The Silk Roads

The Silk Road, also known as the Silk Roads, was a strategic series of trade routes that connected China to Europe and the Middle East. This trade route was a significant factor in economic and cultural development in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond. Keep reading to learn how the Silk Road changed the world.

The Definition of Silk Road

The Silk Road was a trade route network connecting China and other parts of the east with Europe and the Middle East. The route consisted of numerous strategically placed trading posts and markets to make it easier to move, trade, and store goods. It was in use for over 1500 years!

The Silk Road:

The Silk Road, also described as the Silk Roads, was a strategic series of trade routes that connected China to Europe and the Middle East. It allowed for trading goods as well as ideas.

Did you know?

Historians also refer to the Silk Road as the Silk Routes. This term better conveys the trade route because it was not a single road but a world trade artery.

The Silk Road Map

The strategic routes of the Silk Road connect Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Some ways connected Antioch to Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris River. Other paths crossed mountain ranges to connect cities in Iran and Turkmenistan. Different routes connected modern-day Afghanistan and China. Some routes connected ports on the Persian Gulf to rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates. The Silk Road was over 4,000 miles long, crossing rugged terrains like the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains.

Silk Roads. World route and map of the silk roads StudySmarter.

Extent of the Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is the land route, and blue is the sea/water route. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Silk Road Cities

Cities sprang up along the Silk Road, becoming exchange centers. This happened as merchants, and other travelers looked for safe resting places.

As merchants converged, they had the opportunity to sell their goods to other merchants and purchase new things for themselves. This also allowed for the exchange of language, customs, and other ideas to be shared.

The exchange of ideas was attractive to scholars, philosophers, and theologians. These trade centers blossomed into intellectual centers.

The Spread of Disease along the Medieval Silk Roads

The Silk Roads are an instructive reminder that human beings do not occupy isolated worlds but a shared and interdependent one that flourishes when they interact with one another. Interactions across vast distances, such as those which took place along these historic routes, have made an undeniable contribution to the enrichment of life and culture. Now, as in the past, increasing human interconnectedness and movement presents challenges but also opportunities in numerous fields including science, medicine and epidemiology, and greatly adds to the improvement and richness of our daily lives. The constant movement and mixing of populations along the Silk Roads had a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the peoples of Eurasia and indeed of people worldwide, driving the development of knowledge, ideas, beliefs, culture and identities. Science, arts and literature, as well as knowhow, crafts and technologies were shared and disseminated into societies along the lengths of these routes.

However, wherever people, animals and goods have moved and brought enriching effects, undesirable phenomena such as disease have also been transmitted on a broad scale. Just as global movement and connectedness is not a new phenomenon, neither is the potential for, and the occurrence of, epidemics. Among the different kinds of parasites, bacteria and viruses, and their associated diseases, that were transmitted along the Silk Roads, plague was one of the most notable. Plague is a disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, commonly carried by fleas. Three pandemics of plague have occurred in human history: the best-known and perhaps largest was the second outbreak often referred to as the “Black Death”, which infected vast numbers of people across Eurasia, and killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million. The outbreak peaked between 1347 and 1351 CE, reaching the trade ports of Europe by 1346. A number of theories exist as to where the 14 th century plague originated and how exactly it spread. One of the most often cited is that it was carried by infected rodents across the Silk Roads, reaching Europe along with infected merchants and travellers.

Societies were very limited in their ability to treat and prevent the spread of plague in the 14 th century as there was no accurate knowledge available about the exact cause of the disease or of effective treatments. Indeed, fleeing remained one of the only effective preventative public health measures available to people at the time. Whilst the attempted cures for plague had very little effect, the Black Death did prompt Europe and other parts of the world to expand and refine public health measures, particularly in the subsequent decades and centuries as the disease continued to periodically return. Furthermore, some methods for preventing the spread of plague, such as making suspected vessels and travellers remain in isolation for 40 days before they were allowed to enter the city of Venice, are still practiced today, and it is from this practice that we derive the term “quarantine”.

The transmission of the Black Death, and the damage that it caused to societies in Asia and Europe, are undoubtedly examples of a disastrous catastrophe that trade, and interactions, helped exacerbate. However, an overall assessment of the outcomes of the exchanges along the Silk Roads reveals that despite some negative effects, these interactions have brought vast benefits and enriched human life and culture. In fact, the medical sciences have been one of the direct beneficiaries of these intercultural exchanges. During the medieval or “post-classical era” (500-1450 CE), scholars made large contributions to the fields of medicine, pharmacology and veterinary science thanks to the circulation of knowledge and ideas. The movement of people and knowledge across the Silk Roads facilitated the widespread translation of work from other parts of the world into Arabic, making a broad array of scholarship accessible to polymaths of the day. Their work synthesised and built on existing medical knowledge, such as that developed in Ancient Greece and Rome, and combined this with knowledge from other regions of the world such as China and the Indian subcontinent.

