The Silk Road refers to the trade routes that connected Europe and the Middle East with the Far East and China. It is believed to have opened in 130 BC when China began trading with the West. The route was extensively used until the Ottoman Empire stopped trading with China in 1453 AD. Although the route is no longer in use, it has created a deep impact over the centuries on history, culture, and commerce that is reflected even today.
The Royal Road – A Precursor to Silk Road
About 300 years prior to the opening of the Silk Road, the Royal Road was in operation. Established during the Achaemenid Empire by the Persian ruler Darius I, it connected Susa (now in modern Iran) to Sardis (now in modern Turkey). The Royal Road, in due course, was expanded by the Persians to connect Indian subcontinent and northern Africa (through Egypt) to the Mesopotamia. Alexander the Great also extended his empire via the Royal Road. Parts of the road were ultimately absorbed into the Silk Road.
History of Silk Road
During the 1st and 2nd century BC, the trade routes opened between China and Greece. The Roman Empire, and northern Indian territory’s rulers Kushan Empire, also benefitted from the Silk Road’s routes.
The name of the route wasn’t always Silk Road, however. It was coined by the German historian and geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen. Now, historians prefer to call the routes “Silk Routes” to take into account the presence of more than one route.
Silk Road Extends
The routes of Silk Road consisted of thoroughfares, markets, and trading posts. The routes facilitated distribution, exchange, and transport of goods. They slowly extended from Antioch to Seleucia (now in present-day Iraq) and Ctesiphon.
The routes from Seleucia passed to cities of Merv and Ecbatana. From Merv, more routes traversed into China, Mongolia, and present-day Afghanistan. Silk routes also consisted of Persian Gulf’s ports from where goods were moved up to Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The routes were also extended to Mediterranean Sea’s ports. From here, goods were transported to Europe and the Roman Empire.
The Commodities Traded through Silk Road
Though Silk was one of the main commodities to be transacted, the other items that were traded along the Silk Road economic belt were metals, precious stones, artwork, religious objects, tools, leather & hides, grain, livestock, and fruits and vegetables. Further, the route also facilitated the exchange of culture, philosophy, religious beliefs, and science.
In the 3rd century BC, during the Han Dynasty, the Chinese invented gunpowder and paper. These were one of the most-traded commodities along the route between the East and the West. The spread of paper is mainly attributed to the Silk Road. Paper arrived around 700 AD in Samarkand. When it reached Europe, it triggered key industrial changes. For the first time here, mass communication began through written words. Further developments helped in mass production of newspapers, books, and other related materials, enabling a wider spread of information and news.
Silk Road also helped in ushering a change in the cuisine of Europe, as spices of the East slowly reached the West. In the same way, glass-making techniques spread from the Islamic world to China. Historians also believe that the gunpowder came to Europe through Silk Road. It was then further refined to be used in cannons in multiple countries like France, England and others in the 14th century. The gunpowder export had a tremendous impact on Europe’s political history, as nations with gunpowder access had an edge in wars.
Exploration on the Silk Road
The Silk Road was not only limited to the trade of commodities. It also opened a gateway for explorers, looking to understand the geography and culture of the Far East. The road was used by the Venetian explorer Marco Polo to travel from Italy to the Mongolian Empire-controlled China. He spent as many as 24 years in the court of Kublai Khan. In 1295, he returned to Venice through the routes of the Silk Road. Later, he penned a famous book, The Travels of Marco Polo, based on his travel on the Silk Road. His writings helped in fostering a better understanding of the Asian culture and commerce by the Europeans.