The Silk Road – The Information Super-Highway

Spices. Metals. Jewels and gems. Cloth. Silk. Ideas. Stories. New technologies. New foods. New peoples. Different cultures and customs.

Today, if we wanted to find out about any of these things, we would go to the internet, the so-called “information super-highway”. We’d bring up Google, and type in whatever we wanted to know, and hit ‘Search‘. And we’d be bombarded with millions and billions of pages of everything from photographs to blogs, videos, flash-player games, webpages and porno-sites advertising midget donkey orgies.

The Ancient World had its own ‘information super-highway’. Not an electronic one, but a physical one. A network of land and sea-routes which made up the vast trading network of the Old World. It has come to be known, rather misleadingly, as “The Silk Road”.

Let’s find out more about it!

What is the ‘Old World’?

The ‘Old World‘ is defined as all landmasses occupied by European and Asian peoples before the Ages of Exploration. So, Britain, Europe, Scandinavia, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, the Indian Subcontinent, China and Asia are considered the “Old World”. The ‘New World‘ by comparison, are the lands which were discovered by Europeans during the Ages of Exploration, starting in the 1400s. Lands like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South America and North America.

The Silk Road doesn’t concern them. So forget about them. We’re talking about the Old World today.

What is the ‘Silk Road’?

We’ve all heard of the Silk Road. We’ve studied it in history class. We’ve read about it in books. We’ve heard it mentioned in movies and documentaries.

But what the hell is it?

First, it’s not just a road, and it’s not all about silk.

The term ‘Silk Road‘ was coined by Baron Ferdinand Von Richthofen (the uncle of the famous ‘Red Baron’) in the 1870s. It’s the literal translation of the German term: “Seidenstrasse“, but it’s a misleading title at best.

The ‘Silk Road’ was not just ONE ROAD. If you have this idea in your head about this grand boulevard stretching across the world from Constantinpole to Xi’an…forget it. It never existed.

The Silk Road was the name given to a SERIES OF TRADE-ROUTES which ran from Europe, to Asia, and back. They were both land-routes, going from Europe, through the Middle East, across (or past) India, towards China, and also water-routes, sailing from the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt, and then down the Red Sea, into the Indian Ocean, through the Pacific, to China.

Neither was the Silk Road exclusively about silk. Silk was just ONE of the reasons why this collection of trade-routes existed. Just ONE of several commodities traded along its length. The Silk Road wasn’t just some fancy Middle-Eastern bazaar where you went to buy a nice robe. It traded everything – metals like tin and copper, spices like pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, it traded ideas and religions, technologies, languages, and foods which Europeans had not heard of before. Like lemons, limes and dates.

The Origins of the Silk Road

The Silk Road is believed to have started in about 206 B.C. In the West, the Roman Empire is on the rise. In the East, it is the era of the Chinese Han Dynasty. Two great and powerful civilisations separated from each other by thousands of miles of mountains, deserts, rivers, seas and oceans.

In the East, a mythical land. A country known only as ‘Cathay‘. And a city called ‘Chang’an‘, in Shaanxi Province, in the country’s inner-east. Today, ‘Cathay‘ is called ‘China’. And ‘Chang’an‘ has been renamed. Today, you know it as ‘Xi’an’. Xi’an is more than the location of the famous Terracotta Army.

For centuries, Xi’an was the Eastern Terminus of the famous Silk Road. And from Xi’an, trade-routes and road spread south and west, across the great Eurasian landmass, towards great cities and countries, such as Arabia, Turkey and its capital of Constantinople, and Italy, to ports like Naples.

The Silk Road was started by the Chinese in the Han Dynasty, as a way to trade silk, a rare and precious commodity, with eager merchants and customers in the West. The Chinese are not banned from selling silk, but by imperial decree, no Chinaman can divulge silk-making methods to the “barbarians” of the West. This means that Western traders such as the Byzantines, the Greeks and the Romans, are forced to purchase Chinese silk on Chinese terms, along the Chinese Silk Road.

Trading on the Silk Road

The Silk Road was not one road. It was a network of roads and sea-routes between the Far East and Europe. But in its most basic form, it was a pair of routes that linked three different places together – there was one route which ran from eastern Europe to the Middle East, and another route which linked the Middle East to China. This basic original route exploded into the network and web of routes which the Road is known for today.

Traders and merchants working the Silk Road rarely traveled along its entire length. A trader in Xi’an would not travel all the way to Constantinople. A wine-merchant in Naples would not travel all the way to Bombay. Most traders and merchants sold their goods to a middle-man. Who traveled to the next major trading-city, and sold it to another middle-man. Who traveled to the next major city, selling it to another middle-man.