The example of the Black Death would be inspiring for dealing with challenges caused by the outbreak of epidemics in our contemporary world. Unlike in the 14 th century, today we can identify new viruses, sequence their genome, and develop a reliable test for the disease in just a few weeks. It may be tempting in uncertain times, particularly now as the world is witnessing the rapid spread of COVID-19, to conclude that the only way to prevent challenges such as the spread of infectious diseases is to restrict movement and exchange, and somehow roll back globalization and the connectedness of different cultures and peoples. However, the spread of plague in a world without planes, trains and cruise ships, serves as a reminder that diseases can move rapidly even without such technologies.

Although we live in an age of intense globalization that seems unprecedented, human movement, exchange and interconnectedness are not recent phenomena. In fact, people have always moved from place to place and exchanged goods, skills and ideas across vast distances. The outbreak of the Black Death and its spread along the Silk Roads would be a timely reminder that one of the greatest defences against newly emerging challenges is the exchange and collective analysis of reliable knowledge and experience. Despite the tremendous speed of the circulation of people and goods around the world today, humans are well prepared and ready to face the challenges that may result from these interactions, largely thanks to collaborations and collective experiences and these will continue to play an important role in tackling and preventing the spread of diseases.

Smallpox

Historically, trade and movement have inevitably played a major role in the spread of infectious disease. In addition to diseases caused by bacteria, such as Plague, many viruses have been transmitted via movement along the Silk Roads. One notable example of a viral disease which has been prevalent throughout much of human history is smallpox. However, just as the disease itself travelled the Silk Roads, so too did a number of public health measures designed to combat it, including an early precursor to vaccinations, a practice known as “variolation”. Indeed, the first ever vaccines produced were used to protect people from catching smallpox, which, due to large scale international vaccination programmes in the 20 th century, has since been successfully eradicated worldwide.

Smallpox is an infectious disease caused by the “Variola” virus characterised by the formation of small sores all over the body. The disease spreads via contact with an infected person or from a contaminated item such as clothing or bedding. Although the exact origins of smallpox are unknown, there is evidence of the disease having been present in Ancient Egypt from as early as the 3 rd century BCE. It appears that trade played an early role in spreading smallpox and there is speculation amongst historians that traders from Egypt might have transmitted the disease to the Indian Subcontinent sometime in the 1 st millennium BCE. Some of the earliest written descriptions of smallpox date from 4 th century CE China and, as trade along the Silk Roads increased in the 6 th century CE, the disease spread rapidly to Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Notably, smallpox broke out between 735 – 737 CE in Japan, where it is believed to have killed up to one-third of the population.

By the 7 th century CE, as trade and travel along the Silk Roads increased, smallpox became “endemic” (outbreaks regularly reoccurring within a given population) in the Indian Subcontinent. Muslim expansion during this time spread smallpox into Northern Africa, Spain and Portugal. In the 9 th century CE, the Persian physician Razi, an early proponent of experimental medicine and chief physician of Baghdad and Rey hospitals in the Abbasid Caliphate, produced one of the most definitive descriptions of smallpox and the first account differentiating it from other similar diseases such as measles and chickenpox. By the 10 th century smallpox had spread throughout Anatolia, with another wave of increased activity along the Silk Roads in the 13 th century CE causing the disease to become endemic in previously unaffected areas such as Central and Northern Europe. In the 15 th century, Portuguese expeditions to the West Coast of Africa and the establishment of new trade routes introduced the disease to further previously unaffected areas.

Despite the fact that the movement of people and goods across vast distances has undoubtedly aided the spread of disease, the medical sciences have been one of the direct beneficiaries of the resulting intercultural exchanges. An excellent example of this is the development and transmission of “variolation”, a practice which was an early precursor to smallpox vaccination. There are early accounts of priests from the Indian Subcontinent travelling the Silk Roads popularising the practice of what they called “tika”, an early effort at inoculation (the introduction of a disease-causing agent in order to produce immunity to a specific disease). This involved taking matter from a smallpox patient’s sores and applying it to a small wound on an uninfected person, the idea being that the uninfected person would develop only a very mild case of the disease and, on recovery, become immune to catching a severe case in the future.

This practice may have developed independently in the Indian Subcontinent or, alternatively, practitioners might have learned it from Muslim physicians, who themselves came into contact with the practice via travel and trade with China. As early as the 1400s, medical healers in China had realized that those who survived smallpox did not catch the illness again and inferred that exposure to the illness protected a person from future instances of it. This observation gave rise to a second important public heath measure which was that those who had contracted the disease and survived were able to treat and care for new patients as they had incurred a natural immunity and were unlikely to become ill a second time. In order to transfer this immunity to new patients, Chinese doctors would grind smallpox scabs into a powder and insert it into a person’s nose with a long silver pipe. If only a very small amount of the virus was ingested that person would have a mild experience of the disease and be immunized for life. Similar practices, of “variolation”, were also documented in Africa in accounts from what is today Sudan. By the 16 th century, this practice was a widespread public health measure enacted across many regions of the Silk Roads reaching as far west as Anatolia, having been introduced via descriptions from travellers and merchants.

