The Silk Road

silk road cammel caravan
Figure 1.--There are of course no photographs from the medieval Silk Road. Conditions in Central asia, however, changed very little over time. This photographs gives a feel for the famed Silk Road. This photograph from westen China was taken in the early 20th century and shows what a cammel caravan could have looked like.

The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The story of the silk road is one of military adventures and conquest, adventuresome explorers, religious pilgrims, and great philosophers. While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas and religion as an almost unintended aspect of the flow of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. Of course most of the people who traversed the silk road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. They moved camel caravans over some of the most hostile terrain on the planet. The Silk Road transversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Merchandise may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC and continued to be important until the 16th century when more reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery.


The history of the famed Silk Road is one of many instances in which clothing and fabrics have played a major role in human history. The Chinese developed silk in the 27th centuy BC. For two millenia it was virtually unknown in the West. As Europeans did not know how to produce the luxurious fabric, traders could command fabulous prices for silk. And until the 16th century, the only way to transport silk to Europe was overland over the Silk Road. The first rich European societies developed around the Mediterranean and their kings, emperors, priests of important religions, and even wealthy merchants wanted the luxurious fabric and were prepared to pay for it.

Other Products

Eurasian societies traded a stunning variety of goods. Luxurious silks were not the only product that moved over the Silk Road. The Chinese produced many products that were in great demand in Europe. Other products included porcelain, furs, spices, gems and other exotic products of Asia. The first gunpowder and paper to appear in Europe was Chinese produced and shipped over the Silk Road. Silk was, however, the dominant product because it was in such great demand. It was also relatively light weight and unbreakable. Theproblem for the uropeans was they did not prodyuce a gret deal that the Chinese wanted. This gold and other prcessiou metals was often sent east in payment. Other products included cosmetics, amber, ivory, carpets, perfume, and glass. The full list of these products might surprise the modern reader, items like scroll paintings, roses, peonies, peaches, grapes, pomigranets, sesame, and much more. While the items involved today seem minor luxury goods, in fact the products carried on the silk road were products of great economic importance to both the ancient and medeval world.


Chinese ceramics, especially porcelain, were greatly admired in the West. Chinese porcelain amazed Western potters because of the beautiful glossy white surface. The dlicate translucense as well as the durability of porcelain made it extrmely desirable. Chinese porselain became well known and extremely coveted. The cost of transporting ceramics by land made the Chinese porcelains that reached the West very rare and valuable. The Chinese ceramic industry began to show foreign influences by the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD). The ceramics found in Tang tombs purely reflect the contemprary society while ceramics reaching the Middle East and later Europe show some evidence of designs especally created for those mnarkets. Blue and white painted porcelain by the 14th century had becone extrodinarily ppular throughout Asia and the Near East. The nobility in these areas acquired immnse colkexctiins. These can be sen today at tge Tokapi Pallace in Istanbul and the Ardebil Shrine in Teheran. Large quantities of Chinese ceramics did not begin reaching the west until the Portuguese opened sea routes to the east in the 15th century. Huge amounts of Chinese ceramics were brought west by sea in the 16th-18th centuries. Large quantities The West did not develop the technology to make porcelain until the early 18th century. It was the Grmans who first discovered how to produce porselain in the West (1709).



The chronology of the Silk Road is not fully understood. Merchandice may have moved over the Silk Road as early as the 5th century BC. Some of the major developments during the early history of the Silk Road was Alexander's military expedition to India, the trade in luxury goods, opening of new overland routes, and the extension of the Great Wall by the Han to protect new Chinese interests. The Silk Road is believed to have become an established trade route by the 1st century BC. Buddhism and its associated material culture followed the Silk Road from India to China beginning in the 1st century BC. Buddhist monuments line the Silk Road marking this flow. The golden age of the Silk Road begins as the silk trade spreads from China to Sassanian Iran, the Central Asian oases, and the Roman Mediterranean in the 3rd century. Both silk and spices from the Orient were coveted trade goods throughout the Roman Empire. Romans saw then as an essential aspect of gracious living. The Byzantine, Empire, the Islamic caliphate, and Tang China court culture turned silk into state enterprises. The Mongols rise in the 13th century and through the 14th century control most of Asia north of India, including China and Persia. Is it at this time that Marco Polo makes his epic trip to China and lives in the court of Kubilai Khan. Trade over the Silk Road continued to be important until the 15th century The the fall of Byzantium (1453) allowed the Ottomans to end European access to the Silk Road. And Europeans estanlished reliable sea routes were established as a result of the European voyages of discovery and Europeans began trading directly with India and China.