All these nameless middle-men made up the links in the chain of the Silk Road. And these men traded everything from wine, to silk, olive-oil to ivory, cotton to pepper, cinnamon and all manner of exotic and rare spices.

From Shaanxi Province, and the city of Chang’an (near the modern city of Xi’an), a trader might travel northwest. Here, he entered Gansu Province, and the famous Hexi (‘Hey-See‘) Corridor. The corridor is the first leg in the northernmost, and earliest incarnation of what would become the Silk Road. This route was one of the few open to the Silk Road, due to mountains in the south, and the harsh Gobi Desert in China’s north. Only by stringing along, from oasis to oasis along the Hexi Corridor could a trader hope to cover any distance with safety.

While it was rare for the majority of the merchants to travel the entire length of the Silk Road, those who operated in the Middle East, India and China made the city of Chang’an their base. An enormous population-center boasting thousands of citizens, the city was the capital of China during this time. If Chang’an was the Eastern Terminus of the Silk Road, then the city’s Western Market was the baggage-claim carousel. It was here that travelers from China’s other provinces, or traders from the West and South gathered to exchange their goods and wares for sale into China, or for export out of the Central Kingdom. And it was from places such as Chang’an that all sorts of wondrous and not-so-wondrous things spread from the East to the West.

The Silk Road and the Black Death

Not everything traded on the silk road was as benign as silk, spices and tea. The Silk Road is also famous for spreading the Black Death, the infamous Bubonic Plague, that ravaged Europe, killing untold hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of just a few years.

Coming from an unknown source, somewhere in China, the Black Death spread westwards, carried by traders on the Silk Road. The rats and fleas which carried the plague bacteria hitched rides on camel-caravans, hiding inside tents, baskets, rolls of cloth, and pots and barrels of food. Civilisations once safeguarded from foreign diseases by the barrier of distance were now susceptible to all kinds of illnesses which they had never heard of, had no immunity against, and for which no cures or treatments existed.

How Long did the Road Last?

Originally an overland route started in the Pre-Christian era, the Silk Road expanded over the centuries, eventually incorporating maritime routes as well, sailing the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. In the 1100s, relatively safer maritime trading-routes begin to pop up alongside the overland routes. Free from the dangers of bandits, sandstorms, taxes and raids, and able to carry much more cargo, it’s fairly obvious why the Silk Road’s seagoing trade began to rise.

With the rise of seagoing trade, and the smuggling of silk-spinning knowledge out of China, the importance of China as the silk capital of the world began to diminish greatly as the world approached the Middle Ages. By the early Middle Ages, silk was being produced in Italy and France, and travelling such great distances to China was no-longer necessary.

The Decline of the Silk Road

The Silk Road’s decline started in the Early Modern Period, after the 1300s. Silkworms, and the technology and knowledge for silk-production had been smuggled out of China over the years, and by the 1200s, it was no-longer a Chinese state secret. It was now possible for Europeans to produce silk and to cut off the need for long trips to China. The ‘Silk Road’ still existed, but it was now smaller, shorter and less important. At any rate, changes in the political landscape of Europe and the Middle East and Asia in this time meant that it was safer to transport luxury goods by sea, rather than across potentially hostile land.

Trade by sea was potentially, longer and more dangerous, but the trade-off was being able to carry much larger loads of cargo, and thereby, earn larger profits. Furthermore, changes in Chinese foreign policy, set up by dynasties such as the Ming, meant that the whole concept of Chinese ‘Foreign Policy’ basically ceased to exist. They shut off communications with the West, and western traders, merchants and travelers were no-longer welcome within the bounds of the “Central Kingdom”.

For centuries the Silk Road was vitally important. But not always for the reasons you might suppose. While it transported everything from gold to ivory to silk, spices, tea, cotton and other rare or otherwise sought-after commodities, it also transported religions, ideas, technologies and social customs around the then-known world. And they’ll probably last a lot longer than your best silk boxer-shorts.

The Road to Knowledge?

The Silk Road” (12pt documentary series).

A Timeline of the Silk Road

The Silk Road – Article from the University of California, Irvine

The Silk Road – The Ancient History Encyclopedia


Neither Rain, nor Snow, nor Sleet, nor Hail: A Compact History of the Components of Mail

These days, more people send emails than letters. They use the telephone more than they send telegrams. And yet, in this day and age of frantic internet buying, with sites like eBay and Gumtree, and the countless other online businesses offering all kinds of goodies with which to suck the money out of our wallets, mail delivery is just as important now as it has ever been before.

