Silk Road

[by Jenna Brightwell] 

“Setting off on a journey to the land of silk, a traveller had to be prepared for the dangers of all kinds.  How many wild beasts, merciless bandits and evil spirits would haunt his road!  In the deserts there would be voices and apparitions, terrestrial sirens, to lead him astray and lose him forever in the interminable sands.  There would be avalanches bloodthirsty tribes to ambush him in the mountain passes, deadly vapours rising from the marshland.  And yet men passionately sought for this endless road to the east and the mysterious land of the Seres, and they were ready to fight for it when necessary” (Boulnois, 61).

The Silk Road, which dates back to trade between the Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire in the second century, helped shape the politics, cultures, and economies of the societies across the Eurasian continent.  The route not only linked trade between the East and West but helped spread religion and ideas.  Trading posts expanded into urban centers. The above quote, though dramatic and romanticized, does give insight into the immense difficulty of traversing the path from Europe to China, which required eluding fierce nomadic groups, crossing mountains and deserts, and paying taxes and fees dramatically raising the price of the goods along the way, proving of the importance and profitability of the trade conducted on the Road.

Early Trade

The eastern trade routes of what later became the Silk Road, initially began with a jade trade.  Jade-carving cultures in China date back to 5000 BC with the Xinglongwa and Chahai peoples and later with the Hongshan people in North East China.  Jade pendants became an integral part of Chinese culture; one Chinese queen from 1200 BC was buried with seven hundred jade pendants (Wood, 26).  Most jade mining occurred in Khotan requiring the Chinese to set up trade routes to transport the material to the capital city of Chang’an (see map).  Though jade always held an important place in trade in China, it never became as widespread as the silk trade because of the great demand for Chinese silk in the western empires.

From Han to Rome (and Everything Between)

The Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), threatened by the Xiongnu, a marauding nomadic group, began the construction of the Great Wall for protection and started trade with the Persian Empire.  The Chinese traded high-valued silks for horses to use against the military skill of the Xiongnu people (Wood, 50).  Silk production started as early as 5000 BC in China, so the craft had developed into an intricate art by the time they started trading with the west during the Han Dynasty (Wood, 28).  The Persians, neighboring the Roman Empire, quickly fell into the role of middleman between the two prosperous nations, gaining immense profit from the sale of silk in to the Romans.  The Indo-Scythian Kushan Empire, which spanned across Central Asia southward to northern India and Afghanistan and neighbored both the Persian and Chinese Empires (Boulnois, 65).

Each empire used different merchant groups for the section of the Silk Road they controlled.  The Greeks, Jews, and Syrians, all subject to the Roman Empire, took charge of the western part, Persian merchants brought the goods through Persia, and the Sogdian people lead the trade through the Kushan Empire (Boulnois, 84).  The four empires, Roman, Persian, Kushan, Chinese, controlled the entirety of the Silk Road trade route, and kept it relatively secure from the two main external threats: the Huns and the Tibetans (Boulnois, 60).  Even with the help of the newly united empires, merchant groups often pooled their resources and traveled in large groups with archers to defend their merchandise from potential attack. The terrain itself also proved difficult and time consuming.  The traders used horses and mules in the mountains, and even then “the men themselves would carry the bundles of merchandise, and the animals followed as best they could….it was hard going in the rarified atmosphere…they suffered from mountain sickness” (Boulnois, 83).  In the desert, the traders travelled at night to avoid the heat and did their best to survive “sandstorms, which would pin a caravan down for as many as four days at a time” (Boulnois, 83).  Urban centers along the route allowed the merchandise to change hands.

Cultural exchange occurred between empires through the merchant groups.  Both Roman and Chinese culture influenced the Sogdian traders. The Sogdians, of the Manichean faith (a combination between Christianity and Buddhism), started to use the Roman fresco style in their religious artwork. They adopted the Chinese copper coinage system and the Chinese papermaking techniques (Wood, 67).  The Sogdians also brought religions ideas to China, including Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheaism. The ideas of Buddhism reached China in the early first century, and had clearly taken root by the fourth century when Chinese leaders started making Buddhist pilgrimages to India (Elisseeff, 49-68).