Read Post  Cheap flights from Washington DC to Europe

Throughout history, as we have developed better knowledge of how diseases are transmitted, how they can be treated, and the relevant public health measures that prevent their spread, a major trend for many endemic diseases has been the gradual reduction in their impact over time. In the case of a number of viral diseases, these measures have included the development of vaccinations, which, as in the practice of variolation, have an historic precedent in medicine transmitted along the Silk Roads. In the 18 th century, the English physician Edward Jenner built on the idea of variolation and made a major contribution to the development of the modern smallpox vaccine. He observed that those who had contracted cowpox, a similar but milder viral infection, rarely went on to catch smallpox later in life. It is from the disease cowpox, known in Latin as variola vaccina, that we derive the term “vaccine”. Coordinated international vaccination programmes throughout the 20 th century led to the eradication of smallpox in 1980, and today outbreaks of the disease no longer occur anywhere in the world. The eradication of smallpox is a testament to the development of the medical sciences over a long period of time, building on and sharing pre-existing medical knowledge and coordinating public health initiatives. A natural precursor to this vaccination dates back many hundreds of years with its origins in the many exchanges in the medical sciences taking place along the Silk Roads.

The Development of Medical Botany and Pharmacology

Throughout history, trade and movement have inevitably played a major role in the spread of infectious diseases such as plague and smallpox. However, whilst disease undoubtedly travelled the Silk Roads, so too did knowledge surrounding the medicinal properties of various substances which might be used to mitigate its effects. In terms of the development of pharmacology, the interconnectedness the Silk Roads facilitated helped create an environment in which the synthesis of a broad array of medical traditions from across Eurasia could be carried out, and allowed for medicinal substances, predominantly plants, to be traded across vast distances. During the 8th and 9th centuries CE, the movement of people and knowledge across the Silk Roads facilitated the widespread translation of work from other parts of the world into Arabic, making a broad array of scholarship accessible to polymaths working in the field of medicine in academic centres such as Baghdad and Cairo. As such, Islamic medicine synthesised existing medical knowledge, including that developed in Ancient Greece and Rome, and combined this with knowledge from other regions along the Silk Roads such as China and the Indian subcontinent.

Two medical fields which benefited greatly from the interconnectedness facilitated by the exchanges along the Silk Roads developed considerably during the Middle Ages; medical botany – the scientific study of the medicinal value of plant life, and pharmacology – the branch of medicine concerned with the uses, effects, and modes of action of therapeutic drugs. The development of pharmacology relied heavily on medical botany, a practice which involved cataloguing the many uses and effects of different plants. Amongst the earliest medical botanists were the Ancient Greeks Dioscorides, who produced one of the first pharmacological treatise in the 1st century CE, and Theophrastus (372-287 BCE) who described and classified many additional therapeutic uses of plants.

Pharmacology began to grow considerably in the Middle Ages. When Islam expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula to the Iranian Plateau, parts of Central Asia, and North Africa in the late 7th century CE, its growth coincided with a golden age of scholarship across the sciences. During this time Muslim and non-Muslim scholars worked from texts translated from Greek, Persian, and Syriac into Arabic. Major advances in the medical sciences were made that built on the knowledge of previous civilizations, such as Greece, Ancient Mesopotamia, and Iran, and incorporated medical knowledge from other regions which reached the Islamic world via the Silk Roads. Because of this, during the height of the Abbasid Caliphate a pluralistic group of brilliant scholars from all over Eurasia were drawn to the court at Baghdad as well as to other academic centres such as Bukhara, Merv, Gundishapur, and Ghazni. Scholars from this period included the physician Razi (845 CE-932 CE), the polymath Avicenna (980-1037 CE), the polymath al-Biruni (973- around 1050 CE), and the botanist and pharmacist Ibn al-Baitar (1197-1248 CE).

These scholars produced many notable texts including Razi’s most famous medical text, ‘The Comprehensive Book on Medicine’ (Kitab Al-Hawi), on which he laboured for 15 years. The text remained unfinished at the time of his death but was later completed by his pupils. This considerable enterprise, comprised of 30 volumes, covered all branches of medieval medicine beginning with a vast overview of the subject including quotations from Ancient Greek and Indian physicians, complemented by the author’s own commentaries and personal observations. Similarly, Avicenna’s ‘The Canon of Medicine’ (Qanun), an encyclopaedia of medicine in five volumes completed in 1025 CE presented an overview of the medical knowledge of the Islamic world, influenced by earlier traditions including Greco-Roman medicine (in particular the works of Galen), as well as Persian, Chinese and Indian medical traditions. Book two of his canon included a detailed list of medical substances accompanied with essays on their general uses and properties.

The exchanges along the Silk Roads played a vital role in much of this scholarship. Despite describing many Chinese medicines in his work ‘Collections of Simple Drugs and Foodstuffs’, the well-known botanist, Ibn al-Baitar, who travelled as far as the Anatolian plateau collecting plants, did not travel to China. Instead, many of the plants he described reached him via the flow of commercial and cultural exchanges along the Silk Roads. Similarly, Avicenna incorporated knowledge of Chinese medicines into his works, writing about the compound ‘suk’ which was thought to treat heart palpitations and protect the liver from damage. Another of the scholars of this time who wrote pharmacological and pharmaceutical textbooks was Muvaffak, who travelled extensively across the Indian Subcontinent researching medical substances and whose work the ‘Book of the Remedies’ (Kitab al-Abnyia), written in Persian between 968-977 CE, contains descriptions and recipes for 585 medicines, including 466 obtained from plants, 75 from mineral substances and 44 from substances of animal origin.

