Silk Road

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This article is about the series of trade routes. For other uses, see Silk Road (disambiguation).
Silk Road
Map of Eurasia with drawn lines for overland and maritime routes
Main routes of the Silk Road
Route information
Length: 4,000 mi (6,000 km)
Time period: Han Dynasty– 1450s
Official name: Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor
Type: Cultural
Criteria: ii, iii, iv, vi
Designated: 2014 (38th session)
Reference No. 1442
State Parties: China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, India
Region: Asia-Pacific

The Silk Road, or Silk Route, is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent connecting the West and East by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks, soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China and India to the Mediterranean Sea during various periods of time.[1]

Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometres), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) following the establishment by Alexander the Great of a system of Hellenistic kingdoms (323 BC - 63 BC) and trade networks extending from the Mediterranean to modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan on the borders of China. The Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian.[2] The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their trade products and extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the protection of the trade route.[3]

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, and Arabia, opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations.[4] Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and religions (see Church of the East and Silk Road transmission of Buddhism), syncretic philosophies (see Greco-Buddhism), and various technologies (see smuggling of silk technology), as well as diseases (see bubonic plague, the "Black Death"), also travelled along the Silk Routes. In addition to economic trade, the Silk Road served as a means of carrying out cultural trade among the civilizations along its network.[5]

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent.

In June 2014, UNESCO designated the Chang'an-Tianshan corridor of the Silk Road as a World Heritage Site.


Woven silk textile from Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, dated to the Western Han Era, 2nd century BCE.

The Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade, a major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive transcontinental network.[6][7] The German terms Seidenstraße and Seidenstraßen ("the Silk Road(s)/Route(s)") were coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872.[8][9] Some scholars prefer the term "Silk Routes" because the road included an extensive network of routes, though few were more than rough caravan tracks.[citation needed]



Cross-continental journeys

A Scythian horseman from the Ili river, Pazyryk, c. 300 BC.

As the domestication of pack animals and the development of shipping technology increased the capacity for prehistoric people to carry heavier loads over greater distances, cultural exchanges and trade developed rapidly. In addition, the vast grassland steppes of Asia provided fertile grazing, water, and easy passage for caravans, enabling merchants to travel immense distances, from the shores of the Pacific to Africa and deep into Europe, without trespassing on agricultural lands and arousing hostility.

Chinese and Central Asian contacts

From the 2nd millennium BC, nephrite jade was being traded from mines in the region of Yarkand and Khotan to China. Significantly, these mines were not very far from the lapis lazuli and spinel ("Balas Ruby") mines in Badakhshan, and, although separated by the formidable Pamir Mountains, routes across them were apparently in use from very early times.[citation needed]

The Tarim mummies, mummies of non-Mongoloid, apparently Caucasoid, individuals, have been found in the Tarim Basin, in the area of Loulan located along the Silk Road 200 kilometres (124 miles) east of Yingpan, dating to as early as 1600 BC and suggesting very ancient contacts between East and West. These mummified remains may have been of people who spoke Indo-European languages, which remained in use in the Tarim Basin, in the modern day Xinjiang region, until replaced by Turkic influences from the Xiongnu culture to the north and by Chinese influences from the eastern Han Dynasty, who spoke a Sino-Tibetan language.[citation needed]

Chinese jade and steatite plaques, in the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes. 4th–3rd century BC. British Museum.

Some remnants of what was probably Chinese silk have been found in Ancient Egypt from 1070 BC. Though the originating source seems sufficiently reliable, silk unfortunately degrades very rapidly and we cannot double-check for accuracy whether it was actually cultivated silk (which would almost certainly have come from China) that was discovered or a type of "wild silk," which might have come from the Mediterranean region or the Middle East.[10]

Following contacts between metropolitan China and nomadic western border territories in the 8th century BC, gold was introduced from Central Asia, and Chinese jade carvers began to make imitation designs of the steppes, adopting the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (depictions of animals locked in combat). This style is particularly reflected in the rectangular belt plaques made of gold and bronze with alternate versions in jade and steatite.[citation needed]

The expansion of Scythian cultures, stretching from the Hungarian plain and the Carpathians to the Chinese Kansu Corridor, and linking Iran and the Middle East with Northern India and the Punjab, undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Silk Road. Scythians accompanied the Assyrian Esarhaddon on his invasion of Egypt, and their distinctive triangular arrowheads have been found as far south as Aswan. These nomadic peoples were dependent upon neighbouring settled populations for a number of important technologies, and in addition to raiding vulnerable settlements for these commodities, they also encouraged long-distance merchants as a source of income through the enforced payment of tariffs. Soghdian Scythian merchants played a vital role in later periods in the development of the Silk Road.[citation needed]

Persian Royal Road

Achaemenid Persian Empire at its greatest extent, showing the Royal Road.

