10 Key Cities Along the Silk Road

Adam Dalrymple

6 mins

03 Oct 2019

Globalisation is not a new phenomenon. From the time of the Roman Empire, east and west have been connected by a web of trade routes known as the Silk Road.

Stretching across the centre of Eurasia, from the Black Sea to the Himalayas, the Silk Road was the major artery of world trade, along which flowed silks and spices, gold and jade, teachings and technologies.

Cities on this route flourished from the extraordinary wealth of the merchants that passed through their caravanserais. Their magnificent ruins remind us of the vital importance of this route throughout history.

Here are 10 key cities along the Silk Road.

1. Xi’an, China

The Xi’an City Wall. Image Credit: Edward Stojakovic / Commons.

In the Far East, merchants begun their long journey along the Silk Road from Xi’an, the capital of ancient imperial China. It was from Xi’an that the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang set out to unify all the warring states of China into a vast empire in 221 BC.

Xi’an is home to the Terracotta Army, 8,000 terracotta sculptures of warriors which were buried alongside the first emperor in his vast mausoleum.

During the Han dynasty – which was contemporary with the Roman Empire – it was the site of the largest palace complex ever built anywhere in the world, Weiyang Palace. It covered an astounding area of 1,200 acres.

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2. Merv, Turkmenistan

Camels grazing in front of the Kyz Kala fortress in Merv, Turkmenistan. Image Credit: David Stanley / Commons.

Situated by an oasis in modern day Turkmenistan, Merv was conquered by a succession of empires that tried to control the centre of the Silk Road. The city was successively part of the Achaemenid Empire, the Greco-Bactrian Empire, the Sassanian Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate.

Described by a 10th century geographer as the “mother of the world,” Merv reached its height in the early 13th century when it was the largest city in the world, with over 500,000 people.

In one of the bloodiest episodes in Central Asian history, the city fell to the Mongols in 1221 and Gengis Khan’s son ordered the massacring of the entire population inside.

3. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Registan Square, Samarkand. Image Credit: Bobyrr / Commons.

Samarkand is another city situated at the centre of the Silk Road, in modern day Uzbekistan. When the great traveller Ibn Battuta visited Samarkand in 1333, he remarked that it was,

“one of the greatest and finest of cities, and most perfect of them in beauty”.

It reached its peak four decades later, when Tamurlane made Samarkand the capital of his empire which stretched from the Indus to the Euphrates.

Dome interior of the Tilla Kori madrasa, Samarkand. Image Credit: LBM1948 / Commons.

At the heart of the city is Registan Square, framed by three exquisite madrassas, whose turquoise tiles gleam in the bright Central Asian sun.

4. Balkh, Afghanistan

The Green Mosque in Balkh. Photo taken in 1977. Image Credit: Mp11374 / Commons.

For much of its early history, Balkh – or Bactra as it was known then – was key centre of Zoroastrianism. It was later known as the place where the prophet Zoroaster had lived and died.

That changed in 329 BC when Alexander the Great arrived, having already overcome the mighty Persian Empire. After a difficult two-year campaign, Bactria was subdued with Alexander’s marriage to the the local princess Roxana.

When Alexander died, some of his soldiers stayed on in Central Asia and founded the Greco-Bactrian kingdom whose capital was Bactra.

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5. Constantinople, Turkey

The Hagia Sophia at sunset, Constantinople (Istanbul). Image Credit: Nserrano / Commons.

Although the Western Roman Empire fell to waves of barbarian migrations in the 4th and 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire survived right through the Middle Ages, up until 1453. The capital of the Eastern Roman Empire was Constantinople.

The wealth of this magnificent capital was legendary, and luxury goods from China and India made their way across the length of Asia to be sold in its markets.

Constantinople represents the end of the Silk Road. All roads still led to Rome, but the new Rome sat on the banks of the Bosphorus.

6. Ctesiphon, Iraq

The ruins of Ctesiphon, pictured in 1932.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have nurtured civilisations since the dawn of human history. Ctesiphon is one of numerous great capitals which have sprung up on their banks, along with Nineveh, Samarra and Baghdad.

Ctesiphon flourished as the capital of the Parthian and Sassanian Empires.

The Silk Road enabled the diffusion of many of the world’s great religions, and at its height, Ctesiphon was a diverse metropolis with large Zoroastrian, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Manichaen populations.

When Islam then spread out along the Silk Road in the 7th century, the Sassanian aristocracy fled and Ctesiphon was abandoned.

7. Taxila, Pakistan

Dharmarajika Stupa in Taxila, Pakistan. Image Credit: Sasha Isachenko / Commons.

Taxila in Northern Pakistan, connected the Indian subcontinent to the Silk Road. A diverse range of goods including sandalwood, spices and silver passed through the great city.

Beyond its commercial importance, Taxila was a great centre of learning. The ancient university based there from c. 500 BC is considered to one of the earliest universities in existence.

When Emperor Ashoka the Great of the Mauryan dynasty converted to Buddhism, Taxila’s monasteries and stupas attracted devotees from all over Asia. The remains of its great Dharmajika Stupa is still visible today.

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8. Damascus, Syria

The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

Damascus has a rich history dating back 11,000 years and has been continuously inhabited for over four millennia.

It lies at a crucial crossroads of two trade routes: a north-south route from Constantinople to Egypt, and an east-south route connecting Lebanon with the rest of the Silk Road.

Chinese silks passed through Damascus on their way to western markets. Its crucial importance in this respect is illustrated by the introduction of the word “damask” into the English language as a synonym for silk.

9. Rey, Iran

Rey Castle in Tehran, Iran. Image Credit: Alireza Javaheri / Commons.

Rey is intimately bound up with the mythology of ancient Persia.

Its predecessor Rhages was one of the sacred places of Ahura Mazda, the supreme Zoroastrian deity, and the nearby Mount Damavand is a central location in the Persian national epic: the Shahnameh.

With the Caspian Sea to its north and the Persian Gulf to its south, caravans travelling from east to west were funnelled through Iran and Rey thrived on this trade. One 10th century traveller passing through Rey was so stunned by its beauty that he described it as “the bride-groom of the earth.”

Today Rey has been swallowed up by the suburbs of Tehran, the capital city of Iran.

10. Dunhuang, China

The Crescent Lake, Dunhuang. Image Credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz / Commons.

Chinese traders leaving for the west would have had to cross the vast Gobi desert. Dunhuang was an oasis town built on the edge of this desert; sustained by the Cresent Lake and flanked on all sides by sand dunes.

Grateful travellers would have been provided food, water and shelter here before setting off on their journey.

The nearby Mogao Caves are a UNESCO World Heritage site, made up of 735 caves cut into the rock by Buddhist monks over a period of 1,000 years.

The name Dunhuang means “Blazing beacon” and refers to its vital importance for warning of incoming raids from Central Asia into the heart of China.

Chinese watchtower on the Silk Road, near Dunhuang.

Featured Image: Ekrem Canli / Commons.