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Silk Route

What exactly is the Silk Route?

The Silk Road was an old trade route from the second century B.C. to the fourteenth century A.D. It spread from Asia to the Mediterranean via China, India, Persia, Arabia, Greece, and Italy.

Silk Route

The Silk Route was named after extensive silk trading during that period. This precious fabric originated in China, which had a monopoly on silk manufacture until the secrets of its production became well known. China announced its plan to restore the Silk Route in 2013, connecting it to more than 60 nations in Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Where does this name originate from?

It was named after the lucrative silk trade, which began in China and was a primary motivation for uniting nations residing in trade routes into a vast transcontinental network. It is derived from the German name Seidenstraße (meaning "Silk Road") and was coined in 1877 by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who led seven missions to China between 1868 and 1872. However, the term has been used for decades, and the alternative translation, "Silk Road", is also occasionally used. Although the phrase was coined in the nineteenth century, it did not receive widespread recognition in academic or public popularity until the twentieth century. Sven Hedin, a Swedish geographer, published the first book, The Silk Road, in 1938.

The term "Silk Route" is also loaded with controversy. For example, Warwick Ball claims that the marine spice trade with India and Arabia was significantly more critical to the Roman Empire's economy than the silk trade with China, which was done mainly at sea through India and managed on land by multiple intermediaries such as the Sogdians. He goes so far as to call the whole matter a "myth" of modern academics, claiming that prior to the Mongol Empire, there was no organized terrestrial commercial system and no free movement of goods from East Asia to the West. He points out that classic authors dealing with east-west trade, such as Marco Polo and Edward Gibbon, never referred to any one route as a "silk" route.

The southern Silk Route, from Khotan (Xinjiang) to Eastern China, was utilized for jade rather than silk as early as 5000 BCE and is still in use today. The title "Jade Route" would have been more suitable than "Silk Route", but for the significantly broader and geographically more comprehensive nature of the silk trade, the phrase is still in use in China today.

In-Depth understanding of the Silk Route

The Silk Route was a historic trade route that linked China and the Far East to Europe and the Middle East. The route had several trading facilities and markets that aided in the storage, transportation, and exchange of products.

Travelers rode camels or horses and slept in guest homes or inns, usually spaced one day apart. Passengers traveling along the Silk Route's maritime routes may stop at ports for fresh water and trading opportunities. The Silk Route's most modern travelers have been archaeologists and geographers researching ancient locations.

Establishing the Silk Route produced several changes that would tremendously impact the West. Many such items, including gunpowder and paper, originated in China. These items soon became some of the most frequently traded commodities between China and its Western trading partners. The paper was especially essential since it led to the discovery of the printing press, which led to the creation of newspapers and books. China has been pushing to revive the Silk Route to increase collaboration among Asian, African, and European countries.


Silk is an ancient Chinese textile made from the protein fiber generated by the silkworm as it spins its cocoon. Silk, regarded as a precious fabric, was reserved for the sole use of the Chinese royal court in the production of linens, curtains, banners, and other prestige articles. For over 3,000 years, its manufacturing procedure was a closely kept secret within China, with an imperial edict punishing anybody who divulged the process to a foreigner with death. Even with all of the Chinese emperor's best efforts, silk-making knowledge gradually spread outside China, first to India and Japan, then to the Persian Empire, and lastly to the West in the sixth century CE.

Silk was brought to the Roman Empire as early as the first century BCE. It was seen as an exotic luxury that grew enormously popular, with imperial edicts enacting price controls. Furthermore, the Byzantine Church had a high need for silk clothing and hangings. As a result, this luxury material was one of the driving forces behind establishing trade routes from Europe to the Far East.

These routes evolved over time in response to changing geopolitical conditions. For example, traders from the Roman Empire would avoid passing through the area of Rome's rivals, the Parthians, by choosing routes to the north, across the Caucasus region, and across the Caspian Sea. Similarly, during the early Middle Ages, substantial trade occurred across the rivers that spanned the Central Asian steppes. Still, as water levels increased and decreased and rivers dried up entirely, trade routes altered correspondingly.

Maritime routes dating back thousands of years connect the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley Civilization. During the early middle ages, sailors from the Arabian Peninsula expanded this network by building new trade routes across the Arabian Sea and into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, maritime economic relations between Arabia and China date back to the seventh century CE. Technological breakthroughs in navigation, astronomy, and shipbuilding techniques have all combined to make long-distance maritime travel more feasible. Lively coastal cities like Zanzibar, Alexandria, Muscat, and Goa built up around the most regularly visited ports on these routes. With their vast markets and ever-changing populations of merchants and sailors, these towns became prosperous hubs for exchanging goods, ideas, languages, and ideologies.

Individual merchant caravans would often cover certain sections of the routes, resting to relax and replenish supplies or completely stopping and selling their goods at various sites along the route, resulting in the development of lively commercial cities and ports. The Silk Road was active and permeable; things were traded with local communities along the way, and local products were incorporated into merchants' cargos. This practice increased the merchants' financial worth and the diversity of their cargo. It enabled cultural, linguistic, and intellectual interactions along the Silk Road.

