The Silk Road

How this an­cient trad­ing net­work be­came the world’s first com­mer­cial high­way and a con­nec­tion be­tween cul­tures

How It Works - - CONTENTS - Words by Tim Wil­liamson

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

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