It is important to note that although many of the medicinal plants in these works have since been replaced with modern drugs that are synthesised in chemical processes, a number of the substances identified as having medical properties in the Middle Ages were effective. Humans have used plant based remedies throughout history to alleviate many common conditions including colds, allergies, and digestive issues. For example, although the pain remedy aspirin is now synthesised chemically, a compound similar to the salicylic acid found in aspirin is present in willow bark which was used throughout the ancient world to successfully relieve pain.

These early studies of the medicinal properties of plants and other substances established the groundwork for the modern branch of medicine known as pharmacology. Using information, translations, and materials from various regions across the Silk Roads, scholars compiled pluralistic collections of medical knowledge. These channels of exchange were highly enriching to the development of many fields of science and it is a testament to the exchanges these routes facilitated that considerable amounts of information reached scholars, who had never themselves been to China or the Indian Subcontinent.

The Significance of Cultural Exchange in Alchemy and the Later Development of Chemistry

Interactions across vast distances, such as those which took place along the historic routes of the Silk Roads, have made an undeniable contribution to the enrichment and development of the sciences via the transmission of both knowledge and the material resources for scientific enquiry. Some important proto-scientific disciplines developed along the Silk Roads include medical botany, pharmacology, early responses to infectious disease, and the precursor to the scientific discipline of chemistry – alchemy. Historically, in the case of alchemy and early chemistry, exchange created the conditions favourable to accessing the natural resources required, including the metals and mineral deposits found throughout Central Asia, as well as to diverse bodies of existing knowledge particularly ancient scientific and philosophical texts from Ancient China, Egypt and the Indian subcontinent.

Modern day chemistry is the scientific discipline concerned with elements and compounds composed of atoms, molecules and ions, and their composition, structure, properties, behaviours, and the changes they undergo when they react with one another. It has an incredibly diverse range of practical applications ranging from energy and food production, to building materials, cosmetics, and the development of the medical sciences. Scientific enquiry and method in chemistry had an early proto-scientific precursor in the art of ‘alchemy’, an ancient field of natural philosophy concerned with the purification and perfection of certain materials, the transformation of base metals such as lead into those perceived to be more valuable such as gold, and the creation of panaceas to cure all known illness and disease. Alchemy was a prescientific practice observed throughout many parts of Eurasia and Africa, particularly in China and Europe. It is believed to have been an area of study in China and the Greco-Roman world from as early as the first century CE. Along the Silk Roads, the vast natural deposits of metals in Central Asia encouraged the practice of alchemy and experimentation with metallurgic materials giving rise to an incredibly large number of treatises on the subject.

Although humans began utilising some of the earliest technologies that would go on to form the basis of chemical enquiry from as early as 1000 BCE, such as fire, extracting metals from ores, making pottery and glazes, extracting chemicals from plants for their medicinal properties, making glass, and producing alloys such as bronze, it was not until much later that there were concrete attempts to conduct written studies in chemistry motivated in large part by the potential for uncovering substances with medicinal properties and uses. The earliest written works on chemical process and transformations arose from a number of centres throughout the ancient world, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indian Subcontinent and China.

Later, during the Islamic Golden Age of the 8th to the 14th century CE, Arabic-speaking scholars translated many of these Greek, Chinese, and Indian scientific and philosophical works on alchemy into Arabic in flourishing academic centres such as Baghdad, Cairo, Samarkand and Bukhara. Thereafter, philosophers in the Islamic world pursued chemical and alchemical ideas from across the reaches of the Silk Roads with great enthusiasm and success. The elemental system utilized in medical alchemy was primarily developed by the Persian-Arab alchemist, Ibn Hayyān and was derived in parts from the classical elements of the ancient Greek tradition, namely the four Aristotelian elements of air, earth, fire and water as well as sulphur and mercury. During the mid-10th century CE, Abu Abd Allah al-Khwarazmi created an encyclopaedia of technical terms, Keys of the Sciences (Mafatih al-ulum) in which he described the three constituent elements of alchemy, the apparatus used, the chemical substances required, and their interactions and processing. Indeed, the large number of modern chemical words in the English language which are derived from Arabic, such as alkali, alchemy, zircon, elixir, and many others, attest to the great importance of this period in the development of chemistry as a scientific discipline.