By the time of Herodotus (c. 475 BC), the Royal Road of the Persian Empire ran some 2,857 km (1,775 mi) from the city of Susa on the Karun (250 km (155 mi) east of the Tigris) to the port of Smyrna (modern İzmir in Turkey) on the Aegean Sea.[11] It was maintained and protected by the Achaemenid Empire (c. 500–330 BC) and had postal stations and relays at regular intervals. By having fresh horses and riders ready at each relay, royal couriers could carry messages the entire distance[vague] in nine days, while normal travellers took about three months.[citation needed] The Royal Road linked into many other routes. Some of these, such as the routes to India and Central Asia, were also protected by the Achaemenids, which facilitated regular contact between India, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean.[citation needed] There are accounts in the biblical Book of Esther of dispatches being sent from Susa, in modern day Iran, to provinces as far out as India and the Kingdom of Kush during the reign of Xerxes the Great (485–465 BC).[citation needed]

Hellenistic era

Probable Greek soldier in the Sampul tapestry, woollen wall hanging, 3rd–2nd century BC, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum.

The next major step in the development of the Silk Road was the expansion of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great into Central Asia. In August 329 BC, at the mouth of the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan across the mountain pass from the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang, Alexander founded the city of Alexandria Eschate or "Alexandria The Furthest".[12] This later became a major staging point on the northern Silk Route. See Dayuan (Ta-yuan; Chinese: 大宛; literarily "Great Ionians").

The Greeks remained in Central Asia for the next three centuries, first through the administration of the Seleucid Empire, and then with the establishment of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 BC-125 BC) in Bactria (modern Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan) and the later Indo-Greek Kingdom (180 BC - 10 CE) in modern northern Pakistan and Afghanistan. They continued to expand eastward, especially during the reign of Euthydemus (230–200 BC), who extended his control beyond Alexandria Eschate to Sogdiana. There are indications that he may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 200 BC. The Greek historian Strabo writes, "they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni." [13]

The Hellenistic world and Classical Greek philosophy mixed with Eastern philosophies,[14] leading to syncretisms such as Greco-Buddhism, which itself later spread to China along the Silk Road, giving birth to Zen Buddhism. (See Bodhidharma.)

Chinese exploration of Central Asia

With the Mediterranean linked to the Fergana Valley, the next step was to open a route across the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor to China Proper. This extension came around 130 BC, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian[15] (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu). After the defeat of the Xiongnu, however, Chinese armies established themselves in Central Asia, initiating the Silk Route as a major avenue of international trade.[16] Some say that the Chinese Emperor Wu became interested in developing commercial relationships with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria, and the Parthian Empire: "The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Dayuan "Great Ionians") and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hsia) and Parthian Empire (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China" (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). Others[17] say that Emperor Wu was mainly interested in fighting the Xiongnu and that major trade began only after the Chinese pacified the Hexi Corridor.

A pottery horse head and neck (broken from the body), from the Late Han Dynasty (1st–2nd century AD)

The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses (named "Heavenly horses") in the possession of the Dayuan (literally the "Great Ionians," the Greek kingdoms of Central Asia), which were of capital importance in fighting the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. "Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Greek Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]... As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six." (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). The Chinese campaigned in Central Asia on several occasions, and direct encounters between Han troops and Roman legionaries (probably captured or recruited as mercenaries by the Xiong Nu) are recorded, particularly in the 36 BC battle of Sogdiana (Joseph Needham, Sidney Shapiro). It has been suggested that the Chinese crossbow was transmitted to the Roman world on such occasions, although the Greek gastraphetes provides an alternative origin. R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy suggest that in 36 BC, a "Han expedition into central Asia, west of Jaxartes River, apparently encountered and defeated a contingent of Roman legionaries. The Romans may have been part of Antony's army invading Parthia. Sogdiana (modern Bukhara), east of the Oxus River, on the Polytimetus River, was apparently the most easterly penetration ever made by Roman forces in Asia. The margin of Chinese victory appears to have been their crossbows, whose bolts and darts seem easily to have penetrated Roman shields and armor."[18] The Roman historian Florus also describes the visit of numerous envoys, which included Seres, to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14 AD:

Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.

Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither

The Han army regularly policed the trade route against nomadic bandit forces generally identified as Xiongnu. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 mounted infantry and light cavalry troops in the 1st century AD to secure the trade routes, reaching far west to the Tarim basin. Ban Chao expanded his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of Parthia.[19] It was from here that the Han general dispatched envoy Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome).[20] The Silk Road essentially came into being from the 1st century BCE, following these efforts by China to consolidate a road to the Western world and India, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Dayuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west. The Silk Roads were a "complex network of trade routes" that gave people the chance to exchange goods and culture.[21]

Port cities on the maritime silk route featured on the voyages of Zheng He.[22]

A maritime Silk Route opened up between Chinese-controlled Giao Chỉ (centred in modern Vietnam, near Hanoi), probably by the 1st century. It extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea.

Roman Empire

Central Asia during Roman times, with the first Silk Road

Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, regular communications and trade between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe blossomed on an unprecedented scale. The eastern trade routes from the earlier Hellenistic powers and the Arabs that were part of the Silk Road were inherited by the Roman Empire. With control of these trade routes, citizens of the Roman Empire would receive new luxuries and greater prosperity for the Empire as a whole.[23] The Greco-Roman trade with India started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BC continued to increase, and according to Strabo (II.5.12), by the time of Augustus, up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt to India.[24] The Roman Empire connected with the Central Asian Silk Road through their ports in Barygaza (known today as Bharuch [25]) and Barbaricum (known today as the cities of Karachi, Sindh, and Pakistan [26]) and continued along the western coast of India.[27] An ancient "travel guide" to this Indian Ocean trade route was the Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea written in 60 CE.

The travelling party of Maës Titianus penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world, probably with the aim of regularizing contacts and reducing the role of middlemen, during one of the lulls in Rome's intermittent wars with Parthia, which repeatedly obstructed movement along the Silk Road. Intercontinental trade and communication became regular, organized, and protected by the 'Great Powers.' Intense trade with the Roman Empire soon followed, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied through the Parthians), even though the Romans thought silk was obtained from trees. This belief was affirmed by Seneca the Younger in his Phaedra and by Virgil in his Georgics. Notably, Pliny the Elder knew better. Speaking of the bombyx or silk moth, he wrote in his Natural Histories "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk."[28] The Romans traded spices, perfumes, and silk.[29]

A Westerner on a camel, Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534)

Roman artisans began to replace yarn with valuable plain silk cloths from China.[30] Chinese wealth grew as they delivered silk and other luxury goods to the Roman Empire, whose wealthy Roman women admired their beauty.[31] The Roman Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral.

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.[32]

The Roman Empire, and its demand for sophisticated Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century.

The unification of Central Asia and Northern India within Kushan Empire in the 1st to 3rd centuries reinforced the role of the powerful merchants from Bactria and Taxila.[33] They fostered multi-cultural interaction as indicated by their 2nd century treasure hoards filled with products from the Greco-Roman world, China, and India, such as in the archeological site of Begram.

Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Greek historian Procopius stated that two Nestorian Christian monks eventually uncovered the way of how silk was made. From this revelation monks were sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled 527 CE - 565 CE) as spies on the Silk Road from Constantinople to China and back to steal the silkworm eggs, resulting in silk production in the Mediterranean, particularly in Thrace in northern Greece,[34] and giving the Byzantine Empire a monopoly on silk production in medieval Europe.

Tang dynasty reopens the route

Although the Silk Road from China to the West was initially formulated during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han (141–87 BCE), it was reopened by the Tang Empire in 639 when Hou Junji conquered the West, and remained open for almost four decades. It was closed after the Tibetans captured it in 678, but in 699, during Empress Wu's period, the Silk Road reopened when the Tang reconquered the Four Garrisons of Anxi originally installed in 640,[35] once again connecting China directly to the West for land-based trade.[36] The Tang captured the vital route through the Gilgit Valley from Tibet in 722, lost it to the Tibetans in 737, and regained it under the command of the Goguryeo-Korean General Gao Xianzhi.[37]While the Turks were settled in the Ordos region (former territory of the Xiongnu), the Tang government took on the military policy of dominating the central steppe. Like the earlier Han dynasty, the Tang dynasty (along with Turkic allies) conquered and subdued Central Asia during the 640s and 650s.[38] During Emperor Taizong's reign alone, large campaigns were launched against not only the Göktürks, but also separate campaigns against the Tuyuhun, the Xiyu states, and the Xueyantuo. Under Emperor Gaozong, a campaign led by the general Su Dingfang was launched against the Western Turks ruled by Ashina Helu.[39] The Silk Road was the most important pre-modern Eurasian trade route. The Tang dynasty established a second Pax Sinica,and the Silk Road reached its golden age,whereby Persian and Sogdian merchants benefited from the commerce between East and West.At the same time, the Chinese empire welcomed foreign cultures making it very cosmopolitan in its urban centers.
Except the land route,Tang dynasty also explored the maritime Silk Route. Chinese envoys had been sailing through the Indian Ocean to India since perhaps the 2nd century BC,[40] yet it was during the Tang dynasty that a strong Chinese maritime presence could be found in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, into Persia, Mesopotamia (sailing up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq), Arabia, Egypt, Aksum (Ethiopia), and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.[41]


