Silk was introduced to the Roman Empire sometime in the first century BCE, where it was regarded as an exotic luxury that became highly common, prompting imperial edicts to regulate prices. Silk's popularity lasted well into the Middle Ages, with extensive Byzantine rules for the production of silk garments demonstrating its value as a quintessentially royal fabric and a valuable source of revenue for the king. In addition, the Byzantine Church had a significant demand for silk garments and hangings. As a result, one of the early impetuses for the construction of trade routes from Europe to the Far East was this luxury item.
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Beyond Silk: a wide range of cargoes and routes
Throughout history, these routes evolved in response to changing geopolitical contexts. For example, merchants from the Roman Empire avoided crossing the territory of Rome's enemies, the Parthians, and instead traveled north, through the Caucasus region, and across the Caspian Sea. Similarly, in the early Middle Ages, widespread trade took place across the network of rivers that crossed the Central Asian steppes, but as water levels rose and fell, and rivers dried up entirely, trade routes changed accordingly.
Maritime routes have a long history, dating back thousands of years to connections between the Arabian Peninsula, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley Civilization. This network grew in the early Middle Ages, as sailors from the Arabian Peninsula developed new trade routes across the Arabian Sea and into the Indian Ocean. Indeed, maritime trade ties between Arabia and China were developed as early as the eighth century CE. Long-distance sea travel has become increasingly feasible as technological advancements in navigation, astronomy, and shipbuilding techniques have merged.
The most frequently visited ports along these routes, such as Zanzibar, Alexandria, Muscat, and Goa, developed into prosperous centers for the trade of commodities, ideas, languages, and beliefs, with vast markets and a constantly changing population of merchants and sailors.
The map of the silk road depicts the wide range of routes open to traders shipping a wide range of goods and traveling from all over the world, both by land and sea.
Individual merchant caravans will typically cover particular parts of the routes, pausing to rest and replenish supplies or stopping entirely and selling on their cargos at various points along the route, resulting in the development of bustling trading cities and ports. The Silk Roads were alive and well, with commodities being exchanged with locals and local items being incorporated into merchants' cargoes. This process not only increased the merchants' material wealth and the variety of their cargos, but it also provided for cultural, linguistic, and intellectual exchanges along the Silk Roads.
Routes of Dialogue
Despite the Silk Roads' past as trade routes, General Zhang Qian, the man credited with establishing them by opening the first route from China to the West in the 2nd century BC, was probably sent on a diplomatic mission rather than a trade mission. Zhang Qian was sent to the West by the Han Emperor Wudi in 139 BCE to secure alliances against China's enemies the Xingnu, but he was eventually captured and imprisoned by them. He fled and returned to China thirteen years later. The emperor sent Zhang Qian on another mission in 119 BCE, this time to visit many neighboring peoples and establish early routes from China.
These routes were also important in the spread of religions across Eurasia. Buddhist art and shrines can be found as far apart as Bamiyan in Afghanistan, Mount Wutai in China, and Borobudur in Indonesia, indicating that Buddhism traveled the Silk Roads. Travellers absorbed the cultures they met and then brought them back to their homelands, which is how Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Manicheism spread. Silk Road traders traveling the maritime trading routes from the Indian Subcontinent and Arabian Peninsula, for example, brought Hinduism and later Islam to Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Silk Roads: A Journey
Caravanserais became more necessary as trade routes grew and became more lucrative, and their construction accelerated across Central Asia from the 10th century onwards, lasting until the 19th century. This culminated in a caravanserai network that extended from China to the Indian subcontinent, the Iranian Plateau, the Caucasus, Turkey, and as far as North Africa, Russia, and Eastern Europe, with many of them still standing today.
On their long journeys, maritime merchants faced a variety of challenges. Throughout the Middle Ages, the advancement of sailing technology, especially shipbuilding knowledge, increased the safety of sea travel. Ports grew up along the coasts of these maritime trade routes, offering crucial opportunities for traders to not only trade and disembark, but also to replenish fresh water sources, as a shortage of sufficient drinking water was one of the greatest challenges to sailors in the Middle Ages. Pirates were another threat to merchant ships traveling the Silk Roads by sea, as their lucrative cargoes made them appealing targets.
The Legacy of The Silk Road
Many historic buildings and monuments remain today, commemorating the Silk Roads' passage through caravanserais, ports, and towns. The many distinct but intertwined cultures, languages, traditions, and religions that have evolved over millennia along these paths, however, represent the long-standing and ongoing legacy of this remarkable network. The movement of traders and travelers of various nationalities resulted in a continuous and widespread phase of cultural contact, in addition to commercial trade. As a result, the Silk Roads evolved from their exploratory beginnings to become a driving force in the development of diverse societies across Eurasia and beyond.
The Bottom Line:
Trade was not the Silk Road's primary objective in its heyday, when it was more of a network of pathways than a road. Instead, the Silk Road altered history, owing to the fact that those who were able to travel along part or all of it planted their cultures like exotic species seeds brought to far-flung lands. Newcomers thrived in their new homes, mixing with locals and absorbing other groups that followed. Still others were enticed to cross mountains and cross sand oceans by sites of sustained economic activity, such as Turfan, Dunhuang, or Khotan.