Rise of the Byzantine Empire

During the third century AD, the Roman, Kushan, and Chinese Empires began to disintegrate.  The constant threat of the Mongol Huns sent the Chinese empire to the point of dissolution and the Persians took control of the Kushan lands.  The decline of the Roman Empire lead to the rise of Byzantine, a new, strong, Christian empire in the west (Boulnois, 111-113). The Byzantine Empire greatly valued Chinese silk, so they began trading with Persia for goods from the East.  They received silk from China and spices, opium, iron, and precious stones from India; they exported glass, Italian wines, perfume, and gold. (Boulnois, 126-127).

Because the Persian Empire controlled all the land west of China, they monopolized the silk trade, making it expensive upon entering Byzantine.   Also, after the silk entered the empire, state regulations and taxes made the price increase even more before it reached the silk weaving mills in Constantinople (Boulnois, 119-120).  However, after the Sogdian people came under Turkic rule in 550 AD, they started to undermine Persian trade in Central Asia.  The Turks taxed and protected the trade of the Sogdians but did not take over administration of the land, allowing both groups to prosper.  These Turks also helped China to defeat the Eastern Turks, who were disrupting trade in between the Sogdians and the Chinese (Boulnois, 150).  Under Turkic vassalage, the Sogdians continued as traders and merchants and became craftsmen, developing wood carving, decorated vine leaves, gold and silver plating, wool and cotton textiles, and glass works (Boulnois, 154).

Mongol Invasion

Between 1209-1219 the Mongols swiftly took control of Central Asia and moved toward Persia.  By the time of Ghengis Khan’s death in 1227, the Mongols ruled “all of Northern Asia from Peking to the Caspian Sea” (Elisseeff, 114).  The Mongols imposed taxes in the form of tributes and levies, but the center of the empire remained Mongolia during the reigns of Ghengis Khan and his first three successors.  Religious tolerance throughout the empire helped facilitate the redevelopment of cultures largely destroyed during the initial Mongol invasion.  Because the Mongols controlled almost all of the Silk Road, relatively favorable trade conditions persisted (Elisseef, 136).  They constructed a postal route that paralleled the Silk Road, further entrenching interaction between the East and the West (Elisseeff, 133).  The Persians, Sogdians, and Central Asians still acted as the key traders while Mongol and Turkic Nomads drove the caravans along the trade route and provided the merchants with food.  Despite the initial destruction of infrastructure and culture in their conquered regions, “the Mongols of those days had not played an exclusively negative role in history – as empire-builders they greatly encouraged and facilitated the meeting and intermingling of peoples and cultures on a world-wide scale” (Elisseeff, 142).

Timurid Empire and the Rise of Maritime Trade Routes

After the internal disintegration and systematic defeat of the Mongol overlords throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Timurid Empire, descendants of the Sogdians, rose up in Central Asia.  Led by Timur, and beginning in Samarkand, the previous capital of the Sogdian people, they took control of eastern Persia, Delhi, and Baghdad by 1401.  Their power grew, and even Europe petitioned them to help against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire.  Timur stimulated trade with both the East and the West to ensure the prosperity of Samarkand.  He brought in Persian and Syrian tile makers, architects, craftsman, builders, and artists to expand and embellish the capital.  The local people of Samarkand enjoyed the luxuries of the traded goods (Wood, 136-137). The decline of Timur gave rise to the Uzbeks in Central Asia in the sixteenth century.  Beginning in the fourteenth century, maritime trade subsisted complimentary to the Silk Road Trade Route.  However, the exploration of the Portuguese around Africa and up toward India starting in the sixteenth century led to the development of the Manila-Macao maritime silk trade route (Elisseeff, 185, 210).  By the time the Russians Empire expanded into Central Asia in the nineteenth century, maritime trade routes had already reduced the difficult and dangerous Silk Road into relative obsolescence (Kappeler, 191).


Works Cited

  • Andreas Kappeler and Alfred Clayton, The Russian empire: a multiethnic history (Harlow: Longman, 2001).
  • Frances Wood, The Silk Road: two thousand years in the heart of Asia, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  • Luce Boulnois, The Silk Road, 1st ed., (New York: Dutton, 1966).
  • Vladime Elisseeff, The Silk Roads: Highways of Culture and Commerce, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000).