Further information: Europeans in Medieval China
Caravan on the Silk Road, 1380

The Silk Road represents an early phenomenon of political and cultural integration due to inter-regional trade. In its heyday, it sustained an international culture that strung together groups as diverse as the Magyars, Armenians, and Chinese. The Silk Road reached its peak in the west during the time of the Byzantine Empire; in the Nile-Oxus section, from the Sassanid Empire period to the Il Khanate period; and in the sinitic zone from the Three Kingdoms period to the Yuan Dynasty period. Trade between East and West also developed across the Indian Ocean, between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China. Persian Sassanid coins emerged as a means of currency, just as valuable as silk yarn and textiles.[42]

Under its strong integrating dynamics on the one hand and the impacts of change it transmitted on the other, tribal societies previously living in isolation along the Silk Road, and pastoralists who were of barbarian cultural development, were drawn to the riches and opportunities of the civilizations connected by the routes, taking on the trades of marauders or mercenaries.[citation needed] Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors able to conquer rich cities and fertile lands and to forge strong military empires.[citation needed]

A sancai statue of a foreigner with a wineskin, Tang Dynasty (618–907)

The Sogdians dominated the East-West trade after the 4th century up to the 8th century, with Suyab and Talas ranking among their main centers in the north. They were the main caravan merchants of Central Asia. Their commercial interests were protected by the resurgent military power of the Göktürks, whose empire has been described as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians".[33][43] A.V. Dybo noted that "according to historians, the main driving force of the Great Silk Road were not just Sogdians, but the carriers of a mixed Sogdian-Türkic culture that often came from mixed families."[44] Their trade, with some interruptions, continued in the 9th century within the framework of the Uighur Empire, which until 840 extended across northern Central Asia and obtained from China enormous deliveries of silk in exchange for horses. At this time caravans of Sogdians traveling to Upper Mongolia are mentioned in Chinese sources. They played an equally important religious and cultural role. Part of the data about eastern Asia provided by Muslim geographers of the 10th century actually goes back to Sogdian data of the period 750–840 and thus shows the survival of links between east and west. However, after the end of the Uighur Empire, Sogdian trade went through a crisis. What mainly issued from Muslim Central Asia was the trade of the Samanids, which resumed the northwestern road leading to the Khazars and the Urals and the northeastern one toward the nearby Turkic tribes.[33]

Map of Eurasia showing the trade network of Jewish merchants, c. 870 AD

The Silk Road gave rise to the clusters of military states of nomadic origins in North China, ushered the Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, and later Islamic religions into Central Asia and China, and created the influential Khazar Federation.[citation needed] At the end of its glory, the routes brought about the largest continental empire ever, the Mongol Empire, with its political centers strung along the Silk Road (Beijing in North China, Karakorum in central Mongolia, Sarmakhand in Transoxiana, Tabriz in Northern Iran, Sarai and Astrakhan in lower Volga, Solkhat in Crimea, Kazan in Central Russia, Erzurum in eastern Anatolia), realizing the political unification of zones previously loosely and intermittently connected by material and cultural goods.[citation needed]

In Central Asia, Islam expanded from the 7th century onward, bringing a stop to Chinese westward expansion at the Battle of Talas in 751.[citation needed] Further expansion of the Islamic Turks in Central Asia from the 10th century finished disrupting trade in that part of the world, and Buddhism almost disappeared. For much of the Middle Ages, the Islamic Caliphate (centred in the Near East) often had a monopoly over much of the trade conducted across the Old World (see Muslim age of discovery for more details).[citation needed]

Mongol age

Map of Marco Polo's travels in 1271–1295.

