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Silk Road

The Silk Road

The Silk Road was one of the most important institutions of the ancient world. It was (and actually still is) a web of caravan tracks that snakes it’s way across Eurasia from China to the Mediterranean. It also has caravan routes extending into north Africa and across the Sahara into Sub-Saharan Africa. So, though we think of Rome as the terminus of the Silk Road, it really stretches into the far south of Africa.

The Silk Road also has a number of sea routes associated with it, and although in the times we are discussing the land routes were more used, the sea routes became more important as Europeans became more active participants in Silk Road exchange during the 16th century (the 1500s).

The Silk Road passed through several empires on its way across Eurasia: Qin and then later Han China, Mauryan India, Persia, Alexander’s Greece, then later Rome.  

Many religions traveled along the Silk Road, but the biggest winner of all was Islam, because though Islam began in the Middle East, by the next great rise of the Silk Road (1000-1400) it had spread through the oasis market towns and made them its own.  

Silk Road II

Estimates for the beginning of the Silk Road date back as far as 1000 BCE, and it’s still running today; however, there are a few times when the Silk Road becomes prominent in history; the years 300BCE to 300CE and 1000CE to 1400CE are two of those times.

In the second act of the Silk Road, the rate of exchange increased, as did the effects of that exchange.

The Crusaders

The Crusaders traveled out of Europe along the Silk Road to their Holy Land to fight the people who they thought possessed it unjustly. In doing so, they brought back the Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death), which had been moving along the Silk Road for centuries.

The Mongols

The Mongols ruled Eurasia for parts of the 12th and 13th centuries, and they encouraged trade along the Silk Road; they themselves had made a living on it before moving on to world domination. Marco Polo traveled eastward on a number of buying trips, and was eventually invited to work at the court of the Grand Khan Khubilai. He was such an invaluable asset that the Khan would not let him leave for many years.

The Ancient Information Highway

One of the defining moments in Western Civilization, the Renaissance, would not have taken place if books, technology, ideas, and goods from the Chinese, Indian, and Arab world had not traveled along the Silk Road and into Europe, including Greco-Roman texts thought to be lost that were preserved in Arabic by the Muslim world.

The German terms “Seidenstraße” and “Seidenstraßen”- ‘the Silk Road(s)’ or ‘Silk Route(s) were first used in 1877 by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872.

The English term "The Silk Road" has come into general use in spite of the fact it was a network of routes, few of which were more than rough caravan tracks, and silk was by no means the only item traded along them. China traded silk, spices, teas, and porcelain; while India traded ivory, textiles, precious stones, and pepper.

In recent years, both the maritime and overland Silk Routes are again being used, often closely following the ancient routes.

Explorers

  • Emperor Wu of Han
  • Thutmose III
  • Zhang Qian
  • Jorge Álvares
  • Rafael Perestrello
  • Fernão Pires de Andrade
  • Alexander the Great
  • Tomé Pires
  • Manuel I of Portugal
  • Christopher Columbus
  • Willem Barentsz
  • Matteo Ricci

Books & Resources