The Silk Road History

What was the Silk Road

The Silk Road was the name given to a vast network of trade routes beginning in China and extending across the continent of Asia, continuing through the Middle East and reaching lands of the Mediterranean, and eventually, North Africa and Europe. The Silk Road was not a single route, but consisted of many roadways and paths set in an east-west direction. It was a work-in-progress that would open up the area between China and the West known as Central Asia.

The terrain of Central Asia was harsh. Desert and mountain ranges bordered most of it. The Talikamen Desert was known by the locals as the “Land of Death”, with good cause. Vegetation and wildlife was scarce. The climate was extreme, with little rainfall, and thus, no water or natural resources. Sandstorms were intense and could easily bury living things. Temperatures varied from scorching summer days and cold nights to negative temperatures in winter. Northeast lies the Gobi Desert, while not as dry, it was still treacherous territory to travel. To the south, the Himalayan Mountain range, the Kunlun, and the Karakorum Mountains effectively separated the Middle East from China. But the cultures, customs, and goods of all of Europe and Asia would be shared and exchanged with the development of this web of trade known as The Silk Road.

Early History

Before the development of The Silk Road, silk was only traded within China’s internal empire. Caravans of camels with silk would try to reach the western edges but were often attacked by nomadic tribes who sought their valuable goods. Chang Ch’ien, the first traveler from China who was able to make contact with these tribes, was unable to forge alliances with them, as he had been sent to do. But after 13 years, he returned with news of desirable goods from the West, and The Silk Road concept was born.

The development of civilizations in the West occurred wherever life was sustainable. Mesopotamia was a fertile land and so advanced ahead of the Chinese because of the terrain. From about 500 B.C., the Persian Empire was in control of much of the Middle East, and trade with its eastern neighbor, India, began to influence cultures throughout the realm.

When Alexander the Great succeeded in his conquers of the Persian Empire, Greek culture was introduced into the Middle East. Although his reign of the region lasted only until 325 B.C., the influence of Greek language, mythology, and sculpture blended with Indian ideas which changed the culture. Later it became known as “the crossroads” where Persian, Greek, and Indian schools of thought merged.

Route Description

The German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, first used the term “Silk Road” or “Silk Route” in 1877. This was long after its demise and though silk was the original goods sought to be traded, much more than goods found their way from cities along the routes. The West sent gold and other precious metals, glass, ivory, and precious stones eastward along its path. The East sent gun powder, jade, furs, bronze objects, and iron. But more than merchandise was traded along the famous route. Cultural ideals, religion, stories, news and other topics of conversation made their way across Eurasia.

Route Development

The continuing development of the route was influenced by several things. Terrain and goods played their roles in where segments branched off from the main route to allow travel and trade with other areas. These branches were referred to as the northern branch, the southern branch, and exchange points were the intersections where two or more trade routes met.

Religion also had its part in the history of The Silk Road. Central Asia practiced Shamanism, as did other parts. However, with the migrating of people and tribes from one area to another, especially along the trade route, and with infiltration of foreigners into Asia, there became a type of “dispersed shamanism” wherein practices of faith were modified in a particular region. As stated earlier, the Greek influence into the Middle East had already assimilated itself into the religion of Islam, and this continued on into Asia as well.

Later the historic significance of Sufi orders helped spread Islam further into China and eventually formal Islamic practices were adopted by the people. Still there have been geological finds depicting the Greek influence even in Islam.

The issues caused by the development of the route included invasion and robbery by nomadic tribes and increased merchant costs as need for escort and protection arose. And throughout the centuries, various dynasties gained and lost control of parts of the route because of this.

The Han Dynasty attempted to control the Xiongnu, a collection of northern nomadic tribes, through a combination of bribery and military threat. It was under their rule that Zhang Qian was dispatched to form an alliance with the Yuezhi, who were against the Xiognu. Though his mission failed, the Chinese did defeat the Xiongnu in a military attack, but it took them sixty years to organize their control of the route. By 60 B.C. their control included the area leading up to the Tarim Basin.

The Later Han Dynasty, which put an end to the brief Xin Dynasty of Wang Mang, caused the division of the dynasty into the Western Han and the Eastern Han. This era saw the decline of governmental power and economic wealth transferred to the already wealthy landowners. After the throne of Emperor Xian was usurped, the dynasty fell and so did the Chinese Empire.

The Sui Dynasty put an end to almost four centuries of rule by many non-Chinese dynasties. Trade continued under their rule on the route and the spread of Buddhism gave birth to religious sculptures and places of worship along The Silk Road under Chinese control. The Sui Dynasty marked the reunion of North and South China and embarked up the engineering marvel, “The Great Canal” and began rebuilding the Great Wall which had seen much destruction over the past few hundred years. The dynasty fell after much peasant revolt, treachery, and assassination.