The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1207 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-established the Silk Road (via Karakorum). It also brought an end to the Islamic Caliphate dominance over world trade. Because the Mongols came to control the trade routes, trade circulated throughout the region. Merchandise that did not seem valuable to the Mongols was often seen as highly valuable by the west. In return the Mongols received a large amount of luxurious goods from the West. However, they never abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Soon after Genghis Khan died, the Silk Road was in the hands of Genghis Khans' daughters.[citation needed]

The Mongol diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma visited the courts of Europe in 1287–88 and provided a detailed written report back to the Mongols. Around the same time, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to travel the Silk Road to China, and his tales, documented in The Travels of Marco Polo, opened Western eyes to some of the customs of the Far East. He was not the first to bring back stories, but he was one of the most widely read. He had been preceded by numerous Christian missionaries to the East, such as William of Rubruck, Benedykt Polak, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, and Andrew of Longjumeau. Later envoys included Odoric of Pordenone, Giovanni de' Marignolli, John of Montecorvino, Niccolò de' Conti, or Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan Muslim traveller, who passed through the present-day Middle East and across the Silk Road from Tabriz, between 1325–54.[45]

The Mongol Empire and its sphere of influence (including vassal states such as Goryeo at its height). The gray area is the later Timurid empire.

In the 13th century efforts were made at forming a Franco-Mongol alliance, with an exchange of ambassadors and (failed) attempts at military collaboration in the Holy Land during the later Crusades. Eventually the Mongols in the Ilkhanate, after they had destroyed the Abbasid and Ayyubid dynasties, converted to Islam and signed the 1323 Treaty of Aleppo with the surviving Muslim power, the Egyptian Mamluks.[citation needed]

Some research studies indicate that the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 1340s, may have reached Europe from Central Asia (or China) along the trade routes of the Mongol Empire.[46]


The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural and economic unity of the Silk Road. Turkmeni marching lords seized land around the western part of the Silk Road, belonging to the decaying Byzantine Empire. After the Mongol Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Road became economically and culturally separated. Accompanying the crystallization of regional states was the decline of nomad power, partly due to the devastation of the Black Death and partly due to the encroachment of sedentary civilizations equipped with gunpowder.

Gunpowder and early modernity in Europe led to the integration of territorial states and increasing mercantilism. Meanwhile on the Silk Road, gunpowder and early modernity had the opposite impact: the level of integration of the Mongol Empire could not be maintained, and trade declined (though partly due to an increase in European maritime exchanges).

The Silk Road stopped serving as a shipping route for silk about 1453 with the Ottoman supremacy at Constantinople. Ottoman rulers of the day were anti-western, countering the crusades, and aware of the loss of Andalusia in the west, so expressed their displeasure by embargoing trade with the west. Things had eased a bit around a century later, and Venice was able to cut an uneasy deal with the Ottomans, regaining for a time some of their economic clout as middlemen.[citation needed]

New European Routes

The disappearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols' reign was one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous Chinese empire through another route, especially by sea. Tremendous profits were to be obtained for anyone who could achieve a direct trade connection with Asia. This was the main driving factor for the Portuguese explorations of the Indian Ocean, including the sea of China, resulting in the arrival in 1513 of the first European trading ship to the coasts of China, under Jorge Álvares and Rafael Perestrello, followed by the Fernão Pires de Andrade and Tomé Pires diplomatic and commercial mission of 1517, under the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, which opened formally relations between the Portuguese Empire and the Ming dynasty during the reign of the Zhengde Emperor. The handover of Macau (Macao) to Portugal in 1557 by the Emperor of China[which?] (as a reward for services rendered against the pirates who infested the South China Sea) resulted in the first permanent European maritime trade post between Europe and China, with other European powers following suit over the next centuries, which caused the eventual demise of the Silk Road.

Italian pottery of the mid-15th century was heavily influenced by Chinese ceramics. A Sancai ("Three colors") plate (left), and a Ming-type blue-white vase (right), made in Northern Italy, mid-15th century. Musée du Louvre.

When he sailed West across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, Christopher Columbus was searching for an alternative trade route to China from Spain.[47] When he discovered America, it was believed he had reached Asia and the search was interrupted. However, the quest for a westward route was resumed a few years later after explorer Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 and discovered the Pacific Ocean, proving that this was in fact a New World. The voyage from Europe to Asia was finally completed with the Spanish Magellan-Elcano expedition of 1519-1522, the first European voyage to cross the Pacific Ocean and the first world circumnavigation. In 1565 Spanish navigator Andrés de Urdaneta discovered a return route across the Pacific, from the Philippines to New Spain, which led to the opening of the first regular transpacific trade route in history: the Manila-Acapulco Galleon route, which lasted two and half centuries, until 1815. This Pacific line was connected overland through Mexico with an Atlantic line, the Spanish West Indies Fleet which in turn linked the Americas with Spain, making the combined route the longest trade route in history until the 19th century, and the first example of globalization.

