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 the most exotic visions of China. When this ancient trade route is mentioned the imagination conjures up camels carrying rare and exotic treasures through desert landscapes.

The reality is somewhat less romantic, however the Silk Road was of great importance from the Han (200BCE); Tang and Yuan dynasties. Trade is known from a much earlier date, ancient silk has been found in Afghanistan dating to 1500BCE, but this was on a small scale. The Silk Route fell into decline during the Ming dynasty (1600CE) when trade by sea from southern ports became more profitable than by the overland route. It is more correct to think of it as a series of routes and not a single road; 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 relatively modern, coined by German geographer Baron von Richthofen in the 19th century.

The map above shows the route of 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, he married into the Xiongnu tribe who held back Han expansion to the north-west; he brought back news of advanced civilizations beyond China's borders in Parthia and India which represented the vestiges of the Greek Empire created by Alexander the Great. Emperor Wudi's curiosity was piqued and he sought to find out more, seeking to a southern route into India through Yunnan. The discovery had the momentous result that China could no longer claim to be the only civilization in the world. Initial Chinese interest was for the import of horses to improve the effectiveness of Han cavalry against the horsemen of the northern frontier tribes. Ban Chao was a famous general who brought about the subjugation of these tribes. Thereafter more tales and rumors of the great, far away Roman Empire came to China. They learned facts such 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. The Romans developed a veracious appetite for silk leading to Emperor Tiberius introducing a ban on silk import.

Along the route are many ancient trading posts: Bakhara; Kashgar; Tashkent; Kunduz; Samarkand; Turpan; Tehran whose fortunes 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 Jiayuguan Gate on the end of the Great Wall marked the grand western entrance into China. The Great Wall gave some protection of from attacks by tribes to the north on the passage deep into China.

Ruins of Gaochang City near Turpan. Photo available under a Creative Commons license.

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 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 kept 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 such as gunpowder.

As the name implies the most important goods 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.

The decline of the Silk Route came about with the end of the Mongol dynasty, travel overland was not as safe; the center of Chinese civilization moved south to the Yangzi River; northern barbarian tribes threatened the northern Chinese Silk routes and more significant of all, advances in maritime technology allowed for safe and more profitable transportation by sea.

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