Bullion Transfer

Gold appears to have been an important factor on the Silk Road. Apparently while the West had areat demand for Chinese goods, there was less in the West that China wanted, at least valuable products that could be economically trasported long distances. This largely reflected the technological difference between East and West. Two factors seem to be involved. First, China was wear the silk worm was found and for a time dominated trade in spices from the South Pcific. Second, China was more advanced technologically and could produce luxury goods like fine porcelain. It should be noted that this was not only true during the Medieval era when the civilization on classical learning collpsed, but also at the peak of the Roman Empire. Thus the West had to pay for its purchases with bullion, gold and silver. China appears to have produced little gold of its own. The West beginning with the Roman Empire sent gold and silver east to China to pay for the luxurious Chinese silks and other items. Some historians believe that the vast quantities of bullion drained from Imperial coffers to pay for luxury goods contributed to the downfall of the Empire. This we are not sure about. But the drain surely weakened the ability of the Empire to reward state officials and perhaps mopre importantly Legionaires. Even after Byzantium had uncovered the secrets of silk production, the West still was unable to reverse the terms of trade with the East.


While it is silk which is often, naturally enough, most strongly associated with the silk road, the flow of ideas as an almost unintended aspect of the movement of trade may have been one of the most significant impacts. The ideas that moved over the Silk Road included technology, philosophy, and religion. Of course most of the people who traversed the Silk Road were not great thinkers, but common tradesmen who transported their merchandise at great risk for the substantial profits that could be made. But even humble men carried their religion and culture with them. Buddhism which so influenced China came over the silk road from India where it originated. Buddhist monuments line the Silk Road marking this flow. The best example was the great Buddha monuments at Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Other examples are Cenbtral Asian/Chinese cave complexes, and Dunhuang in Western China. Medieval Dunhuang is the location of some of the most important Buddhist temples. The rock-cut shrines there were dug out of a cliff in the Gobi Desert. They are decorated with wall paintings and 2,000 sculptures dating from the 5th to the 13th centuries and include a huge library. The craftsmen and artisans creating and decorting this shrine have left an enduring recordof the transmission of culture, language, and religion from India accross Central asia to China. Other religious ideas also were caried both east and west over the SilkRoad, including Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Confucianism. A historian writes, "No mere river of water can be compared to this perennial stram of caravans, that has carried ahalf of human history from stage to stage, from wasteland to wasteland and climate to climate, on the puny strength of men." [Stark] Perhaps two the most important items of technology that moved over the Silk Road west to Europe were gunpowder and the spinning wheel.


One of the most fearsome things transported over the Silk Road and perhaps the most potent was disease. The Great Plague of the 14th century may have been transported to Europe oiver the Silk Road or perhaps the Spice Road is more likely. The medieval plague, commonly referred to as the Black Death, was the most cathestrophic epidemic in recorded history. The plague is believed to have been brought west from China. Europeans had no resistance to it in much the same way that smallpox brought by Europeans was to desimate Native Americans in the 16th and 17th centuries. The plague ravaged Europe from 1347-51. There were also serious subsequent outbreaks as well. The plague often killed whole families, in part because family members could not bring themselve to abandon each other. Villages were devistated. An estimated 1,000 villages were completely destroyed. Historians estimate that about one-third of the European population died in the plague. The plague, however, had a profound impact on Europe beyond the incalcuable human pain and suffering of those affected. As strange as it may sound, the plague set in motion cultural and economic trends that played a major role in shaping modern Europe.