Outside of the many cosmopolitan city centres along the Silk Roads, the origins of chemical and pharmacological knowledge lay in other parts of Central Asia rich in the natural deposits of metals required for experimentation in alchemy. Deposits of raw materials namely lead, silver, and gold in Ferghana and Sogdia, and red salt in the Shahr-i-Sabz regions (in modern day Uzbekistan) were mined extensively. The availability of these natural resources served as the foundation from which alchemy and chemistry could flourish and were transported along the Silk Roads to reach the laboratories of alchemists. From the region, important archaeological finds include apothecary shops and chemistry laboratories dating from the late 8 th century CE at excavations in Paikent, Bukhara, in modern day Uzbekistan. Here, various tools and associated technologies have been uncovered, many used in the chemical preparation of medicines such as furnaces, kilns, a hand-mill, glass vessels, and ceramic bowls, valuable items frequently exchanged along the Silk Roads. Many of these glass vessels were a type of apparatus used in chemical distillation known as al-anbiq, from where we derive the name of a distillation apparatus used throughout medieval history the ‘alembic’. Furthermore, a small amount of wax has also been excavated from these apothecaries and laboratories, a substance widely used in Eastern medicine as a component of medicinal ointments.

Read Post  How Do I Use My Cell Phone While Traveling to Europe

Indeed, many Scholarly texts regarding the significance of alchemy and chemistry reflected its high profile within the medical sciences of the time. Some examples included, Abu Nasr Mohammad al-Farabi (d. 950 CE), whose treatise, On the Need for the Art of Chemistry was translated into Latin in Europe the 12 th century CE. It is an encyclopaedic work that went on to play a significant role in the development of European and Eastern medicine. The polymath and prolific writer Avicenna (980 -1037) revisited the ancient Aristotelean principles regarding the origins of metals and minerals in his work, Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa). He believed the theoretical basis of ancient Eastern medicine lay in the principles of mizaj, or the mixed nature of substances, including medicines, which reflected the properties of heat, cold, dryness and wetness. Similarly to the texts written during the Islamic golden age, work produced in Europe during the 12 th century CE Renaissance relied on synthesising, via the translation of Medieval Islamic works, existing science and combining it with Aristotelian philosophy and new research. In the development of early modern science in the 16 th century, these earlier works on alchemy and chemistry formed the basis of basic laboratory techniques, theory, terminology, and experimental method, some of which bear similarities to that still in use today.

Over time, the transformation and evolution of alchemy led to a more thorough understanding of modern chemistry, pharmacology, and pharmaceutics. Early studies into alchemy, with their attempts to understand the interactions and process of different materials, extract chemicals from natural resources, and synthesise existing knowledge from along the reaches of the Silk roads, established much of the groundwork for the modern science of chemistry. Thanks to the communication networks along Silk Roads, alchemists had access to a vast array of natural resources, including metals and minerals, objects for experimentation like glassware and ceramics, as well as a far reaching network of information available via translation. This allowed for the creation of pluralistic bodies of research, in an environment highly favourable to academic enquiry and knowledge transfer through rich channels of exchange.

Today, the Silk Roads are an instructive reminder that human movement, exchange, and interconnectedness are not solely contemporary phenomenon. Indeed, when it comes to the development of the sciences and technology, we do not occupy isolated worlds but a shared and interdependent one that flourishes when we interact, allowing knowledge to be widely shared. The UNESCO Silk Roads Programme promotes this unique history of cultural exchange and dialogue, which has weaved connections between peoples, and sparked innovation and development across the sciences, and many other fields, for thousands of years, providing the basis for rencounters and exchanges in the contemporary world.

The Silk Road

Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor’s in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

Chris has a master’s degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Discover what the Silk Road is. Learn about its history and why the Silk Road trade was so important. Also discover what ideas were traded on the Silk Road. Updated: 09/07/2021

Table of Contents

What Is the Silk Road?

The term Silk Road refers to an extensive trade network that stretched from East Asia to Europe and parts of Africa; it is more accurate to talk about Silk Roads in the plural instead of the singular.

Where is the Silk Road, or its significant routes, located? The Silk Roads began in several parts of Eastern China. They extended south into the Pacific and Indian Oceans and included several major maritime trade routes to India and Ethiopia, among other places. Overland, the roads passed through what are now Mongolia, Tibet, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and Italy; many other countries were significant stops along the Silk Roads. Overall, the Silk Roads covered more than 4,000 miles of land from end to end.

What purpose was the Silk Road used? For centuries, the Silk Roads were used for trade, transporting valuable goods over great distances. In addition to goods, the roads also served as transportation routes for ideas, religions, people, and even diseases. As early as 1000 BCE, the roads were used and continued to be important well into the Renaissance; the earliest evidence of trade is Chinese silk found in Egypt. At one point, parts of the Silk Road were closed due to the fall of the Roman Empire; however, they reopened in the 13th-century, where their use flourished more than ever.

A section of the Silk Road in Central Asia

Who Made the Silk Road?

Evidence of trade across the space that later became the Silk Roads dates back to at least 1000 BCE; it was not until around 130 BCE that the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) in China opened trade routes with other countries, reaching as far as Greece and Rome. This opening marked the true beginning of Silk Road history when the routes started to form, and the infrastructure that allowed trade to continue began to be built.

