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The Silk Road

a series of trade routes linking the east coast of China with Europe

So named because silk was the most precious commodity to travel along the route, the Silk Road also carried spices, jade, horses, and other goods from China to the west. Those goods were then exchanged for wools, gold, gems, glassware, and other items that could in turn be sold in the East. In addition to trade goods, travelers on the road also exchanged scientific knowledge, cultural traditions, and religious beliefs. Diseases were also transmitted via Silk Road trade, with the Black Plague of the 1300's being by far the most notable example.

Originating in the Han capital of Ch'ang-an, the main Silk Road cut west through what is now Mongolia. Two branches split to skirt the Taklimakan Desert, north and south, before coming back together and continuing on past the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean. One branch split off just before the Taklimakan Desert and ran south to the Bay of Bengal, and another connected the southern route with the Persian Gulf. Several sea routes connected the Silk Road with Indonesia and other islands, as well as with the eastern coast of Africa.

principal portions of the Silk Road, with land routes in red and sea routes in blue


In about 138 B.C., Han Wu Ti, the Emperor of China, sent Zhang Chien, a palace attendant, westward as an envoy to the Yuezhi, with whom he hoped to form an alliance against nomadic raiders from the north. Captured en route, Zhang Chien spent ten years as a captive of the nomads before escaping and making his way to the Yuezhi homeland in modern-day Afghanistan. The proposed alliance was promptly rejected by the Yuezhi, and Zhang Chien made his way back to his emperor. Although he failed to return with an alliance, Zhang Chien succeeded in gathering valuable information about the lands and customs west of China. In particular, he learned that many Chinese goods were being sold in Yuezhi markets, and that those goods were getting there via modern-day Bengal. Emperor Han Wu Ti used this information to establish routes for long-distance trade, and those routes grew into the network now known as the Silk Road.

The Roman Empire's conquest of Egypt in 30 B.C. "linked" the Silk Road with the European continent, and Rome's appetite for silks and spices from the East kept its travelers busy for 200 years. By about 200 A.D., however, both the Roman Empire and Han Dynasty had declined to such a degree that most of the Silk Road was unguarded and east-west trade declined dramatically.

Trade along the Silk Road did not begin to increase again until the Mongols swept through Asia in the 13th and 14th centuries and established the pax mongolica, which guaranteed safe passage for travelers. Both "ends" of the road profited greatly during this period, as did many cities that served as "service and exchange centers."

As overland trade between East and West increased, do too did the number of middlemen. The increase in middlemen increased the final cost of trade goods, and this led many merchants to begin exploring ways to avoid as many middlemen as possible. The Mongol Empire also began to lose its hold over Asia, which allowed thievery to increase along the eastern portions of the route. These factors led to the expansion of trade by sea rather than land, and by the end of the 15th century the Silk Road had all but disappeared as an overland route.

depiction of trade on the Silk Road

Black Plague

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This page was last updated on July 10, 2018.