Postal systems have been around since the dawn of writing, and to cover the development of a mail-delivery system would take an entire book…which I’m not going to write. Instead, this posting will look at the history of the various aspects which make up the modern postal system.

Why is it called a “Postal System”?

We all get mail. We all send, deliver and receive mail. But people also tend to call it ‘post’. There’s the Royal Mail in England, Australia Post in Australia, the United States Postal Service in the U.S.A. Why does it switch between ‘mail’ and ‘post’?

‘Mail’ is the cargo which a postal system transports and delivers. Letters, postcards, parcels, packets, boxes, crates and so-forth. The system which delivers this cargo is the ‘postal system’. But why is it called a postal system?

The very word comes from the earliest days of mail delivery. Back in the 1500s, when Henry VIII developed the Royal Mail in England, mail-couriers or despatch-riders literally rode, on horseback, between mail-posts, set into the roadside from town to town. To send something by the postal service was to literally meet the post-rider…at the post, the wooden stake in the road…and give him your letter which you wanted to have delivered. These days, we might be familiar with the position of “Postmaster General“. This came from the original Tudor office of ‘Master of the Posts’, literally the man who was in charge of ensuring that the post-officers remained…at their posts!…and delivered mail in a safe and efficient manner.

Mail Delivery

Ever since the first mail-services were created, delivery was extremely slow for an extremely long time. A letter posted in London could take days to reach Edinburgh, or Paris, or Berlin. A letter posted in New York could take weeks to reach San Francisco. And a letter written on one side of the world to be sent to the other, could take months to get there, often relying on trade or naval ships to transport it in their cargo-holds, if they happened to be going in that particular direction.

One of the first attempts at prioritising the delivery of mail was made in the 1700s. For a roughly seventy-year period between the early 1780s until the late 1850s, the British Royal Mail relied on a fleet of mail coaches to speed deliveries of mail throughout the United Kingdom.

Mail delivery had previously been very slow, and dangerous! Post-riders transported not just mail, but also parcels and packages, which might contain valuable or expensive items. It wasn’t uncommon for lone post-riders to be set upon by highwaymen who would relieve them of their cargoes, steal their valuables and even kill them!

The coordinated system of mail-coaches changed this. Not only was delivering mail by coach relatively faster, but also safer. The mail-coach always had at least four men riding on it: A driver, his assistant, and two armed post-guards, who rode on the back running-board. This way, anyone attempting to rob the coach would have to deal with four armed men, first!

An actual British mail-coach from the early 1800s. This one ran the route between London and York. Note the huge storage-trunks over the axles for carrying mail

The mail coach was also used as a sort of long-haul public transport system. Passengers could pay a fee, and ride along inside the mail-coach during its journeys, to get to their destinations much faster than what they might ordinarily. Also, since the mail-coach was working for the Royal Mail, a government agency, it was illegal for anyone to stop a coach. Toll-men, highwaymen, nobody could halt a mail-coach, and they didn’t stop for anything less than a broken axle!

Steam-Powered mail took over from horse-drawn mail in the 1850s. With the improvement and expansion of railway networks around the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and America, mail-coach services were eventually phased out when the postal-services realised that these newfangled wood- (later, coal-) fired, steam-powered locomotive engines could speed mail to every part of a given country. Soon, post-offices and railway stations merged, so that post could be transported by rail and steam as far and as fast as was necessary and possible.

Special mail-trains were used in most cases, and their only task was the delivery of mail. To save time, letters and parcels were often sorted en-route by the mail-handlers, so that when the train reached its next drop-off point, or station, the necessary mail-sacks could just be dumped off on the platform, without time wasted in needless waiting and sorting.

To save even MORE time and to further improve the efficiency of mail-delivery, rail-mail was collected and dropped off even when the train was on the move! Specially-designed mail-cranes were built next to major railroad-routes:

Different types of mail-cranes or mail-hooks were used. Some simply held up sacks of outgoing mail for the train to snatch off it as it rocketed past. More complex ones would collect incoming mail, and send off outgoing mail at the same time.

As sacks of mail were prepared onboard trains, they were hung on hooks outside the mail-carriage. At the same time, sacks of mail waiting to be picked up were hung onto the arm of the mail-crane. As the train whizzed past the crane, the crane-arm whipped the sorted mail-sack off the side of the train. At the same time, the arm swung around, and a second hook or arm on the railroad carriage yanked the outgoing mail-sack off the crane, throwing it into the mail-carriage! Later on, the local postman would show up and pick up the dropped-off mail, and possibly hang another sack of outgoing mail onto the crane, to be collected by the next train that came hurtling by.

