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).
The Silk Road – Article from the University of California, Irvine
The Silk Road – The Ancient History Encyclopedia