Spanning a vast 4,000 miles, the Silk Road was an ancient network of travel routes connecting the Eastern and Western worlds in a time before mass global trade, fast transport links and advanced seafaring.
In use from around the 2nd century BC to the 15th century, the Silk Road connected many different civilisations across Asia, Persia, Arabia, East Africa and Southern Europe, through the merchants, diplomats, nomads and warriors who trod its paths.
As a vital trade network, the Silk Road transformed the world through the myriad of commodities, technologies and ideas that were carried along it.
But what exactly was traded on the Silk Road?
As the name suggests, one of the most important items traded along the Silk Road was indeed silk. Produced almost exclusively in China as early as 3000 BC, silk soon became one of the most sought after products in the world.
Highly valuable yet lightweight, it was the perfect commodity to travel the thousands of miles west from China, soon clothing the wealthiest and most prestigious names. Reaching as far as the Mediterranean, its influence is shown resolutely in the ancient Greek name for China: ‘Serica’, literally meaning ‘Land of Silk’.
The ancient Roman elite in particular adored silk, and would exchange it for their famous glassware, later found in the excavated tombs of esteemed members of Chinese, Korean and Japanese society.
A number of other luxury goods found their way down the silk networks. Jade, prized in Chinese ritual tradition, was sourced from their surrounding neighbours such as the Iranian Kingdom of Khotan, while rare spices from Indonesia and India transformed culinary cultures in the West.
Not only did the Silk Road’s traders deal in luxury goods, they also exchanged advanced commodities highly prized for their uses in warfare, exploration and intellectual pursuits.
Many historians believe that a chief instigator of the Silk Road was the Chinese desire to acquire the tall and powerful horses specially bred by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Dayuan in Central Asia. Dubbed “heavenly horses” by Emperor Wu (156-87 BC), the Chinese sought these mighty animals to combat the nomadic Xiongnu tribe.
After invading Dayuan, China ordered an annual tariff of 2 horses to be sent to them a year, and also traded with other nomads of the Central Asian steppe for equipment, such as early saddles. Horses had been a vital aspect of Chinese warfare for centuries, as shown in their presence alongside the soldiers of the Terracotta Army, constructed in the 3rd century BC.
The trade of gunpowder, invented in China in around 1000 BC, would change the face of Western warfare forever, while the invention and dissemination of compass technology would later enable the Age of Exploration, simultaneously ushering in the decline of the Silk Roads when long land-based journeys were no longer necessary.
One of the most influential goods traded was paper. Invented in China in the 2nd century, paper soon spread through Asia alongside Buddhism before it was introduced to the Islamic world in the 8th century.
Caliph Harun al-Rashid (766-809 AD) built a paper mill in the intellectual powerhouse of Baghdad, and it eventually reached Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries. Soon followed by the invention of the printing press, this method of recording and spreading information would have a vast impact on the world and pave the way towards the early modern era.
Knowledge and religion
As physical objects and technology were carried and traded down the routes of the Silk Road, so too were ideas and knowledge.
Venetian explorer Marco Polo famously travelled the Silk Road from Italy to China alongside his father, arriving at the court of the formidable Kublai Khan in 1275. When he returned to Europe he wrote about his experiences, expanding the West’s knowledge of Asia and the geography of the continent. Similarly, the famous North African traveller Ibn Battuta travelled the Silk Road from his native Tangier in Morocco, reaching China and India and reporting on the social, religious and economic climates he found there.
Meanwhile, the interconnected nature of the roads allowed the spread and exchange of religion to flourish. Buddhism found particular success, first expanding into the Kushan Empire of Central Asia in the 1st-3rd centuries before reaching China, where it invigorated Confucianism and Daoism to become an integral spiritual presence. Out of the 18 Buddhist schools of interpretation, 5 existed along the Silk Road.
The spread of Islam was also immensely successful, soon becoming the most common religion of those who travelled the Silk Roads. The first Muslim community arose in Arabia in the 7th century, and the Islamic faith was disseminated by travellers, mystics, preachers and merchants to expand into many communities in Central Asia.
These efforts were consolidated by the conquests of the early Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) and its successor the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258), the latter of which established Baghdad as the capital of the Islamic Empire in 762. The city would grow into a hub of cultural, scientific and philosophical prowess during the Golden Age of Islam, becoming the most important urban stop along the Silk Road.
The Black Death
Though the Silk Road fostered a newfound interconnectedness, not everything that passed down its sprawling tracks brought with it progression. Allowing far-reaching ease of travel, it is cited as spreading one of the most devastating plagues in human history: the Black Death.
Reaching its peak between 1347-1351, the plague was spread quickly and easily due to the very nature of the Silk Road, which consisted not of one single track but countless routes connecting villages, cities and outposts known as caravanserais.
This steady flow of merchants aided the pandemic’s spread across continents, yet also prompted its inhabitants to refine public health measures. In Venice, vessels and travellers suspected of infection were required to isolate for 40 days before entering the city. This period of 40 days, translating to quarantena in the Venetian language, was passed down through the centuries to give us our modern-day word ‘quarantine’.