The desire to trade directly with China and India was the main driving force behind the expansion of the Portuguese beyond Africa after 1480, and the Spanish across the Pacific Ocean to the Philippines in 1521. Other European powers followed, namely the Netherlands and England from the 17th century onwards. In an early attempt, the Netherlands tried to find a route to Asia in 1594 but was unsuccessful. Navigator Willem Barents left Amsterdam with two ships to search for the Northeast passage north of Siberia, on to eastern Asia. He reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya and followed it northward, being finally forced to turn back when confronted with its northern extremity. By the end of the 17th century, the Russians re-established a land trade route between Europe and China under the name of the Great Siberian Road.

While the Portuguese (and, subsequently, other Europeans) were entering China from its southern coast, by the sea route, the question arose as to whether it was the same country as Cathay which Marco had reached by the overland route. By c. 1600, the Jesuits stationed in China, led by Matteo Ricci, were pretty sure that it was, but others were not convinced. To check the situation on the ground, Bento de Góis, a Portuguese former soldier and explorer who had joined the Jesuits as a Lay Brother in Goa, India, traveled in 1603–1605 from India via Afghanistan on one of the routes of the traditional Silk Road (via Badakhshan, the Pamirs, Yarkand, Kucha, and Turpan to the border of Ming China in Suzhou, Gansu.[48]

Leibniz, echoing the prevailing perception in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, wrote in the 17th century that: Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies... Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith declared that China had been one of the most prosperous nations in the world, but that it had remained stagnant for a long time and its wages always were low and the lower classes were particularly poor:[a]

China has long been one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms as travellers in the present time describe them. It had perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.

—Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776

Modern day

The Eurasian Land Bridge (a railroad through China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia) is sometimes referred to as the "New Silk Road".[by whom?] The last link in one of these two railway routes was completed in 1990, when the railway systems of China and Kazakhstan connected at Alataw Pass (Alashan Kou). In 2008 the line was used to connect the cities of Urumqi in China's Xinjiang Province to Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan.[49]

Starting in July 2011 the line has been used by a freight service which connects Chongqing, China with Duisburg, Germany[50] which cuts travel time for cargo from about 36 days by container ship to just 13 days by freight train. As of 2013, HP is moving large freight trains of laptop computers and monitors along this rail route.[51]

Since 1993 the United Nations World Tourism Organization has been working to develop sustainable international tourism along the route with the stated goal of fostering peace and understanding.[52]


For more details on this topic, see Cities along the Silk Road.

The Silk Road consisted of several routes. As it extended westwards from the ancient commercial centers of China, the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divided into northern and southern routes bypassing the Taklimakan Desert and Lop Nur.

Northern route

Main article: Northern Silk Road
The Silk Road in the 1st century.
The Silk Road.

The northern route started at Chang'an (now called Xi'an), an ancient capital of China that was moved further east during the Later Han to Luoyang. The route was defined around the 1st century BC when Han Wudi put an end to harassment by nomadic tribes.[citation needed]

The northern route travelled northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu from Shaanxi Province and split into three further routes, two of them following the mountain ranges to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert to rejoin at Kashgar, and the other going north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar, and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan). The routes split again west of Kashgar, with a southern branch heading down the Alai Valley towards Termez (in modern Uzbekistan) and Balkh (Afghanistan), while the other traveled through Kokand in the Fergana Valley (in present-day eastern Uzbekistan) and then west across the Karakum Desert. Both routes joined the main southern route before reaching ancient Merv, Turkmenistan. Another branch of the northern route turned northwest past the Aral Sea and north of the Caspian Sea, then and on to the Black Sea.

A route for caravans, the northern Silk Road brought to China many goods such as "dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia; frankincense, aloes and myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt, and other expensive and desirable goods from other parts of the world."[53] In exchange, the caravans sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer ware, and porcelain.

Southern route

The southern route or Karakoram route was mainly a single route running from China through the Karakoram mountains, where it persists to modern times as the international paved road connecting Pakistan and China as the Karakoram Highway.[citation needed] It then set off westwards, but with southward spurs enabling the journey to be completed by sea from various points. Crossing the high mountains, it passed through northern Pakistan, over the Hindu Kush mountains, and into Afghanistan, rejoining the northern route near Merv, Turkmenistan. From Merv, it followed a nearly straight line west through mountainous northern Iran, Mesopotamia, and the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant, where Mediterranean trading ships plied regular routes to Italy, while land routes went either north through Anatolia or south to North Africa. Another branch road traveled from Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and on to Alexandria and other eastern Mediterranean ports from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome.[citation needed]