Some of the most major roads had formal names, like the Persian Royal Road that spanned from the ancient Persian capital of Susa to the Aegean Sea. Like the Darb Zubayda that ran from Kufa to Mecca, other roads were used both for trade and as religious pilgrimage routes. For a while, some of the significant Silk Roads stopped functioning as the empires that protected them fractured into smaller states. However, the Mongols, a massive 13th-century empire, conquered much of Asia, eliminating the power of these smaller kingdoms and fully reopened the roads. The Silk Roads reached their peak during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 CE), established by the Mongol leader Kublai Khan.

Why is the Silk Road Called the Silk Road?

The answer is quite simple; silk was one of the most critical goods traded along the Silk Roads; however, the term Silk Road is a relatively modern invention: the term was first used by a geographer named Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.

China produced much high-quality silk coveted throughout other parts of Asia and much of Europe; the material was challenging to produce and luxurious, leading to high prices. Under Marcus Aurelius’s rule, Roman society had a particular love of Chinese silk, trading a variety of goods in exchange. In addition to silk, the roads were a vector for ivory, tea, spices, fabrics like wool and cotton, and precious metals.

Follow the Silk Road

I’ve heard of following the Yellow Brick Road, but a Silk Road? Now the magical Land of Oz is just going overboard. Actually, the Silk Roads were very real and were a series of trade routes that spread across Asia and connected China to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. They were named this because of the very lucrative silk import and export business that brought many merchants to China. All in all, the various routes that comprised the Silk Roads crossed 4,000 miles of the Eurasian supercontinent. That’s a lot of roads!

The Silk Roads were major factors in history because they allowed for people, objects, and ideas to spread quickly across the Eurasian continent. Commercial products, such as silks, spices, livestock, gems, and minerals, were passed between merchants. People as diverse as soldiers, monks, pilgrims, and diplomats travelled the continent. Philosophies, religions, ideas, and technologies passed between kingdoms.

Even disease may have travelled the Silk Roads; some experts think the Black Death, the plague that hit Europe, entered through rats following Silk Road merchants. In the 13th century, the Silk Roads dramatically changed European society. But before we can discuss that, we need a little background on the Silk Roads.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

You must c C reate an account to continue watching

Register to view this lesson

As a member, you’ll also get unlimited access to over 84,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.

Get unlimited access to over 84,000 lessons.

Already registered? Log in here for access

Resources created by teachers for teachers

I would definitely recommend Study.com to my colleagues. It’s like a teacher waved a magic wand and did the work for me. I feel like it’s a lifeline.

Jennifer B.

You’re on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Just checking in. Are you still watching?

  • 0:08 Follow the Silk Road
  • 1:21 Background
  • 2:22 The Khans & Renaissance Europe
  • 3:48 Lesson Summary

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Tea was important in Silk Road trading

Silk Road Trading

The Silk Roads were some of the most extensive trade networks in world history before modern globalization. In addition to those listed above, Silk Road trading heavily featured the following:

Horses and slaves were typically traded from the West to the East, while gunpowder and gems (and silk) were generally traded from East to West.

It is essential to understand that travel and trade along the Silk Roads did not take quite the same forms that many people think of today when they imagine traveling merchants. Very few people, if any, traveled the entire way across the Silk Roads from China to Europe. Much more commonly, merchants would travel back and forth across a relatively small section of the road, selling their wares to other merchants who would take them the next leg of the journey.

The short distances allowed many people to make a living as Silk Road merchants and made the cost of goods rise as they made their way across Asia and Europe. Some cities were trade hubs where several routes converged, in some cases becoming powerful enough to emerge as city-states in their own right. It was also common for inns and small towns to crop up along the trade routes to cater to traveling merchants.

What Ideas Were Traded on the Silk Road?

With so many people from different countries meeting and trading goods, the prospect of ideas, philosophies, and religions was bound to spread just as physical trade goods did. Notably, Christianity spread across Europe and Asia, mainly from the Roman Empire; Buddhism spread from India to China and beyond. Trade routes like the Darb Zubayda mentioned above, which also served as Hajj pilgrimage routes, encouraged the spread of Islam. The experiences of merchants provided fodder for stories in their home countries of strange lands and people, causing the dual effect of broadening people’s horizons and encouraging the spread of Orientalism in Europe.

Scientific and technological discoveries also proliferated across the Silk Roads. Europe, for instance, benefitted from China’s inventions of paper and early printing techniques, as well as the Islamic world’s mathematical discoveries. Sharing ideas and technologies was mutually beneficial for all countries touched by these roads, accelerating their advancement.

Trading Plague and Disease on the Silk Road

Unfortunately, goods and ideas were not the only things that traveled along the Silk Roads with the merchants. Historians now suspect that the bubonic plague, which caused the Black Death, originated somewhere in Asia. It reached Europe through the transmission of fleas and infected individuals along the Silk Roads.

In the 1300s, the Black Death killed about one-third of the European population (50 million people) within ten years in one of the worst disease outbreaks in human history. The spread of disease was one of the major negative consequences of such an extensive trade route.