What were the initial motives for building this route?

Considering the Silk Route's history as a trade route, General Zhang Qian, widely credited with founding this road by opening the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, was sent on a diplomatic mission rather than a commercial mission. In 139 BCE, the Han Emperor Wudi dispatched Zhang Qian to the West to establish alliances against China's foes, the Xingnu, but he was finally kidnapped and imprisoned by them. He managed to flee and eventually returned to China thirteen years later. The emperor dispatched Zhang Qian on another journey in 119 BCE, after getting happy with the depth of detail and veracity of his reports, to visit numerous neighboring peoples and construct early routes from China to Central Asia.

What was it like to travel the Silk Route?

As time passed, the route developed in accordance with not just new impacting Western world countries but also ever-changing geopolitical realities. As with the case of caravanserais, it grew in importance as trade routes increased and became more profitable. Their expansion across Central Asia accelerated in the tenth century and lasted into the nineteenth. This resulted in a network of caravanserais stretching from China to India, the Iranian Plateau, the Caucasus, Turkey, and all the way to North Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe, many of which still exist today.

On their long trips, maritime traders faced a variety of problems. Throughout the middle ages, the advancement of sailing technology, particularly shipbuilding ability, boosted the safety of maritime travel. Ports were created along the coastlines of major maritime commerce routes, giving merchants essential possibilities not only to trade and disembark but also to take on freshwater supplies, as a lack of appropriate drinking water was one of the most severe risks to seafarers in the Middle Ages. Pirates were another threat to all merchant ships traveling along the Silk Route since their wealthy cargoes made them easy targets.

Spread of Religions through the Silk Route

Historians have emphasized how commercial activity along the Silk Route supported the transfer of not only goods but also ideas and culture, particularly in the area of religion, spanning many centuries. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam spread over Eurasia via trade networks linked to distinct religious communities and institutions. Notably, constructed Buddhist monasteries along the Silk Road provided shelter for foreigners and a new religion.

According to Jerry H. Bentley, Syncretism arose from the spread of faiths and cultural practices along the Silk Route. The contact with the Chinese and Xiongnu nomads was one example. Both cultures may adapt to each other due to certain unusual cross-cultural encounters. The Chinese adopted the Xiongnu's agricultural skills, clothes, and way of life. Moreover, the Chinese also adopted Xiongnu military skills and some dress styles, music, and dancing. The most major cultural exchange happened when Chinese troops defected and converted to the Xiongnu way of life, living in the steppes for fear of punishment. The ancient Silk Roads encouraged inter-regional linkages and cultural exchanges through nomadic migration.

Does the Silk Route contribute to the spreading of the arts?

Throughout the Silk Road, many artistic ideas blossomed, notably in Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian, and Chinese influences coexisted. One of the most outstanding examples of this relationship is Greco-Buddhist art. Silk was also used to represent art and a religious emblem. Most importantly, silk was a medium of exchange throughout the Silk Road.

These creative effects can be observed in the history of Buddhism, where Buddha was initially represented as a human in the Kushan period, for example. Many scholars attribute this to Greek influence. Later, Buddhist art in China and other Silk Road countries incorporated Greek and Indian motifs.

Art was made up of many diverse things that were traded from the East to the West through the Silk Route. One popular product was lapis lazuli, a blue stone with golden specks ground into powder and used as paint.

Resurrecting the Silk Route

Under President Xi Jinping, China began to officially reconstruct the old Silk Route in 2013 with a $900 billion project known as "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR). The project aimed to improve China's connectivity with more than 60 other Asian, European, and East African countries.

It is also known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it spans multiple land and maritime routes. The Silk Road Economic Belt connects China to Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe by land, whilst the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road connects China to the Mediterranean, Africa, South-East Asia, and Central Asia by sea.

China sees the enterprise as an essential means of boosting domestic GDP. It also expands Chinese trade markets, providing the country with the cheapest and easiest option to export supplies and goods.

Since 2016, China has achieved significant milestones through OBOR, including signing hundreds of deals. In January 2017, a new rail service from Beijing to London along the historic route was established, traveling beneath the English Channel to reach London. The journey of approximately 7,500 miles takes 16 to 18 days. It provides freight carriers with an alternative to slow but relatively inexpensive maritime and speedy but rather expensive air routes. Other meaningful OBOR connections connect China to 14 major European cities.

The Bottom Line

The Silk Route was a historic commercial route that connected China and the Far East to Europe and the Middle East. The route included various trading facilities and markets that aided in storing, transiting, and exchanging goods. Many ancient buildings and monuments marking the Silk Route transit through caravanserais, ports, and cities still exist today. On the other hand, this astonishing network's long-standing and ongoing legacy is symbolized by the myriad of unique yet interconnected cultures, languages, customs, and religions that have emerged along these routes over millennia. The transit of merchants and travelers of various nationalities led to business trade and a significant and constant process of cultural interaction. As a result, the Silk Route grew from its exploratory beginnings to become a driving factor in developing various societies throughout Eurasia and beyond.

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