The Silk Road : 之路

Silk Road
Europe and Asia at the time of the Roman and Han dynasties

The Silk Road or Silk Route evokes exotic visions of China. When this ancient trade route is mentioned the imagination conjures up camels carrying rare and exotic treasures thousands of miles through desert landscapes.

The Silk Road was of great importance from the Han (200BCE); Tang and Yuan dynasties. Trade is known from a much earlier date, Chinese silk has been found in Afghanistan dating to 1500BCE, but transport was on a small scale at this time. The Silk Route fell into decline during the Ming dynasty (1600CE) when trade by sea from southern ports safer and more profitable than the overland route. There is more than one road, so it should be thought of as a network as the road had several branches, starting in both India and the Middle East and ending at the Chinese capital at the time - Luoyang. The name ‘Silk Road’ is a relatively modern name, coined by German geographer Baron von Richthofen in the 19th century, the name has never been used in China.

Silk road, Jiayuguan, fort
Fortress (14th century) at Great Wall of Jiayuguang, September 2009. Photo by Sigismund von Dobsch?tz available under a Creative Commons license .

The map above shows the Silk Road at about 100CE, when the Roman Empire extended into Asia Minor and the Han Empire had conquered much of modern China (except for Fujian). At the beginning of the Han dynasty explorer Zhang Qian spent 13 years on an eventful trek to the west where he married into the Xiongnu tribe (the Xiongnu had withstood Han Chinese expansion to the north-west). Zhang brought back tantalizing news of advanced civilizations beyond China's borders. His journey into Parthia and India allowed him to see vestiges of the Greek Empire created by Alexander the Great . Emperor Wudi's curiosity was piqued and he sought to find out more, including a southern route into India through Yunnan. This first contact proved that China was not alone in developing an urban-based civilization. The Silk Route was initially used to import horses into China, which were needed to improve the effectiveness of Han cavalry against the horsemen of the northern frontier tribes. With the new horses General Ban Chao was able to subjugate these tribes. Thereafter more tales and rumors of the great, far away Roman Empire reached China. They learned such things as the Romans drank from glasses rather than earthenware cups. The Han dynasty name for Rome was Da Qin 'Great Qin' named after the Qin dynasty itself, apparently called 'great' due to their greater stature. Trade along the Silk Road between the two great empires grew rapidly. The Romans developed such a veracious appetite for silk that Emperor Tiberius introducing a ban to try to stem the outflow of gold.

silk road, Xian, sculpture
Statue commemorating the Silk Road, Xian

Along the Silk Route are many ancient trading posts: Bakhara; Kashgar; Tashkent; Kunduz; Samarkand ; Turpan; Tehran. The fortunes of these great cities ebbed and flowed as different peoples came into ascendency; Central Asia remained an area in flux for many centuries. Most chroniclers emphasize the long route to the Mediterranean and yet it was the trade with India which was more significant. It was from India that many would say the most precious cargo was imported: Buddhism. The grand western entrance into China was the Jiayuguan Gate, Gansu at the western end of the Great Wall. The Great Wall gave protection to travelers from attacks by tribes to the north on their passage deep into China through Lanzhou and on to the capital at Luoyang and Chang'an.

silk road, Turkey
The magnificent entrance to the Sultanhani caravansary on the Silk Road, Turkey

When the Mongols conquered China the whole of the route through Central Asia was under Mongol control and trade flourished. The Silk Road into China at this time is described in the travels of Marco Polo. Trade was carried in stages by local tribesmen, Parthians; Bactrians and Sogdians of Central Asia, who zealously maintained their role as middlemen. No-one made the complete trek along the whole route. The lack of direct contact denied first hand knowledge of China in Europe or Europe in China. However some Chinese inventions did make their way along the route including gunpowder and silk. When the Tibetan kingdom reached the height of its power in the Tang dynasty, Tibetans controlled the southern strands of the route.

Gansu, Jiayuguan, camel
Camels in front of Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

As the name implies the most important goods transported were silks as they were light; non-perishable and highly prized, they were the ideal cargo for long land journeys. Fragments of 2,000 year old silk fabric have been found in Central Asia. Gold was another export from China, in return imports of spices (from India; Central Asia); glass; coral (for ornamentation) woolen textiles and horses came into China.

Jiayuquan, Ming dynasty, silk road, Gansu
Entrance gate under a tower into the Jiayuguan Fort, Gansu

The decline of the Silk Route came about with the end of the Mongol dynasty when travel overland became no longer as safe. Northern barbarian tribes resumed their threat to the northern Chinese Silk route and more significant of all, advances in maritime technology allowed for safe and more profitable transportation by sea. The center of Chinese civilization moved south to the Yangzi River.

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