Read Post  How to Travel With Medications

Invading the Silk Road

The Silk Roads were well-established, often clearly marked roads that spanned hundreds of miles, making them an ideal asset for any armies seeking to invade parts of Asia or Europe. Parts of the roads were closed when the Roman Empire fell, and China lost some of its power, allowing smaller kingdoms to claim parts of the Silk Roads and disrupt trade.

The Mongols used the Silk Roads during their invasion of much of Asia in the 13th-century, but ultimately they were a boon to trade, reopening and facilitating trade along the roads. The end of the Silk Roads’ prominence came in 1453 CE when the Ottoman Empire closed its trade routes to Europe. Even then, some parts of the Silk Road continued to operate.

Why Was the Silk Road Important?

Camels were used for travel on many parts of the Silk Road

It would be almost impossible to overstate the Silk Road trade’s impact on the people of Asia and Europe. Despite the downsides of the routes, like their ability to facilitate disease, the Silk Roads enriched people and nations all across Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa.

Science and philosophy could advance more rapidly than they otherwise would have because of the increased communication between different groups of people. People could make connections with one another that would not have been possible without the infrastructure that supported so many trade routes.

Animals and crops were traded along the routes, which helped China to grow its population and improved the quality of life in Europe. As a result of new wealth, Europe improved its education, literacy rates, and art. The mercantile class emerged in full force because of the Silk Roads and a class of artisans. World history would be almost unimaginably different without the existence of the Silk Roads.

Modern Silk Road Trading

Although the Silk Roads were primarily closed in the 1400s, they never entirely disappeared and are still relevant today. In the 20th-century, old road trade routes helped China during the Japanese invasion in World War II. Some routes that were once Silk Roads are now significant highways in Europe and Asia, connecting people and being used for trade just as they always have been. Old parts of the Silk Roads are now tourist attractions, primarily in China; in this way, they still contribute to the Chinese economy. Additionally, some ocean routes that were part of the Silk Roads are still used for maritime trade, while others are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Silk Roads is how they set the stage for contemporary global trade; they were the most developed trade arteries of their time. Much of the knowledge of how to establish and maintain trade networks comes from that time.

Lesson Summary

The Silk Roads were trade routes that connected Europe and Asia and still exist today. They had a massive impact on life in Europe and Asia for centuries, particularly in the Renaissance. A new mercantile and artisan class developed, Europe improved its literacy rates, art, and architecture, and major trade cities became rich and powerful enough to become independent city-states.

There was a time when some of the older Silk Roads fell out of use when the empires that had protected them fell, allowing smaller kingdoms to take control. In the 13th-century, however, the Mongols became a massive empire that conquered most of Asia. They reopened the Silk Roads by dismantling the kingdoms that had limited trade, flourishing again.

A Little Background on the Silk Roads

People had been trading across Asia for millennia. In fact, Chinese silk has been found in Egypt that dates to 1000 BCE. The first true Silk Roads, however, were developed by China’s Han dynasty around 200 BCE when they began building real roads that were protected by troops and forts.

The original Silk Roads were crucial in the development of nearly every Asian and Middle-Eastern culture because these trade routes helped spread ideas, technology, and wealth. Major players in the Silk Road trade included China, India, Persia, Armenia, and Syria. Even the ancient Greek and Roman empires both heavily participated in the Silk Roads and traded their knowledge and products for ivory, spices, technology, and minerals.

A lot of money travelled the Silk Roads. As we can imagine, this made them targets to other powers. After Rome fell in the 5th century, less people travelled from Europe on those roads and they became less safe. Around 300 years later, the Tibetans captured crucial points on the trade routes and China lost control, effectively spelling the end of the Silk Roads.

The Khans and Renaissance Europe

In 1207, a great Mongol leader named Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and started a conquest of Asia. Under Genghis Khan, the new Mongol Empire dominated the continent. At its height, the Mongol Empire covered over 12 million square miles. 12 million square miles! That is still one of the largest empires in history.

European merchants hadn’t been able to get to China for centuries because the Silk Roads were controlled by dozens of different kingdoms that either taxed or killed foreigners for passing through. Suddenly, the Mongol Empire controlled taxes and foreign policy, and the Silk Roads opened up once again.

The reopening of the Silk Roads had an incredible impact on Europe. After centuries in the Dark Ages, where peasants lived in poverty and literacy was low, suddenly new wealth came flowing into Europe. The need for merchants to handle the import and export business created a middle class, and that money spread throughout society.

People had more money and time for things like books and education. The wealthy used their money to commission public works of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Artisans and craftsmen were busy with work and developed professional organizations called guilds. Cities grew so much in size and power that many, like Venice, became their own independent governments without being part of any other kingdom or empire; these are called city-states.

Lesson Summary

The Silk Roads were a series of trade routes that connected Europe and Asia. In ancient times, the Silk Roads served to connect people across the Eurasian supercontinent, but once the powerful empires that maintained it fell, smaller kingdoms seized control of portions of the roads. They either charged foreigners high taxes or killed them, so trade pretty much stopped.