This silent film from 1903 shows a mail-crane in action:

Steam-power also changed the nature of international mail-delivery. With faster, steam-powered ocean-ships, mail delivery was cut from months to weeks, or even days! In the United Kingdom, ships with the prefix “R.M.S.” (“Royal Mail Ship/Steamer”) were officially licensed to transport shipments of British mail. As on trains, mail-clerks onboard ships would sort the mail en-route to their port of destination.

With all these innovations, it’s not surprising that the Victorians were the ones who had among the most efficient postal systems in the world. Up to twelve deliveries a day! No worries about not getting that contest-entry form in on time, huh?

In the interwar period of the 1920s and 30s, the first experiments were made in air-delivered mail. Not having to worry about signals and tracks and waves and oceans, an airplane could fly mail from city to city, dropping it by parachute, and then landing to pick up more mail to speed onto its next destination.


For much of history, whenever you posted a letter, not only did you have to write it by hand, you also had to produce your own envelopes by hand! Most people would fold their letters into envelope-shaped forms, write out their letter onto it, and then simply fold the letter up and sealed it with wax, so that the letter and envelope were one and the same, which saved time.

It wasn’t until the invention of the first purpose-made envelope-folding machine in 1845, that envelopes could be purchased separately from stationer’s shops.

The classic envelope was cut and folded so that when it was assembled, it created a neat rectangular or square shape:

But have you ever wondered why envelopes have four, triangular flaps meeting in the middle?

Although you could glue the flaps down with regular paper adhesive, envelopes were originally folded and set in this manner so that a single wax seal, placed in the center of the envelope, was all that was needed to hold the entire packet neatly closed.

Most of us don’t seal our envelopes anymore, and generally rely on the paper glue that comes with the envelope, to do that for us, or we simply lick the glue to moisten it and then smash the thing shut, but nevertheless, the triangular, X-form on the back of envelopes has remained to the present day.


It used to be that when letters were sent by post, it was the duty of the recipient to pay for the letter’s delivery. This was seen as inefficient, difficult to enforce, and frankly – rude. Why should YOU have to pay for a letter which you might not have been expecting, or which you wouldn’t want to receive, anyway?

This widespread dissatisfaction with the payment of mail-delivery charges led to widespread corruption, abuse, frustration and distrust of the postal system. To combat these issues, and to ensure payment for poastage, the introduction of the postage-stamp was made in England in the 1840s. With the new ‘Penny Black’, the first-ever postage-stamp, the sender purchased the stamp along with his envelopes, and pre-paid for the delivery, which cost…one penny!

With payment taken care of before the letter was even picked up by the mailman, there were far fewer complaints from customers about who had to pay for postage, how much and when.

Mail Boxes

With their twelve-a-day system, you can bet that it was the Victorians who invented the concept of the mail-box! There would be no other way to organise the millions of letters, envelopes, cards and parcels that sped around the U.K. at the time!

Mail-slots for incoming mail came about in the 18th century in Paris, but it wasn’t until the 1800s in Britain that the idea of a mail-slot, or a mailbox for each residence or business really took off. As part of the reforms of the postal-service (which also saw the introduction of the penny-post), Britons were encouraged to have a mail-drop point somewhere on their residence for the convenience of themselves, and the postman! In more built-up areas, a simple letter-slot, sometimes with a basket hanging on the side of the door, was sufficient. In more suburban parts of town, actual kerbside mail-boxes were installed.

Pillar-boxes, or public post-boxes for the depositing of outgoing mail came about in the Georgian era. The oldest one thought to exist dates back to 1809 in England.

In the United States, mail-boxes became popular in the 1880s, when the U.S.P.S. encouraged people to have individual mail-boxes outside their houses for the speedy delivery and pick-up of mail. Instead of large, bulky public boxes that might take up space on the street, residential mailboxes in the ‘States were used for both incoming, and outgoing mail. Raising the red flag on the mailbox told the postman that there was outgoing mail which was to be collected.

The Mail Always Gets Through…

Mail has existed for thousands of years. But the icons of mail-delivery such as stamps, envelopes, mailboxes and dedicated postal-delivery men are all relatively recent developments. Where once mail took weeks and months to get anywhere (and sometimes still does!), technological advancements have meant that in the 21st century, mail is delivered faster and with less hassle. All the more important with the heavy reliance that all of us place on the postal-service, even now in the 21st century.