If you’ve never heard of the Silk Road before, just from the name alone, you might be able to make an educated guess about one of the types of commodities that were traded along this route. But as you continue reading, you’ll quickly realize that this item was far from the only good that was exchanged. In actuality, the Silk Road allowed knowledge, beliefs and traditions to pass between various countries, leading to a wonderful mixture of cultures that would have lasting effects on the world. Learn about what travel was actually like via the Silk Routes, the kinds of cultural exchanges that transpired and why the Silk Road’s impact is still significant in the present day.
What was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road, now referred to as the Silk Route, was not just one single path as the name implies, but was actually a network of trading routes used during the Han Dynasty in China from 130 BCE until 1453 CE that allowed cultural and economic exchanges between Europe and East Asia to take place. The main northern route began from Chang’an, China’s ancient capital, and continued through five Central Asian countries, then through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, then to Greece and Italy across the Mediterranean Sea. The southwestern Silk Road route went from Yunnan and Sichuan through Tibet to India, while the Maritime Silk Road went via the ocean of Southeast Asia and India to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.
General Zhang Qian is often credited with being the first to travel via the Silk Roads after he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the West by the Han Emperor in 391 BCE to gain alliances. Zhang Qian was eventually captured and imprisoned for 13 years, but upon escaping, he returned to China, where he shared detailed and accurate reports of his travels. Impressed by his knowledge of the route, Zhang Qian was sent on another mission in 119 BCE to other nearby countries, forming early paths from China to Central Asia.
However, it was a German geographer and traveler named Ferdinand von Richthofen who coined the term “die Seidenstrasse” or “The Silk Road” in 1877 because, although it was far from the only export, silk was one of the most prized trade items from China. The intricate process of raising silkworms and forming fabric from their cocoons was a secret kept by China through the 6th century CE Therefore, wealthy Roman citizens were willing to pay a pricey amount to treat themselves to luxurious clothes made from the coveted textile.
The reality of the Silk Road
Since the Silk Road was around 4,000 miles long, there were trading posts, markets and thoroughfares created to allow for easier distribution and storage of goods so that travelers wouldn’t have to make the entire trek themselves. However, this journey was still not particularly easy, as the roads were usually kept in poor condition and robbers were known to prey on weary travelers. But despite the challenges, these routes allowed for the first exchanges between China and the West to take place, leading to significant changes in culture, religion, politics, and technology that would lead to scientific and industrial revolutions that would transform the entire world.
Economic and cultural exchanges
To enable large quantities of goods to be transported, domesticated camels were used to carry around 500 pounds of goods at a time. Some of the types of goods that were transported from Asia to Europe were porcelain, tea, livestock, fruits, vegetables, glassware and stones and metals that could be used to create tools. The Silk Road also allowed explorers to get a better understanding of other countries’ cultures. For instance, one famous traveler by the name of Marco Polo traveled from Italy to China in 1275 by camel. His journey is well documented in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, and acted as a guide for Europeans to comprehend Asian cultures.
Many of the traded goods weren’t simply beneficial for the short term; they led to lasting impacts that transformed society. For example, after paper, invented in China in the second century CE, began to be disseminated in 751 to the Islamic world, it eventually made its way to Egypt, North Africa and Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. Paper was used to create passports for travelers that would allow them to spend nights at caravanserais, or roadside inns, to recover from a brutally long day of travel. However, most importantly, paper enabled new religions to spread, allowed quick publication of ideas, and eventually made it possible for mass communication through books and newspapers.
Another key commodity was gunpowder, one of the most traded items, which indisputably altered war tactics in Europe. Similarly, China traded their silk for horses, which aided in daily travel and during wartime as well. Spices were also highly sought-after since many came from plants that could only be grown in certain locales, like cinnamon from Sri Lanka or cassia from China. These were utilized to enhance the flavor of food, as medicine and during religious ceremonies. As new spices became available in Europe, they rapidly became popular in the West, forever changing cuisine by incorporating other countries’ influences.
The damaging consequences of the Silk Routes
Unfortunately, not all of the influences of the Silk Route were positive. Another common “trade good” was enslaved people who had been held captive and would be sold to private traders from the west to the east. These people were forced to live as servants, entertainers and eunuchs for royal courts and other elite groups. Diseases were also spread via the Silk Road, as sick individuals would closely interact with a multitude of traders. Researchers suggest that the Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, may have originated in Asia and spread through travel. Therefore, these roads were not solely economically beneficial but also led to horrific injustice as well as suffering and death.
The growth of silk production in other countries, the heightened isolationism fostered by the rule of the Ming Dynasty and the evolution of maritime trade eventually led to the end of Silk Road trading in the 1400s. Nevertheless, the Silk Road continues to be a popular route for tourism in China, where individuals are encouraged to visit a centuries-old bazaar, discover murals and statues that reflect the influence of Buddhist religion and even ride on camels like the travelers of the past.
The art, temples, and trading centers that have been preserved throughout the years allow individuals to take a glance into the past while educating themselves about the lasting influence of the shared ideas and intermixing of cultures amid the tangible goods that were exchanged along the Silk Road. It was these meaningful interactions that would lead to new technology, innovation and diversity in the following years, the effects of which are still felt today.