Friday, December 1, 2023

The Silk Road

The Silk Road

The Silk Road served as a network of Eurasian trade routes, which was active between the second century BCE and the mid-15th century. It has expanded more than 4000 miles or 6400 kilometres. Silk Road helped to facilitate cultural, economic, political, & religious interactions between the East and West.

In the late nineteenth century, the name "Silk Road" was first coined. It has fallen into disuse among a few modern historians who are in favor of these routes, on the grounds that it more precisely describes the complex web of sea & land routes, which are connecting Central, East, South, Southeast, & West Asia, East Africa, and Southern Europe.

What Was The Silk Road?

The Silk Road in ancient times served as a trade route connecting the Western world and the Middle East & Asia. This one was the major conduit for trade between China and the Roman Empire. Later, it served as a major conduit between China and mediaeval European kingdoms.

Where Did The Silk Road Start And End?

It started in north-central China in Xi’an. Along the Great Wall of China, a caravan track stretched west through Afghanistan across the Pamirs into Anatolia & Levant. The Mediterranean Sea was used to ship goods to Europe.

The Silk Road was the route used between China and Rome to carry goods. While silver, wool, and gold went to the east side, silk used to go westward. Through this road, China received Nestorian Christianity & Buddhism. Some people travelled the whole route, and a middleman was there to handle goods in a staggered progression.

Gradually, the loss of Roman territory was seen in Asia, whereas, during that time, Arabian power began to rise in the Levant. As a result, this route became increasingly unsafe. The Silk Road was revived in the 13th & 14th centuries under the Mongols. During that time, it was used by Venetian Marco Polo for travelling to China ( formerly known as Cathay). But now people think that the Silk Road was a major way of spreading plague bacteria westward from Asia, causing the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the middle of the 14th century.

Part of this road still exists in the form of a paved highway, a connection route between Pakistan and the Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang, China. The old road was an impetus behind the United Nations plan for a trans-Asian highway.

UNESCAP, or UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, has proposed a railway counterpart of the road. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma was inspired by the road in 1999 to set up the Silk Road Project. It explored cultural traditions along the route to connect arts across different cultures worldwide. 

History of Silk Road:

Central Eurasia is popular for its horse riding & horse breeding communities from old times. The overland Steppe route across the northern steppes of Central Eurasia was used before the silk road. Archeological sites like the Berel burial ground in Kazakhstan made sure that the nomadic Arimaspians were breeding horses for trade and producing the best craftsmen who could propagate exquisite art pieces along the route. In the region of Yarkand and Khotan to China, people used to trade nephrite jade from mines from the 2nd millennium BCE. You should know that these mines were not too far from the lapis lazuli & spinel mines in Badakhshan. Despite the Pamir mountains separating them, people used these routes from very early times.

Genetic Study

The Genetic study of the Tarim mummies is found in the Tarim Basin, in Loulan, located along this Silk Road 124 miles east of Yingpan, and dated to as early as 1600 BCE. This study suggested very ancient contacts between East & West. It is guessed that the mummified may be those people who used to speak Indo-European languages that are still used in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang region until Turkic influences replaced them from the Xiongnu culture to the north. Moreover, Chinese influences replaced them from the Eastern Han dynasty speaking a Sino-Tibetan language.

Chinese Silk

Chinese silk, dated from 1070 BCE, has been found in Ancient Egypt. Hence, the Great Oasis cities of Central Asia played a very important role when it came to talking about trading in the silk route. Although the originating source looks trustworthy, silk has degraded rapidly. Therefore, it was not possible to verify whether it was cultivated silk or wild silk that could have come from the Middle East or the Mediterranean. In this case, it needs to be mentioned that gold was introduced from Central Asia, following contacts from Metropolitan China to nomadic western border territories in the 8th century BCE. Chinese jade carvers started to make the steppes' imitation designs by adopting the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes. This style is reflected in the rectangular belt plaques, which consist of gold & bronze. There are several versions in Jade & steatite. An elite burial near Stuttgart, Germany was dated to the sixth century BCE. It was excavated and it was found that it had Greek bronzes & Chinese silks. People also have found art pieces of animal shapes as well as wrestler motifs on belts in Scythian. It stretches from the Black Sea region to the archeological sites of the Warring States era in Inner Mongolia. In addition, it has stretched to Shaanxi (at Keshengzhuang [de]) in China.

Scythian Culture

Scythian culture was expanded to the Chinese Gansu Corridor from the Hungarian plain & the Carpathian Mountains. Thus, it helped to connect the Middle East with Northern India. Undoubtedly, Punjab plays a crucial role when it comes to the development of the Silk Road. The Assyrian Esarhaddon was accompanied by Scythians on the invasion of Egypt. People found the triangular arrowheads as far south as Aswan.