Traders moved cammal caravans over some of the most hostile terraine on the planet. The Silk Road tranversed deserts, mountains and the seemingly endless Central Asian steppe. It included verdant oasis and fabeled trading centers. This legendary trading route streached over 5,000 miles, more than twice the width of the United States, and connected the two poles of the Eurasian landmass. The Silk Road began in central China and streached through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan. A key to crossing the arid expanses of central Asia was the cmmel and its abolity to travel long periods with limited water. Also critical was the oases scattered across Central Asia. These were sparling islands of greenery, wgere water appeared from rivers and springs. Some were very small. Others had water availabl to support hundreds of square miles of agriculture.

Zhang Xian (?-107 BC)

A key figure in the history of the Silk Road is Chinese diplomat and secret agent Zhang Xian (Chang Ch'ien). The Chinese Emperor Wu-Ti (Han Dynasty) sent him west to the Yeh Chi, to ask for their help in the fighting against the Hsiung-nu, known in Europe as the Huns (138 BC). Zhang Xian was, however, captured by the Huns and although they did not know his mission, kept him a prisoner for 10 years. He eventually escaped and reached the Yeh Chi, but they wanted no part in a military alliance against the Huns. On the way back he was capture again by the Huns, but eventually reached China (126 BC). He made a second trip west, buying horses in Fergana (119-115 BC). His travels helped to establish the Silk Road over which trade was conducted between China and the Roman Empire. Rome and China appar to have known of each other, but diplomatic contacts do not appear to have been made. The Parthians who blocked Rome's movement east may have been the reason.


The singular form Silk Road" is a misnomer. There was of course no single, clearly defined highway like a well engineered Roman road. In fact, nothing was constructed. The Silk Road was rather a complex and constantly changing network of trails, trading posts, oases, and trading centers scattered across the vast expanse of Central Asia. Of course geography meant that the various trails often converged on mountain passes or favorable crossing points of major rivers. Unlike Europe, which used rivers for trade, river commerce was not important in the Silk Road because the terrain crossed was either arid or the rivers ran in north/south rather than east-west directions that were not useful for commerce. The main Silk Road trails were further complicated by branch routes. The most important branch route led through the Kyber Pass to northwestern India where it connected to trade other routes extending throughout the Indian subcontinent. The actual roues of the Silk Road varied over time. There was also a less well-known southern route. This southern route skirted the Tarim Basin's southern borders, crossed over the Tibetan plateau to Dunhuang then moved along an arid stretch dotted with oasis to Kashgar. This route is especially notable because it was the one Marco Polo used in the 13th century. The Silk Road connected China with the West. The Eastern terminus was the ancient Chinese capital city of Chang'an (now Xi'an). It was located west of the great bend where the Yellow River flows onto the North China Plain). Not all caravans began here, but many did. The Western terminals were much more diverse. The single most important was Byzantium (Constantinople). There were several other important terminals, including Antioch and Damascus. Connections thereby sea could carry goods to bazaars as far West as Fez in the Islamic world. Connections in Byzantium and Arab ports carried goods throughout Western Christendom.

Trading Centers

the dazzling trading centers along the Silk Road have fabeled histories. Some of the most importat were: Antioch, Babylon, Bukhara, Erzerum, Hamadn, Samarkand, Kashgar, and Xian. The goods from the Silk Road were major items of trade in the great bazar citues oif Islam (Fez, Cairoi, Istambul, Isfahan, Samarkand, Bukhara, and others.


A reader from Tajikistan repoorts, "Tajikistan was also on the silk route,. The major city was called Hissor. The city were famous for making swords. Hissor Fortress protected the route. At Hissor there were two religious schools where young boys were educated. They lived in the schools and most of the teaching was rote learning and memorizing of facts and verses. These closed down in the 1920s when the Soviets became dominent in the area."