The Tang Dynasty is known as the second great era of trade on The Silk Road. Regarded as one of China’s greatest rulers, their power extended almost to the Pamirs, far into Central Asia, and their defense and promotion of trade along the route greatly increased the types of goods brought into China. Music, sports, furniture and other goods came from Turkish and Persian exports. The An Shi Rebellion and numerous other calamities added to the decline of this most powerful dynasty and the Emperor’s own military general deposed him from the throne.

The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 – 960 A.D.) included the Later Liang Dynasty – (June 907 – 903 A.D.), the Later Tang (923-936 A.D.), the Later Jin Dynasty (936-947 A.D.), the Han Dynasty (947-951), and the Zhou Dynasty (951-960). The Ten Kingdoms were independent states established:   Wu, Wuyue, Min, Chu, Southern Han, Former Shu, Later Shu, Jingnan, Southern Tang, and Northern Han.

The Song Dynasty (960 – 1279 A.D.) saw the diminishment of trade by the early 12th century and lost control of the routes. Since the empire lost north China to Manchurian invaders, it began to focus on maritime trading with central and southern China.

The ensuing years saw the Mongolian ruling after Ghengis Khan blazed through Asia. Silk Road trade flourished and it was in this age the famous Marco Polo made his trip from Italy to China and back, and wrote about his travels. The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.) was the last dynasty to rule.

The Best Years

It is said that the Tang Dynasty oversaw the most prosperous years in China history. Art and other ideas ascended to their highest level, but afterwards, nothing was as important as under the Tangs. Trade dropped off and the Sea Silk Route eventually took precedence over the land roads.

The Mongols

While the Crusades brought about a diminishing trade along the route, it was the Mongols who brought about the split of the Moslems. Christianity and Islam had long been rivals, but the Mongols had their own various shamanic practices which they did not push upon the people they conquered. Under their leaders, Ghengis and later Kublai Khan, they proceeded to expand their territories and conquer a large part of Asia. This third great era of trade on The Silk Road saw the travels of Marco Polo and others who sought alliance with Khan’s successors to join forces in a crusade against the Arabs in the Holy Land.

The Demise of the Route

The outlook of the following dynasties brought about the demise of the trade routes. The Ming Dynasty did not encourage trading between the fast-developing west and Asia, and the Qing Dynasty   saw only the most-watered oases along the route continue with any trading at all. By the early 18th century, the Dzungar people were quieted and the Taklimakan region was annexed. Trade with the West diminished and traffic along The Silk Road did likewise.

Influence of Foreigners

Near the end of the 19th century, foreign interest in The Silk Road became of particular importance. Britain, who sought to claim more territory, and sponsored the Official Survey of India in 1863. After findings of archaeological ruins along the route, others sought to unearth scientific data and treasures of the region. Russia and Britain struggled over Central Asia in what is known as The Great Game (1813 – 1907). The ruins at Turfan were discovered by the Russians and locals sold some of the manuscripts for profit, and their presence in the West brought more foreign scientists, archaeologists, and cartographers, to the area.

Expeditions continued by the Europeans continued.From 1894 to 1908, Sven Hedin made three trips into Central Asia and mapped and researched Turkestan and Tibet, previously unexplored at that time. Ariel Stein procured much of the finds discovered by Wang Yuanlu in the early 1900s. This sizeable find of manuscripts was sold to Stein for a mere pittance and news of it brought more foreigners to the region.

Albert von Le Coq of Germany, an assistant Museum Director in Berlin, who found artifacts in a various caves in now northwest China and shipped them to his museum in the early 1900s. He justified his removal of them in his work, Buried Treasures of Chinese Turkistan, in 1928.

Soon the Chinese government took a stance on foreign trips into the area and put an end to removal of any further finds, requiring them to be turned over to the proper authorities within the country.

Modern Day

After a lengthy period of dormancy, The Silk Road has once again gained attention. With modern day technology the desert terrain is accessible. Roads have been paved along the borders of the Taklimakan and discovery of oil in the area has heightened development and industry.

Chinese trade with Russia has increased along the route with the railway from Lanzhou to Kazakhstan finally joined to the former Soviet Railway (September 12, 1990) and is now known as the Eurasian Continental Bridge. It surpassed the Trans-Siberian Railway, constructed from 1889 to 1916.


With the restoration undertaken by the Chinese in archaeological expeditions throughout the area, findings continue and specialized craftsmen are using their skills to restore cave drawings and other works at the Mogao grottos and its library.

In 1970, China opened up the country to foreign visitors, once again, as the lure of The Silk Road brought tourists and their money to the attractions. Some of the most popular are the grottos at Dunhuang, ruined cities around the Taklimakan, and Kashgar, where the Sunday market brings back the nostalgia of The Silk Road. Made up of various nationalities, tourists and locals can purchase everything from wool and spices to silverknives and livestock.


The timeline of The Silk Road spans over 2,000 years. From its inception almost 400 years before Christ, through its time of prosperity under the Tang Dynasty, to its gradual death by the 1800s, the deep impacts upon people and places around the globe are still being uncovered. Maps of its network display the languages, climates, countries, and principle belief systems which were all a part of its construction and will continue to be as it once again becomes the exchange point of goods and ideas among its people.

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