Southwestern route

The southwestern route is believed to be the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta, which has been the subject of international interest for over two millennia. Strabo, the 1st-century Roman writer, mentions the deltaic lands: "Regarding merchants who now sail from far as the Ganges, they are only private citizens..." His comments are interesting as Roman beads and other materials are being found at Wari-Bateshwar ruins, the ancient city with roots from much earlier, before the Bronze Age, presently being slowly excavated beside the Old Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Ptolemy's map of the Ganges Delta, a remarkably accurate effort, showed that his informants knew all about the course of the Brahmaputra River, crossing through the Himalayas then bending westward to its source in Tibet. It is doubtless that this delta was a major international trading center, almost certainly from much earlier than the Common Era. Gemstones and other merchandise from Thailand and Java were traded in the delta and through it. Chinese archaeological writer Bin Yang and some earlier writers and archaeologists, such as Janice Stargardt, strongly suggest this route of international trade as Sichuan-Yunnan-Burma-Bangladesh route. According to Bin Yang, especially from the 12th century the route was used to ship bullion from Yunnan (gold and silver are among the minerals in which Yunnan is rich), through northern Burma, into modern Bangladesh, making use of the ancient route, known as the 'Ledo' route. The emerging evidence of the ancient cities of Bangladesh, in particular Wari-Bateshwar ruins, Mahasthangarh, Bhitagarh, Bikrampur, Egarasindhur, and Sonargaon, are believed to be the international trade centers in this route.[54][55][56]

Cultural exchanges

The Nestorian Stele, created in 781, describes the introduction of Nestorian Christianity to China

Richard Foltz, Xinru Liu and others have described how trading activities along the Silk Road over many centuries facilitated the transmission not just of goods but also ideas and culture, notably in the area of religions. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam all spread across Eurasia through trade networks that were tied to specific religious communities and their institutions.[57] Notably, established Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road offered a haven, as well as a new religion for foreigners.[58] The spread of religions and cultural traditions along the Silk Roads, according to Jerry H. Bentley, also led to syncretism. One example was the encounter with the Chinese and Xiongnu nomads. These unlikely events of cross-cultural contact allowed both cultures to adapt to each other as an alternative. The Xiongnu adopted Chinese agricultural techniques, dress style, and lifestyle. On the other hand, the Chinese adopted Xiongnu military techniques, some dress style, and music and dance.[59]

Of all the cultural exchanges between China and the Xiongnu, the defection of Chinese soldiers was perhaps the most surprising. They would sometimes convert to the Xiongnu way of life and stay in the steppes for fear of punishment.[59]

Transmission of Christianity

Further information: Nestorian Christianity

Transmission of Buddhism

Blue-eyed Central Asian monk teaching East-Asian monk, Bezeklik, Eastern Tarim Basin, 9th–10th century.

The transmission of Buddhism to China via the Silk Road began in the 1st century AD, according to a semi-legendary account of an ambassador sent to the West by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58–75 AD). During this period Buddhism began to spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia.[60] Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism are the three primary forms of Buddhism that spread, through the Silk Road, across Asia.[61]

The Buddhist movement was the first large-scale missionary movement in the history of world religions. Chinese missionaries were able to assimilate Buddhism, to an extent, to native Chinese Daoists, which would bring the two beliefs together.[62] Buddha's community of followers, the Sangha, consisted of male and female monks and laity. These people moved through India and beyond to spread the ideas of Buddha.[63] As the number of members within the Sangha increased, it became costly so that only the larger cities were able to afford having the Buddha and his disciples visit .[64] It is believed that under the control of the Kushans, within the middle of the first century to the middle of the third century, Buddhism was spread by the Silk Road to China as well as other parts of Asia.[65] Extensive contacts started in the 2nd century AD, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin, due to the missionary efforts of a great number of Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. The first missionaries and translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese were either Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.[66]

Bilingual edict (Greek and Aramaic) 3rd century BC by Indian Buddhist King Ashoka, see Edicts of Ashoka, from Kandahar. This edict advocates the adoption of "godliness" using the Greek term Eusebeia for Dharma. Kabul Museum.

One result of the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road was displacement and conflict. The Greek Seleucids were exiled to Iran and Central Asia due to a new Iranian Dynasty called the Parthians at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, and as a result the Parthians became the new middle men for trade in a period when the Romans were major customers for silk. The Parthian scholars were involved in one of the first ever Buddhist text translations into the Chinese language, its main trade centre on the Silk Road, the city of Merv, in due course and with the coming of age of Buddhism in China, became a major Buddhist centre by the middle of the 2nd century.[67] Knowledge among people on the silk roads also increased when Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (268–239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and raised the religion to official status in his northern Indian empire.[68]

From the 4th century onward, Chinese pilgrims also started to travel on the Silk Road to India, in order to get improved access to the original Buddhist scriptures, with Fa-hsien's pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuan Zang (629–644) and Hyecho, who traveled from Korea to India.[69] The travels of the priest Xuan Zang were fictionalized in the 16th century in a fantasy adventure novel called Journey to the West, which told of trials with demons and the aid given by various disciples on the journey.

