Marco Polo—made the trip. This increased contact created a demand for Asian goods in Europe, a demand that eventually inspired the search for a sea route to Asia.

The discovery of a sea route from Europe to Asia in the late 15th century around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope dealt a damaging blow to the Silk Road trade. Ocean-going vessels could convey the bulkier essential goods and raw materials that caravans on the Silk Road could not. Sea trade also entailed less cost and experienced less harassment and plunder than did land-based trade.

As long-distance overland trade ceased and poor agricultural techniques increasingly changed fertile lands to deserts, Central Asian towns and oases declined significantly. During the 18th and 19th centuries most of Central Asia fell to either the expanding Qing dynasty of China or to the Russian Empire. Chinese and Russian (and later Soviet) authorities continued to rule the Islamic and Buddhist peoples of Central Asia until recent times. Meanwhile, European archaeologists and explorers carted some of the greatest artistic treasures out of the region. They sent these treasures to the British Museum in London, England, the Musée Guimet in Paris, France, and other museums in Europe.


Although the Silk Road no longer exists as a trade route, sites along its course remain important tourist destinations. These sites include the ancient trading metropolises of Samarqand, Bukhara, and Khiva, and the towns of Dunhuang, Kashi, and Turpan, with their artistic and architectural treasures.

Header Pic: Tupopdan Mountain (6.106 metres), al norte del pueblo de Gulmit, en la región del valle de Hunza, Pakistán. Este pintoresco valle fue uno de los pasos importantes a lo largo de la antigua Ruta de la seda, situada entre China y Afganistán. Foto de Shahid Mehmood. Via: The Atlantic

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