The Great Trade Routes: THE SILK ROAD

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The journey to the East

The Great Trade Routes: THE SILK ROAD

Silk Road map

The Silk Road constituted the first link connecting East and West (as the saying goes, «If you want to see the East, you have to go West»). It started two thousand years ago as a trading route for silk and other merchandise among the Chinese, Indian, Persian and Roman empires of antiquity. However, it was far more than a commercial trade road. It was a communication channel, a vehicle for people and places to contact each other, and a two-way medium to transfer art, religion, and technology. Never has a route been so important for the world’s economy, politics, culture and society.

Silk Road from Asia to Europe
Manufacturing silk in China

Not only silk but other goods

In addition to merchants and their goods,

it was also the route for human thought, craft, and creativity. Artisans, savants, business people, adventurers, and messengers from distant lands travelled the Silk Road; many languages were spoken and many cultures intermingled in the resplendent centres that developed alongside it.  It inevitably became a cultural causeway that carried new ideas, new visions, unique philosophies, and new artistic styles over vast distances.

While it was called the Silk Road, it was not the only freight transported along with it. Neither was there a unique route, but a constantly changing grid of desert tracks and highland trails that were more or less used as empires and markets rose or waned or as traders looked for more convenient diversions in times of war, plague or famine. Much like the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela, though there was the main route, pilgrims sought the refuge of the mountains and used the coastal path in times of danger. In both cases, without GPS at that time…, the «Milky Way» guided both the Silk Road and the Pilgrims’ Way travellers and traders.»

Samarkand, the city of all legends

The itinerary from Xian to Europe

From Xian, China’s ancient capital

one 6,4000-kilometre route ran west alongside the Great Wall, bypassing the Taklamakan Desert, passing through the Ferghana Valley to the Caravaneer cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and around the Caspian Sea to Turkey and Europe.


Further routes scaled the Pamir Mountains and crossed Afghanistan and Iran to the eastern Mediterranean’s harbors or passed through the Great Wall to Mongolia and then across the Kazakh and southern Russian steppes to Europe.

Both Roman and Byzantine empires had an insatiable lust for silk clothing. While Roman scholars objected to its use and Roman politicians lamented its draining of the public treasury, the rich kept buying and buying, exchanging the gold they procured in Hispania (Spain) on a pound-for-pound basis for silk.  However, only a portion of this money ever reached China, as the trade had thousands of middlemen. The caravans on the road were the administrations that made a profit – by charging duties on every single bale of silk that came through them – and the businessmen who provided guides and beasts of burden for hire and offered lodging and protection to the trading merchants.

Izadkhvast Caravanseray in the SilkRoad Photo:. Bernard Gagnon

The expansion of religions: Islam

In addition to silk, the camel convoy carried

tea, porcelain, and lacquerware to the West and European amber, silver, and gold to the east. Pepper, cotton and sandalwood were traded from India, furs from Siberia, and warhorses from Central Asia. Papermaking, printing, and artillery – technologies that in some cases, fortunately, and in others, unfortunately, changed the Western world – flowed out of China. Simultaneously, new developments in mathematics, medicine, and astronomy reached China from the West.

Starting in the Middle East, Islam expanded to Central Asia and India. At the same time, Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan. Apparently, Buddhists did not take some important papers with them, so the Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King and his three companions made their Journey to the West (India) – to complete their Buddhist knowledge).

The protagonists from "The Journey to the West"

Gengis Khan

The merging of human thought and expertise resulted from the influences brought by the Silk Road and the powers and people who sought to dominate what was then carried by the Silk Road. For its wealth, as well as the potential access it provided to yet greater rewards, the Silk Road drew an effective succession of invaders.

By the 8th century, Muslim Arabs pushed eastward along the Silk Road, altering the extent and spread of the world’s religions in Central Asia decisively, whereas, in the 13th century, Genghis Khan loosed the Mongol hordes along the Silk Road, reshaping the political organisation of most of Asia. It would seem that the portraitist of Genghis Khan wanted to convey an image of a peaceful and kindly man, apparently far removed from the surrounding legends.

Portrait of Genghis Khan

Curiously, while no single culture ever dominated the Silk Road, it was only during the short period of the Mongol empire, including China, Central Asia, much of the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, that the Silk Road was under the control of a single ruler.

The mass migrations that shaped the ethnic character of vast regions also coincided with existing trade patterns. Turkic tribes began a westward surge along the Silk Road that eventually flooded Central and West Asia.

Ironically, the Romans and Chinese never actually met, and their mutual ignorance of each other is one of the Silk Road anomalies (and not much has changed since then until the 21st century).  The Chinese apparently had no idea where Rome was, while the Romans thought silk grew on trees and was produced by tall, red-haired, blue-eyed people (maybe Scottish, Irish, already having arrived there??).

The first european meet chinese people

Europa Asia Marco Polo
Marco Polo was the first to write he had made contact with Chinese people

Trade continued for almost 1,500 years before the first European

– supposedly though, as there is no historical evidence, Marco Polo met the first Chinese (coinciding with the concentration of power along the Mongol empire route)-. Back in Rome, no one believed their descriptions of China, the Chinese, and silk. During this period, European merchants could, under the auspices of the Mongols, cross the usually turbulent steppes in total safety, thus making direct contact between China and the West possible for the first time.

A dramatic closing chapter in the Silk Road history was set in the 14th century by the Timurid Turko-Mongols. Timur, the dynasty’s founder, who became known in Europe as Tamerlane (Tamir, the Lame, as it was his main physical characteristic), became one of the most successful warriors the world has ever known (sometimes referred to as the Second Gengis Khan). Through a series of current military campaigns, Timur won the whole of Eurasia from the Great Wall to the Urals. The east-west trade – which had been interrupted by the Mongol empire’s collapse – was once again resumed.

Europe Asia Tamil
Ibn-Kaldun pleading Tamir not to destroy their city

The decline of the Silk Road

The successors of Timur did not have the former’s authority and were incapable of keeping united the immense dominion he had established. The tribes revolted, and renewed political instability – followed by economic depression and cultural decay -. Debilitated and in disarray, Central Asia could no longer serve the bridging role vital to the continued flow of trade between East and West. Meantime, in 1462, in an attempt to wipe out long decades of external influences and restore Chinese cultural values, the Ming dynasty sealed off China’s external frontiers. Following 15 centuries as the main artery between East and West, the Silk Road was finally shut down.


And here we come to the end of the second great trade route in history…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse, and myself will be happy to hear from you.

The journey to the East
Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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