Steppe Crucible

The Silk Road crossed the territory of a dizzying number of peoples. Some of those people are the Han, Hui, Mongols, Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Uzbeks. There were also semi nomadic peoples like the Kazaks and Kyrgyz. These varied peoples have fascinating histories, often largely unknown in the West. the Uyghurs of Xinjiang in northwest China have been called the Oasis People. The Uyghurs moved eastward from Mongolia in the 9th century and became the first literate civilization established on the Eurasian Stepes. There are also peoples lost to history. The Xinjiang mummies are all that is left of an unknown people who appeared to have migrated from Europe and settled around the Tarim Basin in western China some time about 2000 BC and disappeared about 1000 BC. The mummies are significant because they suggest cointacts betwen East and West centuriues before the Silk Road. Trade over the Silk Road require the cooperation or at least acquiesence of the Steppe people. And they were in turn influenced and enriched by it. And the Steppe Nomads would move east, south, and west and have a major impact on the settled peoples they encountered. The Mongols are the best known, but only one of the many Steppe peoples.

Historical Figures

Some of the great figures of history are associated with the Silk Road, including Darius, Alexander the Great, Ch'ang Ch'ien, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Tamerlane. Of course most who traveled the Silk Road are nameless individuals, including merchants, traders, cammel drivers, bandits, fortune hunters, pilgrims, soldiers, gamblers, prostitutes, emmigrants, and many others. Alexander the Great was determined to find a route to India. The fierce warrior Genghis Khan moved east over the Silk Road. The most famous individual is undoubtedly Marco Polo. Poloo published his account of the Silk Road and life in China (1298). There is no better account of traveling the Silk Road than that left us by Polo. Marco Polo was the only child known to history to have traveled the Silk Road. He went east with his father and uncle, Venetian merchants. Went he returned from China, he was at first not believed, but his account caused a sensation in Italy and the rest of Europe.


Romans in both the Western and Eastern Empire made clothes clothes with linen, animal skin, and wool. Silk obtained over the silk road was enormously coved and very expensive. Anyone who could afford it wanted it. It seemed luxurious in comparison to linnen and wool garments. Silk thus became a symbol of wealth and social status. Silk was a closely guarded secret in China. Monks travling the silk road smuggled silk worm cacoons to Byzantium which became the basis for Byzantium's own fabulous silk industry.


Venice and Normon allies sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (1204). They set up the Lastin Empire to replace the faltering Byzantine Empire. This allowed Venice to establisg colonies and trade agreements which left Venice in control of commerce througout the Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic seas. This gave Venice access to the Silk Road trade to Western Europe. The Pax Mongolica from the mid-13th to the mid-14th centuries created stable conditions in central Asia which allowed Venetians (the Polos) to travel to China, and permitted substantially increased traffic just at the time when the coming of the Renaissance was quickening economic activity in the west. T

The Mongols

The Silk Road played a major role in the Mongols rise to power and the maintenance of their empire. The Mongols defeated imperial Chines armies with sophisticated tactics. They extorted great wealth from Chinese emperors by pillage and tribute demands. There were also profits from border trade and the sale of luxury goods through the Silk Road. There was a long history of Central Asian nomads threatening China. This was the reason that the Great wall was built. Nomads during the Han dynasty (209BC-155AD) and the Tang dynasty (582-840AD) pilaged major Chinese cities and carried out border incursions. The luxury goods that flowed from China could be sold on the Silk Road for imense profits. This is part of the reason that the Mongols were able to conquer a huge empire. The Pan-Mongolica imposed in the 13th and 14th century created security conditions on the Silk Road thar increased the volume of trade.