Until, that is, the Mongol Empire rose in the 13th century and conquered almost the entire Asian continent. As part of one massive empire, the kingdoms lost the ability to control the ancient trade routes individually, and the Silk Roads reopened for business. Suddenly, new wealth began flowing into Europe from import and export trade. This created a healthy class of merchants and artisans and supported education, literacy, art, and architecture.

The trade cities, particularly in Europe, grew so powerful that they became independent governments called city-states. Together, these were the defining features of a new era of European civilization called the Renaissance.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve reviewed this lesson, practice what you learned:

  • Summarize the Silk Roads during ancient times
  • Describe the impact of the Mongol Empire on the Silk Roads
  • Explain the effects of the reopening of the Silk Roads and its contributions to the Renaissance

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Follow the Silk Road

I’ve heard of following the Yellow Brick Road, but a Silk Road? Now the magical Land of Oz is just going overboard. Actually, the Silk Roads were very real and were a series of trade routes that spread across Asia and connected China to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. They were named this because of the very lucrative silk import and export business that brought many merchants to China. All in all, the various routes that comprised the Silk Roads crossed 4,000 miles of the Eurasian supercontinent. That’s a lot of roads!

The Silk Roads were major factors in history because they allowed for people, objects, and ideas to spread quickly across the Eurasian continent. Commercial products, such as silks, spices, livestock, gems, and minerals, were passed between merchants. People as diverse as soldiers, monks, pilgrims, and diplomats travelled the continent. Philosophies, religions, ideas, and technologies passed between kingdoms.

Even disease may have travelled the Silk Roads; some experts think the Black Death, the plague that hit Europe, entered through rats following Silk Road merchants. In the 13th century, the Silk Roads dramatically changed European society. But before we can discuss that, we need a little background on the Silk Roads.

A Little Background on the Silk Roads

People had been trading across Asia for millennia. In fact, Chinese silk has been found in Egypt that dates to 1000 BCE. The first true Silk Roads, however, were developed by China’s Han dynasty around 200 BCE when they began building real roads that were protected by troops and forts.

The original Silk Roads were crucial in the development of nearly every Asian and Middle-Eastern culture because these trade routes helped spread ideas, technology, and wealth. Major players in the Silk Road trade included China, India, Persia, Armenia, and Syria. Even the ancient Greek and Roman empires both heavily participated in the Silk Roads and traded their knowledge and products for ivory, spices, technology, and minerals.

A lot of money travelled the Silk Roads. As we can imagine, this made them targets to other powers. After Rome fell in the 5th century, less people travelled from Europe on those roads and they became less safe. Around 300 years later, the Tibetans captured crucial points on the trade routes and China lost control, effectively spelling the end of the Silk Roads.

The Khans and Renaissance Europe

In 1207, a great Mongol leader named Genghis Khan united the Mongol tribes and started a conquest of Asia. Under Genghis Khan, the new Mongol Empire dominated the continent. At its height, the Mongol Empire covered over 12 million square miles. 12 million square miles! That is still one of the largest empires in history.

European merchants hadn’t been able to get to China for centuries because the Silk Roads were controlled by dozens of different kingdoms that either taxed or killed foreigners for passing through. Suddenly, the Mongol Empire controlled taxes and foreign policy, and the Silk Roads opened up once again.

The reopening of the Silk Roads had an incredible impact on Europe. After centuries in the Dark Ages, where peasants lived in poverty and literacy was low, suddenly new wealth came flowing into Europe. The need for merchants to handle the import and export business created a middle class, and that money spread throughout society.

People had more money and time for things like books and education. The wealthy used their money to commission public works of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Artisans and craftsmen were busy with work and developed professional organizations called guilds. Cities grew so much in size and power that many, like Venice, became their own independent governments without being part of any other kingdom or empire; these are called city-states.

Lesson Summary

The Silk Roads were a series of trade routes that connected Europe and Asia. In ancient times, the Silk Roads served to connect people across the Eurasian supercontinent, but once the powerful empires that maintained it fell, smaller kingdoms seized control of portions of the roads. They either charged foreigners high taxes or killed them, so trade pretty much stopped.

Until, that is, the Mongol Empire rose in the 13th century and conquered almost the entire Asian continent. As part of one massive empire, the kingdoms lost the ability to control the ancient trade routes individually, and the Silk Roads reopened for business. Suddenly, new wealth began flowing into Europe from import and export trade. This created a healthy class of merchants and artisans and supported education, literacy, art, and architecture.

The trade cities, particularly in Europe, grew so powerful that they became independent governments called city-states. Together, these were the defining features of a new era of European civilization called the Renaissance.

Learning Outcomes

After you’ve reviewed this lesson, practice what you learned:

  • Summarize the Silk Roads during ancient times
  • Describe the impact of the Mongol Empire on the Silk Roads
  • Explain the effects of the reopening of the Silk Roads and its contributions to the Renaissance

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Source https://www.studysmarter.us/explanations/history/modern-world-history/the-silk-roads/

Source https://brewminate.com/the-spread-of-disease-along-the-medieval-silk-roads/

Source https://study.com/learn/lesson/what-is-the-silk-road-why-is-silk-road-important.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *