Skip to content

The Silk Road

The Silk Road, so named by a 19th century German scholar, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, was probably the greatest ever East-West trade route.

It originated during the Han Dynasty for military and political purposes rather than trade. Zhang Qian, a court official, was sent westwards to form an alliance with the Yuezhi tribe against the Xiongnu's constant invasions. He returned 13 years later with the one remaining member of his party of 100, after the Xiongnu captured and imprisoned them for ten years. He had escaped and continued his journey into central Asia. When he eventually returned home he had bad news concerning allies as the Yuezhi had not wanted to enter into a war, but he told people about a new breed of horse he had seen and some previously unknown tribes who had been keen on acquiring various Chinese goods. The Emperor sent more people to investigate and so the Silk Road started.

After the Han Dynasty fell in the early 3rd century, trade declined until the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century revived outside trade and favourable policies were introduced to encourage it.

When the Tang Dynasty fell in the early 10th century, the decline of the Silk Road started. However, once again it rose from the ashes in the 13th century when there was so much demand for Chinese goods in Europe that it inspired the search for a sea route. The discovery of this route in the late 15th century damaged Silk Road trade again. Transportation by sea was cheaper and less dangerous than the overland Silk Road. Additionally the Persians had mastered silk manufacture so there was less desire for Chinese silk. In the Taklamakan Desert (Tarim Basin) houses, towns and monasteries disappeared in a matter of weeks as streams ran dry or changed course and sand from the deserts was blown over whole towns.

There were many different routes, roads and paths, all leading west. Some routes were much travelled and safe, others carried danger from bandits and weather conditions and had fewer towns for shelter on the way. The routes crossed deserts and snowy mountain passes. Caravans could consist of anything between 100 and 1000 camels, each loaded with about 500lb of goods. These caravans were extremely tempting to bandits thus they had to have escorts and secure camping places. Many of the routes crossed at Kashgar at the foot of the Pamirs which became one of the most important trade centres of Central Asia. It was about halfway along the road and a lot of trading took place here with the sellers & buyers then returning home. The round trip would take one to two years to accomplish.

Silk was not the chief export initially. It wasn't until the Romans discovered it that large profits came in. They were so keen that they would exchange it for its weight in gold, particularly when it had been coloured with purple dye made from mollusc shells. By the Tang Dynasty, 30% of trade was silk; other items going west from China were porcelain/ceramics, furs, jade, bronzeware & weapons, lacquer, bamboo wares, iron, medicinal herbs and drugs and spices plus inventions and technology such as gunpowder, papermaking, farming, printing & smelting. In reverse, the Chinese imported cosmetics, gold and other precious metals, textiles, amber, ivory, carpets, perfume and glass. New foodstuffs arrived such as grapes, sesame, pomegranates, walnuts, cucumbers, carrots and wines. Strange and unknown animals came too such as peacocks, parrots, falcons, hunting dogs, gazelles, elephants, camels, lions, leopards and ostriches.

It wasn't just goods that moved along the Silk Road. It became an information highway. Religions were spread more easily with missionaries using the road. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity came in while Confucianism went out. The general exchange of ideas increased too, especially culture, art and philosophies.

At the end of the 19th century, western countries, particularly Britain and Russia, started looking at the Taklamakan Desert from an archaeological point of view. They discovered ruins, ancient artifacts, buried cities and manuscripts. Treasures found at that time are spread amongst many museums.

Now many of the bustling wealthy cities that lined the Silk Road are submerged under the desert but the original route is still there with paved roads and railways connecting east and west along the old routes.

Back