Illustrated map depicting the journey of the Venetian merchant Marco Polo along the silk road to China. (Credit: MPI/Getty Images)
  • Print
  • Cite

Introduction

The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them. Although it’s been nearly 600 years since the Silk Road has been used for international trade, the routes had a lasting impact on commerce, culture and history that resonates even today.

The Silk Road may have formally opened up trade between the Far East and Europe during the Han Dynasty, which ruled China from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D., but the transport of goods and services along these routes dates back even further.

The Royal Road, which connected Susa (in present-day Iran) more than 1,600 miles west to Sardis (near the Mediterranean Sea in modern Turkey), was established by the Persian ruler Darius I during the Achaemenid Empire—some 300 years before the opening of the Silk Road.

The Persians also expanded the Royal Road to include smaller routes that connected Mesopotamia to the Indian subcontinent as well as northern Africa via Egypt.

Alexander the Great, ruler of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, expanded his dominion into Persia via the Royal Road. Parts of the thoroughfare were ultimately incorporated into the Silk Road.

The east-west trade routes between Greece and China began to open during the first and second centuries B.C. The Roman Empire and the Kushan Empire (which ruled territory in what is now northern India) also benefitted from the commerce created by the route along the Silk Road.

Interestingly, the ancient Greek word for China is “Seres,” which literally means “the land of silk.”

However, despite this obvious link to the name, the term “Silk Road” wasn’t coined until 1877, when German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen first used it to describe the trade routes.

Historians now prefer the term “Silk Routes,” which more accurately reflects the fact that there was more than one thoroughfare.

The Silk Road routes included a large network of strategically located trading posts, markets and thoroughfares designed to streamline the transport, exchange, distribution and storage of goods.

Routes extended from the Greco-Roman metropolis of Antioch across the Syrian Desert via Palmyra to Ctesiphon (the Parthian capital) and Seleucia on the Tigris River, a Mesopotamian city in modern-day Iraq.

From Seleucia, routes passed eastward over the Zagros Mountains to the cities of Ecbatana (Iran) and Merv (Turkmenistan), from which additional routes traversed to modern-day Afghanistan and eastward into Mongolia and China.

Silk Road routes also led to ports on the Persian Gulf, where goods were then transported up the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Routes from these cities also connected to ports along the Mediterranean Sea, from which goods were shipped to cities throughout the Roman Empire and into Europe.

Even though the name “Silk Road” derives from the popularity of Chinese silk among tradesmen in the Roman Empire and elsewhere in Europe, the material was not the only important export from the East to the West.

Trade along the so-called Silk Road economic belt included fruits and vegetables, livestock, grain, leather and hides, tools, religious objects, artwork, precious stones and metals and—perhaps more importantly—language, culture, religious beliefs, philosophy and science.

Commodities such as paper and gunpowder, both invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, had obvious and lasting impacts on culture and history in the West. They were also among the most-traded items between the East and West.

Paper was invented in China during the 3rd century B.C., and its use spread via the Silk Road, arriving first in Samarkand in around 700 A.D., before moving to Europe through the then-Islamic ports of Sicily and Spain.

Of course, paper’s arrival in Europe fostered significant industrial change, with the written word becoming a key form of mass communication for the first time. The eventual development of the Gutenberg press allowed for the mass production of books and, later, newspaper, which enabled a wider exchange of news and information.

In addition, the rich spices of the East quickly became popular in the West, and changed cuisine across much of Europe.

Similarly, techniques for making glass migrated eastward to China from the Islamic world.

The origins of gunpowder are less well known, although there are references to fireworks and firearms in China as early as the 600s. Historians believe that gunpowder was indeed exported along the Silk Road routes to Europe, where it was further refined for use in cannons in England, France and elsewhere in the 1300s.

The nation-states with access to it had obvious advantages in war, and thus the export of gunpowder had an enormous impact on the political history of Europe.

The Silk Road routes also opened up means of passage for explorers seeking to better understand the culture and geography of the Far East.

Venetian explorer Marco Polo famously used the Silk Road to travel from Italy to China, which was then under the control of the Mongolian Empire, where they arrived in 1275.

Notably, they did not travel by boat, but rather by camel following overland routes. They arrived at Xanadu, the lavish summer palace of the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan.

In all, the explorer spent 24 years in Asia, working in Kublai Khan’s court, perhaps as a tax collector.

Marco Polo returned to Venice, again via the Silk Road routes, in 1295, just as the Mongolian Empire was in decline. His journeys across the Silk Road became the basis for his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, which gave Europeans a better understanding of Asian commerce and culture.

Silk Road: Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient.eu.
List of Rulers of Ancient Greece. Metmuseum.org.
Trade between the Romans and the Empires of Asia. Metmuseum.org.
About the Silk Road: UNESCO. En.unesco.org.
The Legacy of the Silk Road. Yale University.
China’s Gift to the West. Columbia University.
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories. Edited by Robert B. Strassler.
Royal Road. GlobalSecurity.org.