Nomadic people rely on the neighbouring settled populations for several important technologies. They were seen encouraging long-distance merchants as an income source along with raiding vulnerable settlements for such commodities. Regarding facilitating trade along the Silk Route between China and Central Asia, Sogdians played a very important role in the later phase of the tenth century.

From Where The Name "Silk Road" Derived :

The name came from the lucrative trade in silk, which was first developed in China. It served as the main reason behind the connection of the trade routes into an extensive transcontinental network. The German source term from which the word is derived is Seidenstraße. Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made the name popular in 1877, also made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. However, prior to this, the term had been used for decades. "Silk Route", which is an alternative translation, is occasionally used. Despite being coined in the nineteenth century, people didn't accept it widely in academia, or it was not popular among the public until the 20th century.

Sven Hedin

Sven Hedin, a Swedish geographer, was the writer of the first book, The Silk Road, in 1938. The term "Silk Road's use isn't without its detractors. According to Warwick Ball, compared to the silk trade with China, the maritime spice trade with India & Arabia was more consequential due to the Roman Empire's economy. The silk trade with China was conducted via India at sea, whereas, on land, several intermediaries like the Sogdians handled it. However, the whole thing is called a "myth" of modern academia.


According to Ball, while no coherent overland trade system existed, and any free movement of goods was seen during the Mongol Empire's period from East Asia to the West. Traditional authors like Edward Gibbon & Marco Polo, who discussed east–west trade, did not label any route a "silk" one specifically.

Previously, the stretched part of the southern side ( from Xinjiang to Eastern China) was not used for silk. Instead, it was used for jade as long as 5000 BCE. And still, people have been using this for such purposes. "Jade Road" might be more appropriate than "Silk Road" if it didn't have the wider nature of the silk trade geographically. 

Routes Of Silk Road:

The Silk Road has several routes. It stretched westwards from the ancient commercial centres of China. So, the overland is divided into southern & northern routes, which bypass the Taklamakan Desert & Lop Nur. Along these routes, merchants had a connection with relay trade, where goods went through many hands before reaching the final destination.

Northern Route:

It started at Chang'an, which people know as Xi'an, which was an ancient capital of China, and was further moved east to Luoyang during the Later Han. This route was defined around the 1st century BCE when by nomadic tribes, Han Wudi put an end to the harassment.

This route went northwest through Gansu from Shaanxi. After that, it split into three routes. Hence, two routes followed the mountain ranges to the Taklamakan Desert's north and south sides in order to rejoin at Kashgar. Another route went north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar, & Almaty.

These routes split west of Kashgar again with a southern branch, which went to the Alai Valley towards Termez, and Balkh. Whereas the other one travelled via Kokand in the Fergana Valley, which is now called eastern Uzbekistan. After that, it went across the Karakum Desert. Before reaching Turkmenistan and ancient Merv, these routes joined the main southern route. There is a branch of this route, which turns northwest past the Aral Sea & north of the Caspian Sea, later on to the Black Sea.

This route for caravans helped to bring a lot of goods to China. Goods that came to China were:


  • Dates, saffron powder, and pistachio nuts from Persia;
  • frankincense, aloes, and myrrh from Somalia;
  • glass bottles from Egypt and
  • other costly items from different parts of the world.


The caravans sent bolts of silk brocade, lacquer-ware, & porcelain in exchange for these goods.

Southern Route:

This route was known as the Karakoram route, a single road from China through the Karakoram mountains. Nowadays, people call it the Karakoram Highway, connecting Pakistan and China. This route set off westwards but with southward spurs to allow travellers to complete their journey from different areas by sea. This road has crossed the high mountains and passed through northern Pakistan over the Hindu Kush mountains. Then, it joined again the northern route near Merv, Turkmenistan. From here, a straight way is followed west through northern Iran, Mesopotamia, & the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant.  It is the place where regular routes are piled by Mediterranean trading ships to Italy. Land routes went north via Anatolia or South to North Africa.

There also existed another branch road that travelled to Charax Spasinu via Susa from Herat at the head of the Persian Gulf, across to Petra, and to Alexandria & other Mediterranean ports (eastern side) from where ships used to carry cargo to Rome.

Southwestern Route:

It is believed that the southwestern route is the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta, which has been the subject of great interest internationally for a long period for more than two millennia. The first-century Roman writer Strabo mentioned that merchants who are now sailing from Egypt, as far as the Ganges, are only private citizens. People took an interest in his comments because they found the existence of Roman beads and other materials at the Wari-Bateshwar ruins. This old city is gradually being excavated beside the Old Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.

Ptolemy made a map of the Ganges Delta, in which it was displayed that his informants knew about the Brahmaputra River's course, crossing through the Himalayas. Next, it bended westward to the source of it in Tibet. Undoubtedly, we can say that the Delta used to be a significant international trading centre. In the delta, Gemstones, Java & other merchandise from Thailand were traded.

Bin Yang:

According to Bin Yang, a Chinese archaeological writer, along with a few old writers & archaeologists like Janice Stargardt, this international trade route is the Sichuan–Yunnan–Burma–Bangladesh route. This Chinese archeological writer said that people used the route from the 12th century to ship bullion from Yunnan through northern Burma into the current Bangladesh and used the ancient route, which was called the 'Ledo' route. Silver & gold are such minerals in which Yunnan is rich. The international trade centres in this route were Wari-Bateshwar ruins, Mahasthangarh, Bhitagarh, Bikrampur, Egarasindhur, and Sonargaon.

Maritime Route:

It indicates the historic Silk Road's maritime section connecting China to Southeast Asia, the Indonesian archipelago, the Arabian peninsula, The Indian subcontinent, to Egypt & finally, Europe.

This trade route surrounded several water bodies like the South China Sea, Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Bengal, Arabian Sea, Persian Gulf, & the Red Sea. It also overlaps with several other routes, like Southeast Asian maritime trade, Spice trade, and Indian Ocean trade. After the eighth century, this route overlaps the Arabian naval trade network. In order to connect China with the Japanese archipelago & Korean Peninsula, this network extended eastward to the Yellow Sea & East China Sea.

Expansion Of The Arts:

There are multiple artistic influences transmitted via the Silk Road, mainly through Central Asia, where Indian, Hellenistic, and Chinese influences are mixed internally. Greco-Buddhist art is the most vivid instance of such interaction. Silk was also used as an art representative that serves as a religious symbol. It was used for trade as currency along the Silk Road. People can view such artistic influences in the development of Buddhism, where Buddha was depicted first as a human being in the Kushan period. In later Buddhist art, it is possible to find the existence of a mixture of Greek and Indian elements in China & throughout different nations on the Silk Road.

Art production was made up of several different items, and people used to trade them from east to west along this road. The lapis lazuli is one of the common items used as paint after this blue stone with golden specks was ground into powder.


UNESCO, or United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, named this road a World Heritage Site on 22 June 2014 at the 2014 Conference on World Heritage. With the aim of developing sustainable international tourism, since 1993, the United Nations World Tourism Organization has been working along this Silk Road to foster peace and understanding.

The China National Silk Museum also announced a "Silk Road Week" for commemorating the Silk Road to take place between 19–25 June 2020. Almaty & Bishkek have a major east–west street, which is named after the Silk Road.(Kyrgyz: Жибек жолу, i.e., Jibek Jolu in Bishkek, & Kazakh: Жібек жолы, i.e., Jibek Joly in Almaty).

Expansion Of Religions:

The Nestorian Stele described Nestorian Christianity to China. How trading activities have taken place along the road over multiple centuries has been described by Richard Foltz, Xinru Liu, & many others. They describe how people can benefit from the transmission of goods, ideas and culture, especially in the religious area. Several religions like Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam spread across Eurasia via the trade network, which is tied to particular religious communities & their institutions. A haven & new religion for foreigners were provided by the established Buddhist monasteries along this Silk Road.

Jerry H. Bentley said that syncretism took place because of the spread of religions and cultural traditions along this route. Encounter with Chinese and Xiongnu nomads was one of the examples. Because of such unlikely events of cross-cultural contact, these cultures were adapted to each other as alternatives. Xiongnu military techniques, music, dress styles, and dance were adapted by the Chinese. Like them, Xiongnu also adopted Chinese agricultural techniques, dress style, & lifestyle.

The cultural exchange that surprises most is that Chinese soldiers defected sometimes and later, converted to the Xiongnu way of life. In order to avoid the punishment, they stayed in the steppes. Nomadic mobility played an important role to facilitate inter-regional contacts & cultural exchanges along the ancient Silk Road.

Transmission Of Christianity:

Transmission of Christianity was called primarily Nestorianism on the Silk Road. An inscribed stele in 781 shows that Nestorian Christian missionaries are arriving on this road. Christianity had spread east & west to bring the Syriac language & evolve the forms of worship.

Transmission Of Buddhism:

You should know that it was the Kushan Era when Mahayana Buddhism entered the Han Dynasty or the Chinese Empire. The maritime "Silk Roads" and overland had internal connections in order to form the "great circle of Buddhism". As per a semi-legendary account of an ambassador that Chinese Emperor Ming sent to the West, Buddhism's transmission started in the first century CE to China through the Silk Road. This religion also started to spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia during this time. The names of three primary forms of Buddhism are Mahayana, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhism and these forms of Buddhism spread across Asia through the Silk Road.

In world history religion, it was the first big missionary movement. Chinese missionaries could assimilate Buddhism into native Chinese Daoists, resulting in these two beliefs being brought together. The Sangha, Buddha's community of followers, contains male & female monks and laity. They later moved through India with the aim of spreading Buddha's ideas. When in the Buddha's community, named Sangha, the number of members increased, it became impossible for some large cities to afford to have the Buddha and his disciples visit. This religion was spread to China & other Asian parts under the control of the Kushans between the middle of the first century and the middle of the third century. The costly contracts began in the second century because the Kushan empire expanded into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin. The missionary efforts of multiple Buddhist monks and Chinese lands are the reason behind it. Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian, or Kuchean could be the first missionaries & translators of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.


Displacement and conflict were some of the results that took place, as Buddhism spread along the road. In the initial phase of the second century BCE, due to a new Iranian dynasty named Parthians, Greek Seleucids were exiled to Iran & Central Asia. It made the Parthians the new middlemen for trade during the time, and Romans were the most important customers of silk. The involvement of the Parthian scholars was seen in the translations of Buddhist text into the Chinese language. The city of Merv was the major trade centre on this road. It became a significant Buddhist centre by the middle of the second century. When Ashoka was the king of the Maurya dynasty (268–239 BCE), and converted to Buddhism, people got to know about the Silk Road. He raised this religion in his northern Indian empire to official status.

Chinese pilgrims began travelling to India on this Silk road from the 4th century CE onward to access the original Buddhist scriptures, with Fa-hsien's pilgrimage to India (395–414), Xuanzang (629–644), and Hyecho. In the sixteenth century, the travels of Xuanzang were fictionalized in a fantasy adventure novel that we know as Journey to the West. 

Many different Buddhist schools travelled on this road. The names of two significant Nikaya schools were Dharmaguptakas and the Sarvastivadins. The Mahayana, which displaced them eventually, was called the "Great Vehicle". It was the Khotan region where the Buddhist movement first gained influence. You need to know that Mahayana was more of a "pan-Buddhist movement" than a Buddhist school. It seems to have begun in northwestern India or Central Asia.

Greater Vehicle

Mahayana was formed during the first century BCE. At first, it was small, and the source of "Greater Vehicle '' wasn't totally clear. Although there are a few Mahayana scripts that were found in northern Pakistan, it is still believed that the main texts were composed in Central Asia along the road. In simple words, it can be stated that the diverse & complex influences resulted in various schools and movements of Buddhism. As Mahayana Buddhism was raised, Buddhist development's initial direction changed also. According to  Xinru Liu, the Buddhist form, highlighted the elusiveness of physical reality along with material wealth. It stressed avoiding material desire to a certain point. Therefore, it becomes often challenging for the followers to understand.

Merchants played a very important role during the 5th and 6th centuries CE in the spreading of Buddhism. According to them, this religion's moral and ethical teachings are more appealing compared to the old religions. Therefore, Buddhist monasteries got support from merchants along the Silk Road. As an exchange, merchants were allowed by the Buddhists to stay somewhere because they travelled from city to city. Therefore, they spread Buddhism to foreign encounters as they travelled. In addition, with the help of merchants, it became possible to set up a diaspora within the communities they encountered. The more time passed, their cultures started to be based on Buddhism.

Therefore, the communities became centres of literacy as well as culture with well-organized marketplaces, lodging, and storage. The Chinese's voluntary conversion of ruling elites helped to spread Buddhism in East Asia, and as a result, Buddhism spread widely in Chinese society. Buddhism's Silk Road transmission ended around the 7h century when the Islam religion rose in Central Asia.

The Bottom Line:

We can still find the existence of numerous historic buildings & monuments, which marked the passage of the Silk Road via ports, caravanserais, and cities. The legacy of this famous network is reflected in multiple distinct. But you can find the interconnection of languages, cultures, customs, & religions developed over millennia along these routes. The passage of merchants & travellers of different nationalities helped in commercial exchange & cultural interaction. The Silk Roads were developed in order to become a driving force in the formation of diverse societies across Eurasia & far beyond.

Frequently Asked Questions

What major goods travelled along the Silk Road?

Silk was exported to Western buyers by Chinese merchants. Gold, wool & silver were sent eastward from Rome & later from Christian kingdoms.

What travelled along the Silk Road besides goods?

Religion was a major export of the West along the Silk Road, apart from material goods. Merchants who belonged to the Indian subcontinent exposed China to Buddhism. During that time, early Assyrian Christians took faith in China & Central Asia. However, diseases also travelled along this road. As per the belief of several scholars, the bubonic plague spread from Asia to Europe, the result of which the Black Death pandemic caused in the middle of the fourteenth century. 

Is the Silk Road still used today?

The Silk Road's parts that still exist in the form of a paved highway, connects Pakistan & Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. A trans-Asian motor highway and railroad were planned to be sponsored in the 21st century by the United Nations. It is the Silk Road from which China's Belt and Road Initiative was inspired, which is a global infrastructure development strategy. President & General Secretary Xi Jinping authored this.

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