The Silk Road
How this ancient trading network became the world’s first commercial highway and a connection between cultures
For the average medieval European peasant, the far-off lands of Persia and China were only heard of in stories, and few could even dream of travelling there. Despite this, they might have been more familiar with the sight of the few exotic goods arriving in Europe from Eastern trade routes. By the late Middle Ages, items such as jade, spices, tea, precious metals and silk could be found for sale in bustling European market cities. Many different trade routes had developed between China and the West over the centuries, beginning as early as around 125 BCE when the Chinese Han dynasty began searching far beyond its borders for new trading opportunities. In the 19th century these routes, which stretched over thousands of kilometres and connected two continents, were nicknamed the Silk Roads after the unique export that the Western world craved. Silk was first produced in China as far back as 2700 BCE, and for a long time it was the exclusive luxury of the Chinese royal family. For this reason, the method of its production remained a closely guarded secret for centuries. However, by the 2nd century BCE the export of silk gradually became permitted. Emperor Wudi allowed silk to be traded for valuable war horses – something the Chinese military desperately needed to help defend their borders. The Yuezhi tribes with whom they traded lived in the western regions of the empire in the Fergana Valley. These exchanges formed the first building blocks of the Silk Road. It was around this period that the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, was growing in strength and expanding its territory eastwards from the Mediterranean Sea.
During military campaigns against the Parthian Empire (which today is the region of Iran, Iraq and Syria) in the 1st century BCE, the Romans observed the silk banners of their enemy and were fascinated by this unfamiliar material that was both strong yet delicate to the touch. The Roman aristocracy soon became obsessed with silk garments and created a great demand for this must-have fabric. Inevitably, these luxury products brought in a premium profit for merchants, but transporting the goods across thousands of miles of challenging terrain was no mean feat.
After leaving the Chinese capital of Chang’an – the heart of silk production in this period – travelling convoys or caravans were forced to traverse around deserts and mountains with their wares. The rough terrain beyond the safety of city walls was perfect for marauding bandits, who stalked the routes the caravans were known to take. Sections of China’s Great Wall were extended to protect weak points along the roads, and armed garrisons were stationed in key towns.
Upon arriving safely at the next trading post, town or city, merchants would often sell or barter their wares rather than continuing on the journey west. On the far western Chinese border, Kashgar was one such profitable stop, where traders travelling from the Indian peninsula, Persia and beyond would gather to buy and sell. In this way the merchants themselves didn’t have to risk the long and perilous journeys, but their goods continued onwards along a chain of different owners.
Eventually, the road reached the Parthian Empire, a vast state that was neighbour to both Roman territory and the regions to the east, occupying a midway point along the Silk Roads. Realising the high demand for Chinese goods in the West, the Parthians were able to raise the price on silk sold in their lands, especially to European merchants travelling from Rome and elsewhere. The Parthian capital of Ctesiphon served as a major trading hub, where goods could be exchanged before travelling across the deserts of Mesopotamia strapped to the backs of camels. Palmyra and Damascus were key stop-off points on the way to the ports of Antioch or Tyre before passage across the Mediterranean and Europe.
Of course, not all routes between the East and West were land roads. Sea routes traversing the Indian peninsula in particular were popular with spice traders. Cinnamon, pepper, ginger, nutmeg, saffron and other goods crossed some 15,000 kilometres of sea routes between the Arabian peninsula and as far as
Japan and the islands of the Philippines.
For centuries, silk was exclusively produced in China and was highly sought after in the West Caravan stops, like this one discovered in Turkey, were used by travelling merchants to rest their camels and trade their wares