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The Fascinating Story of the Silk Road

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Silk Road: An Ancient Illustration

An Ancient Beginning to Globalization

There was a time when China was a crucible of progress and a mighty and organized trading empire. The two centuries before and after the beginning of the Christian era saw the evolution of a network of trade routes connecting China to many major Asian, African, and European cities, known as the Silk Route. In a sense, this road network marked the real beginning of globalization. The Taklamakan desert of Central China, through which the major arteries of silk roads passed, now lies a barren expanse of sand where China carries out its nuclear testing. Time is a great gamechanger and churner indeed!

The Taklamakan Desert

The Taklamakan Desert

Peter Hopkirk, the author of a bestselling book on the silk roads quoted Sven Hedin, the Swedish geographer and travel writer calling the Taklamakan, “the most dangerous desert in the world”. Treacherously steep and narrow pathways, freezing cold, sand storms so dreaded that they were called black hurricanes as the sky turned black when they were unleashed by nature, and deadly avalanches marked this terrain with death and danger at every turn. Still, there was a time when caravans traversed these roads in great numbers. Peter Hopkirk’s 1980 book, ‘Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia’, draws a fascinating account of how six foreigners took away the historical treasures and artifacts of Central China, along the silk roads, to the museums in different countries. The book notes that to set an eye upon these alluring fragments from silk road antiquity, one will have to visit many museums and institutions of at least a dozen countries including Germany, France, Britain, and Sweden.

Foreign Devils on the Silk Road

Beginning of the Silk Roads

The Han dynasty of China played an important role in establishing this trade road. Chang Ch’ien, and the envoy sent by the Han emperor in the 2nd century BCE, to discover far-off countries were captured by the fierce Huns, the Turkish nomadic warrior tribe, on their way forward and while returning. The path to Europe was only through the Hun territory. Both times he escaped their captivity and finally, it took him 13 years to report back to the Chinese Emperor. From him, China learned about Persia, Samarkhand and other regions in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and gradually developed trade routes to these places. Peter Hopkirk called Chang Ch’ien, the “father of the silk road”.

The Chinese Silk

A German traveler and geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, in his 5-volume book series, 'China: The Results of My Travels and the Studies Based on Thereon 1877-1912’ published in 1877 coined the name, silk road. The story of this road is the tale of a new kind of currency that China had to win over its friends and foes alike. The currency was Chinese silk, the flowing, ebullient, luxurious, and sensual cloth woven by Chinese craftsmen. This much-coveted cloth required to create itself a trade pathway to cross the continents and be known, be celebrated. Apart from silk, many other goods traveled the silk road. This road eventually became an established trade route, meandering through the Hindu Kush mountains, the Mongolian steppe, up to the Mediterranean Sea on its European and Roman side and across the Himalayas on the Indian side. The technology of silk manufacturing was a well-guarded secret in China for centuries. One curious outcome of this secret was that the Romans initially believed silk grew on trees.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World

Goods and Ideas

The silk route stretched 4000 miles, and in a time spanning from 200 BC to 200 CE, nomads, and merchants who dared to venture into this treacherous yet exciting journey, carved this path out of sheer audacity of a very different sort. They survived through diplomacy and daredevilry as and when the trip compelled it. Huns and other nomadic tribes often raided the travelers along the route and looted and killed them. Interestingly, Buddhism, quite a peaceful endeavor compared to the chaos of these trails, captured the imagination of the world through it in a reverse migration process, traveling from India to other Asian parts. Looking back from the afar safer world, one can only imagine the camel or horse caravans traversing the desolate landscape of the Taklamakan, the Eurasian mountains and the yellow grasslands, the sacks they carried full of silk, jade, China clay pots, rice, tea, and even gold, and clouds of fear and uncertainty looming over them.

Where Exactly Lies the Silk Route?

Britannica website says that the silk route connected China to the western world as well as Asia, and provides a map showing its major roads and travel routes. As the map shows, Rome was a major destination for the Chinese traders where they sold Chinese silk and artifacts and in the process, unknowingly became carriers of ideas as well. Christianity reached China via this route.

The rudiments of this ancient path can actually be traced backed to 550 BCE when there existed a 1500-kilometer-long Persian Royal Road extending from Susa, the abode of the Persian king Darius, to Turkey. The silk route on the other hand spanned from Xi'an, a flourishing city in Central China, across the Taklamakan desert and the mountain stretches, along the Great Wall of China, and branching towards the Mediterranean and Indian Peninsula. One caravan met another at some point in this path, goods were exchanged, and the latter set off to farther destinations. Finally, the goods destined for Europe would reach the Levant, a collective name for the countries that lined the Mediterranean coast, countries, and cities such as Venice, Tyre, and Sidon. From there, the trade items were moved across the Mediterranean Sea in ships.

An Ancient Depiction of Chang Ch’ien's Journey

The Decline of the Silk Route

As the empires and kingdoms rise and fall, so does the trade and commerce that is protected and facilitated by them. When the majestic Rome fell, lose its power to the Arabian and Mongol forces, trade through the silk route became a risky affair. However, Mongols recovered this grand pathway in the 13th and 14th centuries, thus enabling the legendary traveler Marco Polo to arrive in China and report its glory to the world. Some historians also believe that apart from goods and ideas, the silk route also brought the Bubonic Plague into Europe.

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The prominence and use of the silk road declined when the Byzantine empire, which was a Greek legacy left behind by Alexander, withered away. The Turkish Ottoman empire rose to power and closed down the silk road. The traders struggled for a while to find an alternate route to the west and the Indian peninsula. However, in no time, Vasco De Gama discovered a new sea route to Asia, circumventing the African peninsula, the Cape of Good Hope, and there was no more the need to traverse the silk road, at every step fearing bandits and daring difficult terrains. The sea route became a better and safer option for trade. The silk road was still not entirely abandoned. It was as recently as in the 17th century that the renowned Chinese traveler Huan-Tsang crossed the desert and reached India through Afghanistan. Referring to the noxious sand storms in the Taklamakan, he remarked that all of it was the handwork of demons and evil forces. The general Chinese belief was the same.

The Role of Horses in the Genesis of Silk Road

China used to trade silk and other luxury artifacts with the Greco-Bactrian empire and the Ferghana kingdom, This trade alliance provided China with an added advantage- access to well-bred and extremely strong horse breeds which helped the Chinese army fight with the Huns and other nomadic tribes living on China’s borders. The very same horses later became the easiest mode of transport for the silk road.

The Famous Flying Horse of Ferghana

What remains of the silk road?

Silk road used to connect cities in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Now a road from Pakistan to Xinjiang in China is what remains of it. This is just a part, a small stretch, of the original silk road- a parched fragment of history hanging by an old silk thread in the hurricanes that drive the modern world.


Peter Hopkirk’s 1980 book, ‘Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia’.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan

The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia by Frances Wood.

© 2021 Deepa


Deepa (author) from India on May 24, 2021:

Thank you Umesh Chandra Bhatt and Ravi Rajan for sharing the joy and love of history.

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on May 24, 2021:

Very well presented.

Ravi Rajan from Mumbai on May 24, 2021:

Very interesting Deepa. I have always been fascinated by the silk route and the plethora of cultures once get see as we go from the east to the west. Interestingly Roman coffers got drained excessively due to this extravagant import of silk coming from China. Thanks, Deepa for sharing this great piece of history.

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