A statue depicting Buddha giving sermon, from Sarnath, 300 km South-west from Urumqi, Xinjiang, 8th century

There were many different schools of Buddhism travelling on the Silk Road. The Dharmaguptakas and the Sarvastivadins were two of the major Nikaya schools. These were both eventually displaced by the Mahayana, also known as "Great Vehicle". This movement of Buddhism first gained influence in the Khotan region.[68] The Mahayana, which was more of a "pan-Buddhist movement" than a school of Buddhism, appears to have begun in north western India or Central Asia. It was small at first and formed during the 1st century BCE, and the origins of this "Greater Vehicle" are not fully clear. Some Mahayana scripts were found in northern Pakistan but the main texts are still believed to have been composed in Central Asia along the Silk Road. These different schools and movements of Buddhism were a result of the diverse and complex influences and beliefs on the Silk Road.[70] With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, the initial direction of Buddhist development changed. This form of Buddhism highlighted, as stated by Xinru Liu "the elusiveness of physical reality, including material wealth." It also stressed getting rid of material desire to a certain point; this was often difficult for followers to understand.[71]

During the 5th and 6th centuries CE, Merchants played a large role in the spread of religion, in particular Buddhism. Merchants found the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism to be an appealing alternative to previous religions. As a result, Merchants supported Buddhist Monasteries along the Silk Roads and in return the Buddhists gave the Merchants somewhere to stay as they traveled from city to city. As a result, Merchants spread Buddhism to foreign encounters as they traveled.[72] Merchants also helped to establish diaspora within the communities they encountered and overtime their cultures became based on Buddhism. Because of this, these communities became centers of literacy and culture with well-organized marketplaces, lodging, and storage.[73] The voluntary conversion of Chinese ruling elites helped the spread of Buddhism in East Asia. Thus, it allowed Buddhism to become widespread in Chinese society.[74] The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism essentially ended around the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.

Transmission of art

Iconographical evolution of the Wind God. Left: Greek Wind God from Hadda, 2nd century. Middle: Wind God from Kizil, Tarim Basin, 7th century. Right: Japanese Wind God Fujin, 17th century.

Many artistic influences were transmitted via the Silk Road, particularly through Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influences could intermix. Greco-Buddhist art represents one of the most vivid examples of this interaction. Silk was also a representation of art. This is because silk served as a religious symbol, and most importantly, silk was used as currency for trade along the silk road.[75]

These artistic influences can be seen in the development of Buddhism where for instance, Buddha was first depicted as human in the Kushan period. Many scholars have attributed this to Greek influence. The mixture of Greek and Indian elements can be found in later Buddhist art in China and throughout countries on the Silk Road.[76]


Both Bishkek and Almaty now have a major east-west street named after the Silk Road (Kyrgyz: Жибек жолу, Jibek Jolu in Bishkek, and Kazakh: Жібек жолы, Jibek Joly in Almaty). On June 22, 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named the Silk Road a World Heritage Site at the 2014 Conference on World Heritage.

In Popular Culture

The name "Silk Road" was adopted for the anonymous trading website Silk Road (marketplace)

There is a cryptocurrency called Silkcoin


See also


  1. ^ "The accounts of all travellers, inconsistent in many other respects, agree in the low wages of labour, and in the difficulty which a labourer finds in bringing up a family in China. If by digging the ground a whole day he can get what will purchase a small quantity of rice in the evening, he is contented. The condition of artificers is, if possible, still worse. Instead of waiting indolently in their work-houses, for the calls of their customers, as in Europe, they are continually running about the streets with the tools of their respective trades, offering their service, and as it were begging employment. The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe. In the neighbourhood of Canton many hundred, it is commonly said, many thousand families have no habitation on the land, but live constantly in little fishing boats upon the rivers and canals. The subsistence which they find there is so scanty that they are eager to fish up the nastiest garbage thrown overboard from any European ship. Any carrion, the carcass of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries. Marriage is encouraged in China, not by the profitableness of children, but by the liberty of destroying them. In all great towns several are every night exposed in the street, or drowned like puppies in the water. The performance of this horrid office is even said to be the avowed business by which some people earn their subsistence." (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776).


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  3. ^ Xinru, Liu, The Silk Road in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 11.
  4. ^ Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 32.
  5. ^ Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 33.
  6. ^ Waugh (2007), p. 4.
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Further reading

External links