Despite having very different cultures and being separated by thousands of kilometers, Asia and Europe have been connected for thousands of years.
Through a series of overland and sea trade routes, goods, ideas, and people were able to move from east to west and vice versa.
These routes were responsible for some of history’s greatest cultural exchanges as well as some of its greatest disasters.
Learn more about the Silk Road and how it shaped history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
I should kick off this episode by explaining exactly what the Silk Road was because there is a lot of confusion surrounding it.
The Silk Road was not ‘a’ road, meaning it was not a singular route that connected Asia and Europe. Moreover, some of the things which fall under the Silk Road weren’t even roads.
At the time it was used, no one called it the Silk Road, sort of like how the term Byzantine Empire was created after the fact.
To make it even better, the Silk Road wasn’t even necessarily about silk.
The term Silk Road was popularized in 1877 by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen, who called it the Seidenstraße, or literally Silk Road.
The term Silk Road is one that most people have probably heard and are familiar with, but it has fallen out of favor amongst historians simply because of all the inaccuracies it entails.
The terms “Silk Roads” or “Silk Routes” is now often used because it is a bit more accurate.
I’m going to continue to use Silk Road for the rest of this episode, but keep in mind that the term “Silk Road” is more of a metaphorical one than a literal one. It refers to all of the trade routes between East and West, and not necessarily even trade routes on land, even though it is most closely associated with the land routes that went through Central Asia.
That being said, the origins of the Silk Road usually given to have started in 138 BC when the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sent an envoy named Zhang Qian to establish diplomatic relations with the tribes and kingdoms of Central Asia.
If you look at a map of the territory of the Han Dynasty, it covers most of Eastern China, which was the traditional core of Chinese Civilization, and then it extends westward in a very long salient, aka a panhandle, out into Central Asia.
While there was no single Silk Road, there were points where mountain passes or other geographical features often focused travel.
The Silk Road could also be considered more of a chain with multiple links than a singular road. When goods arrived from China in Central Asia, they would be bought and sold by merchants who would then trade them with other merchants further to the west, who would, in turn, trade them with other merchants, and so on and so on.
Most of the trade from China began in several inland cities, but primarily from the city of Xi’an, which used to be called Chang’an. This was where the broad plains of Eastern China met the foothills and most mountain regions of the West.
From there, there was a pretty straight shot, arching around the Tibetan plateau until it reached the Taklamakan Desert, which is an enormous barren area in Western China. The route split into a northern and southern route, each of which went around the impassible desert.
From there, it would pass through the Wakhan Corridor in what is today Afghanistan. If you look at a map of modern Afghanistan, you will notice a finger of land that extends to the east and has a small border with China. That is the Wakhan Corridor.
The Wakhan Corridor was and is an important pass between the Pamir Mountains to the north and the Hindu Kush Mountains to the south.
From here, the main routes extended through the modern-day countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Once you get into Central Asia, you encounter several bodies of water in succession, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, and the Black Sea. There were major routes that went south of these bodies and routes which went to the north.
The southern routes went through Iran, with branches extending into the Caucuses to link with the northern route.
Palmyra in modern-day Syria is usually considered to be the end of the route to the south of the Black Sea, and from here, it connected to Egypt and Constantinople, with routes going further to cities such as Venice.
Several major cities today were located on what is considered part of the silk road, including the aforementioned Xi’an, Samarkand, Tashkent, Baghdad, Aleppo, and Damascus.
While these routes through Central Asia were considered to be the heart of the Silk Road, there were also routes going south as well. Known as the Tea Horse Road, these went from southern China into what is today Myanmar and ended in Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.
From India, goods would then be distributed through trade networks in India and possibly loaded onto ships.
Here I have to stress just how inefficient shipping material by land was. Even today, shipping pretty much anything by water is more efficient than shipping by land in terms of cost.
To illustrate the point, during colonial America, it cost as much to ship a piece of furniture from London to Boston as it did to ship it 40 miles overland from Boston…..and that was in an era of larger sailing ships. There is only so much you can put on the back of a camel or in a cart.