Fine goods such as porcelains, silks, and scroll paintings flowed west on the silk road for a millenia. Perhaps the primary terminus of the silk road was Italy. Luxury goods from China and later the Islamic world were highly prized in Renaissandce Italy. Chinese pieces of art were pasionately sought by princely patrons. The Medici and Gonzagas were avid collectors. Chinese objects can be seen in Renaissance paintings, including carpets and ceramics. These Asian and Islamic art affected Itlalian tastes and artistic output. Italian ceramics and glasswear were stringly affected by Syrian techniuques. Textiles show influences both from Islamic countries and Asia. Textiles from the Silk Road revolutionlized silk weaving in Italy. Italian production of cceramics, glass, and metalwork began competing with items being transported over the Silk Road, much of which on the last leg of the journey arrived in Europe aboard Itlalian me, especially Venetian, rchant vessels.


One important aspect of the HBC website is to explain the often unexplained role of children in history. Concerning the Silk Road, the passage of a young Marco Polo with his father and uncle east to China is the only chold we know of that traveled the Silk Road. At thois yime we simply do not know the role children may have played. We suspect that at the least, boys were employed by the caravan chiefs to help drive and care for the cammels and other lifestock. This is, however, a subject that we are still persuing.


The long term impact of a millennia of commerce on the cultures of East and West is difficult to fully assess.

Commerce and Power

The ability to command trade with the East was a major factor in power politics. It was a fsctor explaining why Byzanttium endured for a millenium. Subsequently it was factor in the success of the Venetian Republic. Gradually during the Medieval era, sea commerce or the Spice Route became the more important conduit for Eastern goods than the more ardous land Silk Road. This left the Arab Calipahate and later the Mamelukes of Egypt in control of the trade. The Red Sea was the natural route to Europe. And the Venetial Republic negotiated a treaty with the Mamelukes. Genoa gained an important share in the declimning overland route when it establoished a trading colony in southern China (1336). And the Ottoman seizure of Constantinople (1452) and expansion in to the Levant put them in a position to control trade woth the East. This was, however, to be undone by the European voyages of discovery

Spice Route

The Spice Route was the other great trading route of the Ancient and Medieval worlds. Spices were carried on the Silk Road also, but the main source of spices was well south of China, the Spice Islands (Indonesia), India, and the Malabar (East African) coast. India was at the center of the world spice trade. It is no accident that Indian food is known for its spices. Spices were carried to India from the Spice Islands, sometimes by sea routes. Spices included cassia, star anise, cloves, coriander, nutmeg, mace, and others. The most vluable spice was pepercorns. These spices as well as Indian Indian and Africa spices were then brought by sea to the Middle east by Areab traders. Finally Venetian or other Italian vessels were bring the spices to Europe. Rivalry for the sea routes monopolized by Veniceincreased the importance of the overland Silk Road. Finally Portuguese sailors in the 15th century established direct contact with the source of spices, undercutting both the Arabs and Venetians.

European Voyages of Discovery

The great European voyages of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries were fundamentally economic enterprises. They were conducted by the European countries of the Atlantic coasts to establish direct trade contacts with China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that was being blocked by Byzantium/Venice and the Arabs. At the time, trade in silk, porcelin, and spices from the East carried over the Silk Road had to pass through Turkish, Arab, Byzantine, and Italian middleman, making them enormously expensive. The crusaders failed to break the Islamic wall separating still primitive Europe from the riches of the East. Circumventing the land Silk Road and the sea Spice Route would have profound economic consequences for Europe and the world. The ballance of power would shift from Eastern to Western Europe and eventualkly to northern Europe. Two nations led the early explorarions in the 15th century--Spain and Portugal. These two countries pioneered the sea routes that would lead Europeans to Asia and the Americas, but the Dutch, English, and French were to follow in the 16th century. The trade in Chinese porcelain grew rapidly after maritime trade routes were established with China. The profits involved were enormous. So were the dangers which included treacherous sea, murderous pirates, and competing shippers especially those from other countries.


Stark, Freya. Rome on the Euphrates.


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Created: July 29, 2003
Last updated: 4:36 PM 10/31/2008