# History of the Silk Road Trade Route

History of the Silk Road Trade Route

History of the Silk Road Trade Route

A banker in London sends the latest stock info to his colleagues in Hong Kong in less than a second.

With a single click, a customer in New York orders electronics made in Beijing, transported across the ocean within days by cargo plane or container ship.

The speed and volume at which goods and information move across the world today is unprecedented in history.

But global exchange itself is older than we think, reaching back over 2,000 years along a 5,000-mile stretch known as the Silk Road.

History of the Silk Road Trade Route

The Silk Road wasn’t actually a single road, but a network of multiple routes that gradually emerged over centuries, connecting to various settlements and each other thread by thread.

The first agricultural civilizations were isolated places in fertile river valleys, their travel impeded by surrounding geography and fear of the unknown.

But as they grew, they found that the arid deserts and steps on their borders were inhabited, not by the demons of folklore, but nomadic tribes on horseback.

The Scythians, who ranged from Hungary to Mongolia, had come in contact with the civilizations of Greece, Egypt, India, and China.

These encounters were often less than peaceful.

But even through raids and warfare, as well as trade and protection of traveling merchants in exchange for tariffs, the nomads began to spread goods, ideas, and technologies between cultures with no direct contact.

One of the most important strands of this growing web was the Persian Royal Road, completed by Darius the First in the 5th century BCE.

Stretching nearly 2,000 miles from the Tigris River to the Aegean Sea, its regular relay points allowed goods and messages to travel at nearly 1/10 the time it would take a single traveler.

With Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia, and expansion into Central Asia through capturing cities like Samarkand, and establishing new ones like Alexandria Estate, the network of Greek, Egyptian, Persian and Indian culture and trade extended farther east than ever before, laying the foundations for a bridge between China and the West.

This was realized in the 2nd century BCE, when an ambassador named Zhang Qian, sent to negotiate with nomads in the West, returned to the Han Emperor with tales of sophisticated civilizations, prosperous trade, and exotic goods beyond the western borders.

Ambassadors and merchants were sent towards Persia and India to trade silk and jade for horses and cotton, along with armies to secure their passage.

Eastern and western routes gradually linked together into an integrated system spanning Eurasia, enabling cultural and commercial exchange farther than ever before.

Chinese goods made their way to Rome, causing an outflow of gold that led to a ban on silk, while Roman glassware was highly prized in China.

Military expeditions in Central Asia also saw encounters between Chinese and Roman soldiers.

Military expeditions slik road
Military expeditions slik road

Possibly even transmitting crossbow technology to the Western world.

Demand for exotic and foreign goods and the profits they brought, kept the strands of the Silk Road intact, even as the Roman Empire disintegrated and Chinese dynasties rose and fell.

Even Mongolian hoards, known for pillage and plunder, actively protected the trade routes, rather than disrupting them.

But along with commodities, these routes also enabled the movement of traditions, innovations, ideologies, and languages.

Originating in India, Buddhism migrated to China and Japan to become the dominant religion there.

Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula into South Asia, blending with native beliefs and leading to new faiths, like Sikhism.

And gunpowder made its way from China to the Middle East forging the futures of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughul Empires.

In a way, the Silk Road’s success led to its own demise as new maritime technologies, like the magnetic compass, found their way to Europe, making long land routes obsolete.

Meanwhile, the collapse of Mongol rule was followed by China’s withdrawal from international trade.

But even though the old routes and networks did not last, they had changed the world forever and there was no going back.

Europeans seeking new maritime routes to the riches they knew awaited in East Asia led to the Age of Exploration and expansion into Africa and the Americas.

History of the Silk Road Trade Route

Silk Road Trade Route
Silk Road Trade Route

Today, global interconnectedness shapes our lives like never before.

Canadian shoppers buy t-shirts made in Bangladesh, Japanese audiences watch British television shows, and Tunisians use American software to launch a revolution.

The impact of globalization on culture and the economy is indisputable.

But whatever its benefits and drawbacks, it is far from a new phenomenon.

And though the mountains, deserts, and oceans that once separated us are now circumvented through supersonic vehicles, cross-continental communication cables, and signals beamed through space rather than caravans traveling for months, none of it would have been possible without the pioneering cultures whose efforts created the Silk Road: history’s first worldwide web.

Globalization started through the Silk Road

“Globalization” is a term that has been thrown around a lot lately, especially in light of President Donald Trump’s opposition to trade deals and the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

In the simplest terms, a globalized economy is the circulation of goods across many different countries.

At your local grocery store, you can purchase tea from India, mangoes from Brazil, figs from Turkey, or coffee from Ethiopia all in the same place.

Manufactured goods, like a t-shirt, have likely already charted multiple oceans before making it to retail shelves.

That’s all thanks to globalization.

And it’s a great system for the consumer.

It means low prices, greater variety, and an all-around higher standard of living.

Globalization started through the Silk Road
Globalization started through the Silk Road
History of the Silk Road Trade Route

To understand how globalization works, many economists still point to one of humanity’s first endeavors in international trade: the silk road.

The Silk Road wasn’t the beginning of trade, but it did expand exponentially.

In the centuries leading up to the formation of the Silk Road, civilizations remained largely isolated, due to geographical boundaries and fear of the unknown.

However, around the second century BC, China and central Asia began to share goods and ideas through nomadic tribes.

This eventually expanded into a complex network of land and sea trade routes, stretching from the Mediterranean, to India, and even to Southeast Asia.

A slew of different goods was transported along the Silk Road, but the most common was, unsurprisingly, silk.

This material had a huge effect on any society that came in contact with it.

The Chinese had a silk monopoly, as they were the only people who knew how to make it.

So when the material was introduced to the Roman elite, who loved it for its lightness and air of promiscuity, demand skyrocketed.

As the market grew, more and more working-class Chinese moved into silk production.

Like modern globalization, the Silk Road also ushered in a merging of languages, religions, and cultures.

Along with goods like spices and textiles, merchants from India brought Buddhism to China and Japan, where it remains a dominant religion today.

Nomads from Arabia brought Islam to South Asia, paving the way for the religion’s influence in Malaysia, Indonesia, and other modern states.

In fact, many historians argue that the greatest impact of the Silk Road was not the spread of products but the spread of ideas.

The Silk Road was hugely beneficial for early civilizations.

It meant greater overall wealth, rapid advancements in art and technology, and increasing diplomacy among early world powers.
History of the Silk Road Trade Route

However today, some argue that globalization has gone too far.

An interconnected economy often means a loss of cultural distinctiveness, along with traditions and even entire languages.

A great example of this is currency. 🙂

For ease of trade and commerce, much of Europe has abandoned its national denominations in favor of the Euro.

Many countries have done the same to adopt the US dollar.

Globalization has already led to the death of thousands of languages, leading some experts to predict that by the year 2100, only half of the modern dialects will still exist.

The Silk Road left an immutable impact, affecting civilizations that weren’t even directly connected to it.

Merchants who charted the route stopped for goods in villages, which eventually became huge cities, like Venice, Istanbul, and Aleppo.

Faiths like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism saw a much greater reach, eventually becoming three of the world’s largest religions.

Whether or not you agree that globalization is good, its influence on the daily lives of every human cannot be understated.

Today, China is looking to connect Asia and Europe through a “new silk road”.

Thanks for reading this article! 🙂

 

# History of the Silk Road Trade Route

Leave a Reply

Scroll to top