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Published on Aug 15, 2013 in Asia, China, Featured Articles, News

The Silk Road

Many have heard of the Silk Road, but when you start to drill down and try to explain what it actually was, few can answer much beyond that it was an ancient trade route between the east and the west. While that’s correct, the Silk Road was much more, and it wasn’t actually a road at all. It was a vast network of trade routes that began in China and terminated in Rome. These trade routes were comprised of both land and sea routes that extended 4,000 miles and allowed China to trade primarily silk, spices, and ivory for items such as gold, silver, precious gems, and spices. The Silk Road connected thousands of towns and cities in Eastern China with numerous areas along its route through the Middle East and Europe before finally terminating in Rome.

The Silk Road followed a series of three basic routes. The first was a northern route which went westward towards the Black Sea. The second route was the central route which went westward to Persia, the Mediterranean Sea, and then to Rome. The third route was a southerly route which went westward through Iran and India. The Silk Road was extremely dangerous. To travel the Silk Road one had to face deserts, mountains, and sand storms, as well as the possibility of pirates, bandits, and poisonous snakes. It was rare for anyone to travel the entire route. In fact, most traders traveled as part of a caravan, but only went for a certain distance along the route. They would then trade their goods at cities, towns, and trading points before returning home. The next trader would then take these goods and continue up the road, trading at other stops along the way. This process would continue until the goods eventually reached Rome.

The Romans first heard of the Silk People, as they called the Chinese at the time, from the people they conquered who had pieces of Chinese silk in their possession. The Romans attempted to find out who made the silk, but failed as those who traded for the silk only traveled a short part of the road to make their trade. No one traveled the entire route that eventually led to China. Roman soldiers who tried to follow the Silk Road to its source had to turn back when they couldn’t find their way through the desert. In addition, the Chinese were wary of foreigners entering their land and they also wanted to protect their trade. As a result, portions of the Great Wall were constructed to protect the northern route of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road was more than a trade route. It was the means by which both Islam and Buddhism reached China. It was the route Marco Polo followed in 1269, going from Italy overland via Khotan, and returning from Quanzhou via Iran. It was also a channel for styles, fashion, and music between the east and west. Persian music was frequently played in the palace of the Tang Emperor, and Persian food and dress were prevalent during this same time. Indian music was also popular in central China during this period as were exotic spices, musical instruments, and other items from countries and cultures along the route.

The Silk Road gradually lost its importance after the fall of the Mongol Empire, according to Mike Dowling. When this occurred the Mongols no longer patrolled the route and traveling the Silk Road became extremely dangerous, especially when bandits learned to make Chinese gunpowder. The Silk Road lasted for about two thousand years until the fifteenth century when Portuguese sailors circumnavigated Africa and created sea routes that were faster and safer than the Silk Road.


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