The Silk Road (Traditional Chinese: 絲綢之路; Simplified Chinese: 丝绸之路; pinyin: sī chˇu zhī l¨) was an interconnected series of routes through Southern Asia traversed by caravan and ocean vessel, and connecting Chang'an, China with Antioch, Syria, as well as other points. Silk road is a translation from the German Seidenstra▀e, the term first used by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in the 19th century.
The continental Silk Road diverges into North and South routes as it extends from the commercial centers of North China, the North route passing through the Bulgar-Kypchak zone to Eastern Europe and the Crimean peninsula, and from there across the Black Sea, Marmara Sea and the Balkans to Venice; the South Route passing through Turkestan-Khorasan, through Iran into Mesopotamia and Anatolia, and then through Antioch in Southern Anatolia into the Mediterranean Sea or through the Levant into Egypt and North Africa.
Although some remnants of Chinese silk have been dated in Egypt as early as 1000 BCE, the first major step in opening the Silk Road between the East and the West came with the expansion of Alexander the Great deep into Central Asia, as far as Ferghana at the borders of the modern-day Xinjiang region of China, where he founded in 329 BCE a Greek settlement in the city of Alexandria Eschate "The Furthest".
The Greeks were to remain in Central Asia for the next three centuries, first through the administration of the Seleucid Empire, and then with the establishement of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Bactria. They kept expanding eastward, especially during the reign of Euthydemus (230-200 BCE), who extended his control to Sogdiana, reaching and going beyond the city of Alexandria Eschate. There are indications that he may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 200 BCE. The Greek historian Strabo writes that "they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni" (Strabo XI.XI.I ).
The next step came around 130 BCE, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yueh-Chih against the Xiong-Nu, in vain). The Chinese emperor Wu-Ti became interested in developing commercial relationship with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia: “The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Ta-Yuan) and the possessions of Bactria and Parthia are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China” Hou Han Shu (Late Han History).
The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses in the possession of the Ta-Yuan (named "Heavenly horses"), which were of capital importance in fighting the nomadic Xiong-Nu.
The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. “Thus more embassies were dispatched to An-si [Parthia], An-ts'ai [the Aorsi, or Alans], Li-kan [Syria under the Seleucids], T'iau-chi [Chaldea], and Shon-tu [India]…As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.” Hou Han Shu (Late Han History).
The Silk Road essentially came into being from the 1st century BCE, following these efforts by China to consolidate a road to the Western world, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Ta-Yuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west.
Intense trade with the Roman Empire followed soon, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied through the Parthians) from the 1st century BCE, even though the Romans thought silk was obtained from trees: "The Seres (Chinese), are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves... So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public" (Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE, The Natural History).
The Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral: "I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body" (Seneca the Younger (c. 3 BCE–65 CE, Declamations Vol. I).
Central Asian exchanges
The Kushan empire, in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent, was located at the center of these exchanges. They fostered multi-cultural interaction as indicated by their 2nd century treasure hoards filled with products from the Greco-Roman world, China and India, such as in the archeological site of Begram.
The heyday of the Silk Road corresponds to that of the Byzantine Empire in its west end, Sasanid Period to Il Khanate Period in the Nile-Oxus section and Three Kingdoms to Yuan Dynasty in the Sinitic zone in its east end.
Throughout the period, trade between East and West also developped on the sea, between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China, fostering the expansion of Roman trading posts in India. Historians also talk of a "Porcelain Route" or "Silk Route" across the Indian Ocean.
Cultural and political effects
The Silk Road represents an early phenomenon of political and cultural integration due to inter-regional trade. In its heyday, the Silk Road sustained an international culture that strung together groups as diverse as the Magyars, Armenians, and Chinese. Under its strong integrating dynamics on the one hand and the impacts of change it transmitted on the other, tribal societies previously living in isolation along the Silk Road or pastoralists who were of barbarian cultural development were drawn to the riches and opportunities of the civilizations connected by the Silk Road, taking on the trades of marauders or mercenaries. Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors able to conquer rich cities and fertile lands, and forge strong military empires.
The Silk Road gave rise to the clusters of military states of nomadic origins in North China, invited the Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, and later Islamic religions into Central Asia and China, created the influential Khazar Federation and at the end of its glory, brought about the largest continental empire ever: the Mongol Empire, with its political centers strung along the Silk Road (Beijing in North China, Karakhorum in eastern Mongolia, Sarmakhand in Transoxiana, Tabriz in Northern Iran, Astrakhan in lower Volga, Bahcesaray in Crimea, Kazan in Central Russia, Erzurum in eastern Anatolia), realizing the political unification of zones previously loosely and intermittently connected by material and cultural goods.
The Roman empire, and its demand for sophisticated Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century. In Central Asia, Islam expanded from the 7th century onward, bringing a stop to Chinese westward expansion at the Battle of Talas in 751 CE. Further expansion of the islamic turks in Central Asia from the 10th century finished disrupting trade in that part of the world, and Buddhism almost disapeared.
The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1215 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-establish the Silk Road. With rare exceptions such as Marco Polo or Christian ambassadors such as William of Rubruck, few people travelled down the entire length of the silk road. Instead traders moved products much like a bucket brigade, with luxury goods being traded from one middleman to another, from China to the West, and resulting with extravagant prices for the trade goods.
However, the disintegration of the Mongol Empire did not see the continuation of Silk Road's political unity. Also falling victim were the cultural and economic aspects of its unity. Turkmeni marching lords seized the western end of the Silk Road, i.e. the decaying Byzantine Empire and sowed the seeds of a Turkic culture that would later crystalize into the Ottoman Empire under the Sunni faith. Turkmen and Mongol military bands in Iran, after some years of chaos were united under the Saffavid tribe, under whom the modern Iranian nation took shape under the Shiite faith. Meanwhile Mongol princes in Central Asia were content with Sunni orthodoxy with decentralized princedoms of the Chagatay, Timurid and Uzbek houses. In the Kypchak-Tatar zone, Mongol khanates all but crumbled under the assaults of the Black Death and the rising power of Moscovite. In the east end, the Chinese Ming Dynasty overthrew the Mongol yoke and pursued a policy of economic isolationism (in fact, the Chinese perhaps learned from previous experience that an air of imperial supremacy would better be cultivated without economic and military dependency on Central Asian forces. Hegemonic cultural dynamics had better flow one-way from the imperial center to the periphery, without barbarian elements permeating back into the "great within" of the celestial civilization). Yet another force, the Kalmyk-Oyrats pushed out of the Baikal area in central Siberia, but failed to deliver much impact beyond Turkestan. Some Kalmyk tribes did manage to migrate into the Volga-North Caucasus region, but their impact was limited.
So, in short, great political powers along the Silk Road, after the Mongol Empire, drew frontiers among each other and became economically and culturally cut off from each other. Accompanying the crystallization of regional states was the decline of nomad power, partly due to the devastation of the Black Death, partly due to the encroachment of sedentary civilizations equipped with gunpowder. Ironically, the effect of gun power and early modernity on Europe was the integration of territorial states and increasing mercantilism, on the Silk Road it was quite the opposite: failure to maintain the level of integration of the Mongol Empire and decline in trade, partly due to European maritime trade.
The Silk Road stopped serving as a shipping route for silk around 1400.
The great explorators: Europe reaching for Asia
The disapearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols was one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous Chinese empire through another route, especially by the sea. Tremendous profits were to be obtained for anyone would could achieve a direct trade connection with Asia.
When he went West in 1492, Christopher Columbus's only wish was to go to China and create another Silk Route. It was one of the great disapointments of western nations to have found a continent "in-between", before the potential of the New World slowly started to be realized. The wish to trade directly with China was also the main drive behind the expansion of the Portuguese beyond Africa after 1480, followed by the powers of Holland and Great Britain from the 17th century.
As late as the beginning of the 19th century, China was still considered the most prosperous and sophisticated of any civilization on earth. In effect, the spirit of the Silk Road and the will to foster exchange between the East and West, and the lure of the huge profits attached to it, has conditioned most of the history of the world during the last two millenia.
Cities along the Silk Road
- Chang'an, modern day Xi'an
- Lan-chou (Lanzhou)
- Tun-huang (Dunhuang)
- Lop Nor
- Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, site of the famous Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.
- http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/silkroad/main.html - The British Library Silk Road exhibition, with a digitisation of The Diamond Sutra, the oldest known printed book.