For two thousand years the world’s richest and most important trade routes were the ‘Silk Roads’ across Asia and the Indian Ocean. In the 21st century the ‘New Silk Road’ is likely to be just as significant…
Every spring for hundreds of years, as snowdrifts melted and merchants set out to travel with their spices and luxury goods, they must have noticed myriad little tulips blooming in mountain meadows. We cannot be certain, but it’s highly likely that travellers often took tulip seeds or bulbs with them on their journeys, helping the wild flowers to spread more rapidly.
The Silk Roads weren’t really roads made of silk, were they?
Er, no. The Silk Roads is a modern name given to a network of trade routes that stretched 4,500 miles (7240km) right across the mountains and steppes of Asia from China to the Mediterranean. Originally it connected the empires of China, India, Parthia (Persia) and Rome, with maritime routes linking the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Most merchants would have been transporting their goods (which did include a lot of silk!) to the nearest market or port, not all the way.
So were these Silk Roads like ancient motorways across Asia?
Far from it. There weren’t any ‘Silk Road’ signs at Jerusalem stating ‘Tehran 960 miles (take a left turn at Baghdad)’. These ‘roads’ were rarely nicely-paved highways. Mostly they would have been unmarked routes, tracks and mountain passes linking the chain of markets that made up a ‘Silk Road’, along which huge groups of merchant traders would travel together in a ‘caravan’ of camels and horses, often with many guards to protect them from attack by thieving bandits.
What goods were traded along the Silk Roads?
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t only silk and textiles. In fact, it was almost anything that could be sold for a profit, from pepper to precious stones and horses to slaves. Chinese and Persian ceramics, Roman glassware, Indian brassware; metals, tea, spices, dyes and oils were among the items traded, while silk was used as a currency too. It was mostly ‘luxury’ goods, because otherwise the transportation costs and the taxes that had to be paid along the way wouldn’t have made it worthwhile.
What else travelled along the Silk Roads?
Wherever goods travelled, knowledge, ideas and culture travelled too. The Silk Roads helped enable the spread of religions (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam); of scientific ideas (mathematics, astronomy, geometry, algebra, medicine); of new technologies (paper, silk and gunpowder manufacture); and new artistic and architectural styles (Greco-Buddhist art, Islamic-Persian design). Oh, and ghastly diseases like Bubonic plague (the Black Death!), which moved west along the Silk Roads in the 1340s.
Why were the Silk Roads so important?
The Chinese (during the Han dynasty,202 BCE–220 CE) went to great efforts to establish these trading routes, and even extended the Great Wall of China to ensure the safety of the merchants who travelled along them. Trade brought wealth and taxes to the peoples engaged in it, and consequently many of the cities along the Silk Roads – places with magical names like Samarkand, Bukhara and Isfahan – became richer than any medieval cities in Europe, except perhaps for Venice (which made its money by enforcing a monopoly in the spice trade).
The Romans didn’t trade directly with the Chinese, but they loved silk…
The Roman Senate passed laws trying to stop people buying and wearing silk, which was regarded as being decadent and far too revealing, as well as costing too much. In the first century CE Pliny the Elder resented the cost ‘simply to enable the Roman lady to shimmer in public.’ During the height of the Empire, up to 100 million sesterces (silver coins) per year was spent on silk, spices and luxury imports, and the Romans worried that they might run out of silver.
Was it dangerous to travel on the Silk Road?
Oh yes! You might think crossing hundreds of miles of mountains was hard enough, but it was even tougher to get around the Taklamakan Desert. It’s the second largest shifting sand desert in the world (after the Sahara), so sandstorms are a frequent hazard. It’s boiling during the day and freezing at night, and did we mention the poisonous snakes? Its name means ‘Place of No Return’, so it’s no wonder the routes skirt the northern and southern edges of the desert, and that merchants looked forward to stopping at an oasis town to rest and recover.
So was it a little safer when strong governments were in charge?
Always, because empires profited from trade, so strove to make their roads safe. Trade really prospered between 750–1000 CE during the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. The wealth this created was spent on a fabulous new capital, Baghdad, where learning, science and culture flourished. Bachdad was the largest city in the world until it was sacked in 1258 by ruthless Mongol warriors. The upside was that Genghis Khan established an enormous Mongol empire stretching from China to Turkey, so uniting the Silk Roads under one rule of law.
Even so, merchants rarely travelled the entire length. Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveller, was one of the exceptions. His travels lasted 24 years (1271–95) and he worked in China for another legendary Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan.
Which was more important, the land or sea routes?
Big ships could transport far more goods; the wreck of a ninthcentury Arabian dhow sailing ship was recently found to have carried 60,000 ceramic items in addition to silverware, gold, and bronze mirrors. Imagine loading that lot on to camels! Many such dhows went back and forth between Abbasid Persia and China, just as they cross between Iran and Dubai today.
Back in the first century CE the Greek geographer Strabo reported that 120 ships left for India each year from a single Egyptian port on the Red Sea. Hoards of Roman gold coins and statues of Roman Gods found in southern India also indicate the thriving maritime trade between Roman Egypt and India.
What caused the decline of the Silk Roads?
The Black Death killing well over 75 million people across Eurasia certainly didn’t help, but the gradual breakup of the Mongol empire, the fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the isolationist approach of Ming-era China also contributed to less trade. Meanwhile, skyhigh prices for spices charged by Venetian and Genoese merchants made it more important for other Europeans to find new ways to get the spices they craved. In 1488 the Portuguese navigated around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1497 Vasco da Gama finally reached India via that route. The balance of power and wealth in the world had started to shift towards Europe…
But doesn’t China have plans for major ‘New Silk Road’ routes?
These are more than just plans. China has contributed many billions of dollars to building new railways and massive pipelines across Asia and to building closer economic relationships with the hugely wealthy (oil, gas, gold and mineral-rich) central Asian republics such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Millions of laptops, shoes and clothes are being transported by rail from Chongqing in China to Duisberg in Germany, a journey that takes just 14 days, so it’s far quicker than the sea route. China expects the economic, industrial and cultural contacts along the New Silk Roads to boost productivity in each country. Watch this space!
Throughout this article we have used the abbreviations BCE and CE for ‘Before Common Era’ and ‘Common Era’. Earlier, the Judaeo-Christian-centric BC (‘Before Christ’ and ‘Anno Domini’ [the year of our Lord]) would have been used.