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The Silk Road Society - A Detailed History of the Silk Roads

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A Detailed History of the Silk Roads
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"If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday"


Beginnings of Trade in the Region

The term “Silk Road” is somewhat of a misnomer, since silk was not the only commodity that traversed this ancient trade route. Moreover physical goods weren’t the only things traded; inevitably technologies and religions also passed along the route and were embraced and developed in this inhospitable region. The expression is accredited to Baron Von Richtofen, a 19th century German geographer during the Great Game period. It was during this epoch that a renewed interest and great exploration of Central Asia took place and the treasures and heritage of its past was rediscovered. And to this day the region continues to attract numerous archaeologists and historians fascinated by this little-known, but strategically crucial area in the history of human civilisation.

Indeed even before the discovery of silk, there was a vast amount of trade already taking place in Central Asia and China. Salt, a meat preservative, Lapis Lazuli from Afghanistan and copper and tin from Iran were commonly traded commodities some 5000 years ago. Since no recognised monetary system existed, trade in the early days was done through the careful bartering and exchange of goods by caravan traders. Their trade would be carried out in mutual places, near water and patches for animal grazing (after their domestication) and these common sites are what have developed into the towns and cities that line the route even to this day.

The domestication of horses and in particular camels in the early millennia B.C. coupled with the construction of detachable carts facilitated transport over even the harshest of terrains. The treacherously high mountains of the Hindu Kush and Pamirs and the scorching heat of the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts were travelled across by traders intimately involved with the flourishing trade along the Silk Roads.

The Early Trade Routes

The geography of the region from the Mediterranean to China varies dramatically, and all weather conditions can be experienced if one travels the entire length of the Silk Road. In high summer travellers would be exposed to daytime temperatures of up to 50 oC (122 oF) while in winter it would plummet to below -20 oC (-4 oF). Indeed very few men ever travelled its entire length. To do so would not only be to expose oneself to such a variety of unfamiliar circumstances and surroundings as to be extremely uncomfortable. But the traveller would also be vulnerable to, among other things, bandits and thieves intent preying on a lonely target in a far away land. Moreover the sheer distances that would need to be covered meant that the time to complete the whole journey would take several years giving an unfeasibly slow turnover of goods. Therefore trade would take place in discrete bundles of goods being carried over short distances, from one city to the next. Each of the merchants keeping within their own, well-known turf would meet and exchange or sell their wares and return home.

The early routes are likely to have gone north, avoiding the deserts and mountain ranges. They would have travelled around the Black and Caspian Seas, past the Aral Sea, across the easier Altai mountains and into Mongolia. These would provide easy routes for transport and water supplies. However, when the land was kind to the travellers, so did it favour banditry and hostile nomadic inhabitants. The lack of a good phrasebook and consequently poor communication from travellers with these local tribes would have led to common misunderstandings and robberies. Most traders couldn’t afford large armed escorts and although they often travelled together in large caravans for increased safety, this often led to them becoming more profitable targets for bandits. It is for this reason that the Silk Road expanded into a vast network of roads as individual traders searched for less inhabited, more hostile territory to cross that would minimise the chance of attack. Furthermore as local governments realised the wealth of trade passing through their territory they tried to levy increasingly heavy taxes and so the route would change. And since tribal chieftans insisted on warring with neighbouring tribes, the political situations along the Silk Road would have profound effects on the development of a criss-crossing network of routes. As these came into contact with neighbouring countries, the Silk Road expanded to include countries such as India, Tibet, Iraq and modern day Russia. It also merged to a certain extent with other already established trade routes such as the spice trade that existed with India.

Central Asia was, for a long time, considered simply as the place of uncivilised nomadic peoples that divided the East and the West. No-one on either side had much idea about just how big this mysterious land was and they certainly considered it without important culture. It has only recently become clear that the middlemen of the Silk Road trade had such an important influence on the development of trade, technologies and ideas either side of their borders. It is possible that this may be due in part to the fact that Central Asia was considered by the surrounding empires as simply the battleground on which to fight their respective battles. That this land had nothing to offer except a buffer between the Arab, Turkic, Chinese and, more recently, the British and Russian empires. However it was these last two nations that began to re-discover the treasures contained within this extraordinary region during the Great Game that took place during 19th century.

It is staggering to think how goods travelled over some of the world’s most inhospitable and difficult terrain so that the rich in the East and West could live in luxury. There was no shortage of different goods being traded either. Caravans heading towards China were laden with gold, silver, ivory, gems and glass. Foods such as pomegranates and carrots also were traded. While from the opposite direction came furs, porcelain, jade, bronze, iron and, of course, silk.

Silk & the Silk Road

It is impossible to say when silk, the product that lends its name to the trade route, came to be traded. And while the main object of travelling the early caravan routes was to buy or sell goods to or from faraway places, silk ended up the most eagerly traded and mysterious item. It was so rare that the Romans could only afford to sew a thin strip onto their togas.

For a long time the Chinese were able to keep silk production, or sericulture, a closely guarded secret. Legend attributes the discovery of silk to Lady ‘Si Ling-Chi’ (‘Lady of the silkworm), the wife of Huang Ti the Chinese emperor around 2500 BC and the earliest fragments of silk discovered date back to approximately this period. Legend has it that she was playing with a silkworm cocoon when it accidentally fell into a hot cup of tea, killing the worm, but allowing the the cocoon’s silk to be easily unravelled.

Silk is produced by Bombyx moths more commonly known as silkworms. They live on the mulberry tree and surround themselves with a cocoon composed of a single continuous thread up to 1km long. It is this that is harvested in sericulture, however the silkworms have to be killed (often by exposing cocoons to hot steam) before they can break out of their cocoon. The resulting thread from the cocoons is then dipped into water and the thread is carefully unwound and re-wound with about eight other super-fine threads to make a thicker yarn. The delicate work of sericulture was mostly carried out by women and anyone caught revealing the secrets or smuggle eggs out of China would be put to death.

Although initially only the emperor and the very rich could wear, or afford to wear silk, as production developed, it became common practice to use it in all kinds of products from garments and fishing lines to musical instruments and paper. During the Han dynasty it became common currency to pay in length of silk and so important was silk, that some 200 or the most common Mandarin characters in the ‘alphabet’ use silk as their key.

The escape of the silk secret from china cannot accurately be attributed to any one event. Stories include smugglers hiding worms in hollow bamboo walking sticks, and a princess courted to Khotan hiding the worms in her hair so that she could still make silk while away from China. Either way, the secret was still kept by the smugglers and silk production didn’t appear in Europe until around the 13th century. Even with the secret out, the hundreds of years of sericulture in China gave them the distinct advantage of being able to produce a higher quality of silk than any competitors and so trade continued to flourish. Even to this day China remains the leading producer of silk despite the influx of synthetic materials and competitors like neighbouring Japan.

Development of the Silk Roads

The opening of a full-length silk road where trade could pass easily and unhindered did not happen until nearly 115BC. The Chinese were split into warring factions and only few fragments of silk made it out of China’s domains. It wasn’t until 221BC that the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, successfully united his land with those surrounding him. He pooled the resources of the various states, built the earliest form of the Great Wall, and developed road infrastructure. It was the Han Dynasty that saw the benefits of trade and as the subsequent emperors grew stronger they looked farther afield not only for new lands, but also formed trading and political allies. Zhang Qian was a young officer of the Imperial Household who was sent in 138 BC to do exactly this and source out the lands to the West which could be brought under control. And so by 115 BC the Chinese succeeded in driving out the Barbarians from the Mongolian steppes and Gansu corridor. They extended the Great Wall to Dunhuang while Yuang Khan and Yumen Kuan (Jade Gate) were built to mark the entrances to the northern and southern routes through the Taklamakan desert. With the route opened, the offers of the riches of trade became too good for China’s neighbours to resist and the inevitable politics began in earnest.

It was through tactic, cunning and guile that the Parthians became very effective middlemen in the Silk Road. In 53BC they prevented the Roman empire’s expansion at the battle of Carrhae. And thereby kept Rome almost entirely ignorant of China with whom it effectively did much of its trade. They were already famed for their ability to control horses with just their legs, leaving their upper body free to fight with. Despite the Roman defeat, their demand for silk increased and the merchants traded increasingly with the Parthians. In the meantime a small tribe, the Kushans, grew independent from the Parthians. The Kushans placed their capital at Bactria and expanded forming another at Peshawar. Their interest was purely financial rather than political. They built cities and connecting canals and before long caravans began to arrive in their hundreds. These middlemen were extremely effective at what they did and at preserving the idea that all trade had to go through them by exaggerating the distances involved in the travel. Consequently goods exchanged hands several times during their travels and the price rose accordingly, allowing the middlemen to also profit handsomely.

It is surprising, but this trans-Asian network remained opened and thrived for several hundred years. A series of unfortunate disasters in close proximity however brought this prosperity to an almost abrupt end. The Han dynasty collapsed in 220 AD which caused China to break up again. The Romans too were having difficulty defeating barbarian attacks and plague (probably from bacteria brought across from China via the Silk Road) beleaguered this once all-powerful nation. In 330 AD the empire split, with the capital being moved to Constantinople before it collapsed in 476 AD suffering a series of defeats against the Goths, Visigoths and Attila’s huns. Even the middlemen, the Parthians, were overthrown by one of their subject tribes, the Sassanians who subsequently brought the Kushans under their control. All this turbulence did little to help the Silk Road merchants and since the Sassanians preferred to trade by Sea they began to cut out the middlemen. The fact that they were often at war with the Romans also did not help matters.

Recovery of the Silk Roads

In 565 AD, the Turks, has started to expand their own empire of ‘Turkestan’ comprising of modern day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Xinjiang. They formed their own direct trade route to the north allowing goods to pass via the Caspian Sea to Baku or Astrakhan and on towards the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The Kazakhs became so powerful during this period that they effectively controlled the Caspian Sea trade. This gave merchants the choice of routes and seriously challenged the Persian role as middlemen.

Things were beginning to improve in china under the newly formed Tang Dynasty that lasted from 618-907 AD. Their influence spread into Central Asia almost as far as the Pamirs and was used to help welcome foreign trade. They used their power to control and protect the Silk Roads. New fashions, recreations and innovations thereby flowed into china like never before. It was also at this time that religion was able to spread rapidly and freely along the silk roads. Despite the death of Mohammed in 632 AD, Islam was spreading rapidly as were other religions. There is much evidence that pilgrims and missionaries were present in Changan (near modern day Xi’an), the capital of the dynasty as well as the starting point of the Silk Road. The irony during the time however, was that Europe was in its Dark Age and owes much to the merchants and empires of the Silk Road who preserved the previously acquired knowledge.

Meanwhile the Arab empire, under the Umayads, was spreading rapidly. In 751 at Talas, the two empires finally met. The Turks joined forces with the Arabs and severely defeated the Chinese. A military rebellion in China from 755-763 shook the Tang Dynasty and despite the fact that they were able to quell the rebellion, they never quite regained the power they once held over the Silk Road. The fragmentation of China had begun again with warring factions trying to take what they could until the Tang dynasty fell in 907 AD.

The subsequent Song dynasties (907-1279) kept trade within China and hugely diminished their use of the Silk Road. Their loss of control in Central Asia and also parts of northern China did not allow them to regain the magnitude of the former Tang dynasty. During this time the precarious nature of the towns that had built up and flourished under the passing trade was evident for all to see. While trade was burgeoning the cities would have extended influence into the desert. Military outposts were built to ensure merchants travelled safely and paid their taxes. The income from the taxes and levies helped increase the wealth of the city and allowed some goods to remain in them improving the quality of life for city dwellers. Conversely, as soon as trade decreased or collapsed, these once affluent oases became ghost towns all too easily.

Despite the decline of the Eastern Silk Road, the Western half was undergoing a particularly interesting set of developments. The first of nine crusades occurred from 1095-1099 in response to a call for help from the Byzantine rulers. But the European merchants weren’t about to let war affect their trade prospects. For example the Fourth Crusade was persuaded by the Venetians to attack Constantinople to reinforce their trading dominance there. In fact trade once again flourished as never before. The Jews rapidly became shrewd bankers and money lenders as they were the only people whose religion allowed them to make money out of money. Despite Christian attempts to split the Muslim world, it remained dominant in the region until the arrival of the Mongols from the East.

Pax Mongolica

It was an ordinary man by the name of Genghis Khan born in 1162 AD who managed to conquer and unite the Mongol people by 1196 AD. These people had always been present along the Silk Road, but had often been classed as Turks on account of their Turkic language. Genghis Khan was ruthless in his ambitions for acquiring new lands and control over the Silk Road. His aim, it seems, was to conquer as much land and plunder as many riches as he possibly could. He defeated the Tartars and made them loyal to him and sacked Peking in 1215 AD. His attitudes seemed to resemble those of Alexander the Great some 1500 years earlier. By 1221, Bukhara, Samarkand and Tbilsi were destroyed. Many of the cities that he demolished never recovered. Their treasures and architecture hardly remain today. For example in Rey (now incorporated into Tehran) it can be hard to imagine that the Silk Road ever passed through since it never recovered from the Mongol fury.

While the Mongol territorial expansion was ruthlessly occurring, the lands within their control were relatively peaceful and allowed a revival of trade along the Silk Road. During the Mongol reign in the 13th and 14th centuries trade was revived significantly, although never in the way it had done before. But this was the Grand Finale of the Silk Road’s long and distinguished history. During this time several people travelled almost the entire length of the Silk Road. Although Marco Polo was the most famous of the travellers, he was by no means the only one. Missionaries and artists were keen to travel and spread their word. Indeed Kublai Khan, Genghis’s grandson, was so taken by Marco Polo’s Christian religion that he ordered him to send 100 learned Christians from Rome to convert his people. Such a conversion of the Mongols and their subjects would have undoubtedly changed the face of history. In the end only two friars were sent who fled in fear before they reached the Khan.

Decline of the Silk Road

The overthrow of the Mongols by the Chinese and the creation of the Ming dynasty spelled the end of the Silk Road. This didn’t happen overnight, but as the political powers along the Silk Road began to draw frontiers between themselves, and cut themselves off economically and culturally from one another the Silk Road trade was no longer in such high demand. This was made especially rapid because secrets of silk, glass and paper among other things were now being made all across Europe, Central Asia and China.

Furthermore, the rise to power of the conqueror Timur Leng (Tamerlane) in the 14th century caused further damage to trade passing through. In an attempt to expand his empire from his capital, the oasis of Smarkand, he effectively finished off the destruction of neighbouring cities that the Mongols had started.

The power of the nomads, so long the important middlemen in the Silk Road trade, was also declining. This may have been due to the fact that societies were beginning to settle and become self-contained rendering the nomads less valuable. For example the Ming dynasties did nothing to encourage trade between China and the rapidly developing West rather they encouraged isolation. This attitude persisted until the 19th century when the Western powers began to make inroads into Chinese territories.

While the Silk Road was a fantastic link between people, cultures and civilisations it also provided a dangerous route for diseases to spread. The Black Death pandemic, which started in China in the 1320s, is likely to have spread to Europe by travelling along the Silk Road. Its effects were devastating killing vast percentages of the Chinese, Asian, African and European populations. Trade along the Silk Road effectively came to an abrupt halt.

The demise of the Silk Road was further facilitated by the growing maritime trade. Whilst the Silk Road was never the only route by which goods were traded, it provided a relatively secure route. There was however at this time a sharp transition towards using the developing sea routes. There had always been sea trade, though it reflected more the overland trade with local tradesmen and large levies making goods very expensive by the time they got to their destination. For longer journeys there were problems with the strength of ships used, scurvy and pirates. However the Europeans, most notably the Portuguese, Spanish and English were constantly looking for longer trade routes that avoided the local mediators. And during the 15th century they began their expansion to the New World, Africa and India. This effectively cut the Venetians out of the equation that they had figured in for so many years and the Silk Road’s dominance declined dramatically. Its once glorious past was consigned to history and while trade struggled on locally, it was never to bring such prosperity as it had once done.

The Great Game & The Silk Road Today

The most recent chapter in the Silk Road’s history is not one of trade, but expansion of power and territories between the Russian and British Indian empires during the 19th century. The Chinese Qing dynasty were unable to prevent the “Great Game” being played out in front of its eyes. The Great Game was a term used to define the imperial rivalries and ambitions of 19th century Russia and Britain, during which the Russians expanded into Central Asia and the British sought to influence Afghanistan and Tibet. Each side did however use the promise of trade and a share of the other empire’s riches to curry favour with the local tribes and peoples caught up in the middle of this battlefield. It was indeed during this period that much of the region’s past was re-discovered and many famous explorers such as Sven Hedin, Sir Aurel Stein and Albert Von Le Coq began to remove the treasures they discovered for further study. Fortunately not all the treasures were removed before the governments prohibited such activity though a good deal are still found in the British Museum, Delhi and Berlin. For a long time the Chinese refused to restore and protect the treasures of their past, but that changed after the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Nowadays there are ongoing attempts to restore and preserve the ancient monuments along the route. The Chinese have contributed at least $1 million to projects in the area. Since the opening up of the USSR, trade is beginning to flow again in Central Asia. But most of this trade is not silk or furs, but of newly discovered oil in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia. In true Great Game tradition, a new struggle for influence is re-emerging once again on the plains of Central Asia. The stage remains the same as ever but no longer are the British the key players. This time the Iranians and Chinese are trying to out manoeuvre the United States (and of course the Russians) economically using pipeline proposals and the like, rather than militarily might. The new Great Game has begun in earnest and the history of the Silk Road is by no means over.

Various references and resources were used in compiling this detailed history of the Silk Roads. To view these resources, please visit the resources page.

© 2006 Nick Rowan

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