Conditions along any of the Silk Road routes were dangerous as you would be under constant threat from bandits. To protect themselves from bandits, traders would often group together in caravans. They would stop for the evening in protected areas known as Caravanserais.
Caravanserais were the Silk Road equivalent of truck stops where travelers could rest and where they could also do business.
The actual roads were often in horrible condition as there was often no authority that was responsible for the roads, or worse, there were conflicting and warring states along the way.
Almost no one traveled the entire length of the Silk Road, regardless of the route. Traders would have fixed routes between two points where they would buy and sell in each location before moving on.
Goods were also not sent directly from China to Europe. There were goods purchased and sold all along the way. Some goods that ended up in Europe came from China, but many of them may have originated Central Asia, India, Persia, or the Middle East.
One of the few people who did travel the entire length of was Marco Polo. Much of what we know of the Silk Road from the 13th century comes from Marco Polo’s diaries.
One of the reasons why Marco Polo was able to travel the entire distance is because, during this period, most of the entire Silk Road was under the control of the Mongol Empire or various Mongol Kingdoms.
The Mongols provided the stability that resulted in the heyday of the Silk Road. A single government allowed for easier trade and fewer bandits. It was very similar to how the Roman Empire facilities trade during its peak.
When Marco Polo took the Silk Road to reach China, it took him over three years of travel to get from Venice to the court of Kublai Khan. While he wasn’t on the move constantly, it does illustrate just how slow the overland route was.
While the overland routes received the most attention, there were probably far more goods shipped via sea. The Maritime Silk Road is pretty easy to grasp. It basically followed the coast of everything in Asia from China through Southeast Asia and the straits of Malacca, around India, and then finally to the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and down the coast of East Africa.
Here too, sailors would often not travel from China all the way to the Persian Gulf, but rather they would stop at various ports to buy and sell goods.
Chinese traders were common throughout all of Southeast Asia, including many of the islands in the Malay and Indonesian archipelago. Chinese treasure ships, the likes of which I discussed in my episode on Admiral Zheng He, were able to sail all the way from China to East Africa and back.
Perhaps the greatest seafarers in this region were the Arabs who sailed the waters of the Indian Ocean, following the monsoon patterns. A trading trip might often take a full year in order to take full advantage of the seasonal winds.
The goods transported on the Silk Road were many and varied. It wasn’t just silk, even though that was the one product that probably received the most attention.
In addition to silk, from the east came porcelain, tea, jade, precious stones, and copious amounts of spices.
From the west was sent incense such as frankincense, glassware, silver, ivory, medical herbs, olive oil, wool, linen, and wine.
All along both the land and maritime routes, in both directions, were shipped various grains, fruits, meats, and leather.
It wasn’t just goods that were transported. Ideas were as well. Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam were all spread through these trade networks. Book and manuscripts would often find their way to stops along the Silk Roads.
The city of Kochi in Inda, due to its fantastic port and many traders who visited, was the home of the first Christian church, Islamic mosque, and Jewish synagogue.
Technical innovations, many of which I’ve covered in previous episodes, such as paper and gunpowder, were all transmitted along the Silk Road by traders.
People settled in these port cities and trading posts as well, spreading cultures and cultural practices in different countries.
Many of the things that the Silk Road spread weren’t necessarily positive. It is widely believed that the Black Death, which killed between 75 to 200 million people, may have been spread by traders on the Silk Road.
The end of the classical silk road period can be attributed to several things. The first was the decline in the Mongol Empire, which once again made the overland trading routes subject to a host of different rulers and increased banditry.
The other thing was the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire grew until it was able to control the land routes in the north as well as all the maritime routes in the south.
Everything that came to Europe from the East had to go through the Ottomans, who were able to block most trade or severely tax it.
I am often asked what is the most surprising thing I’ve learned in the course of doing this podcast, and I would have to say it is this. The Ottoman control of trade from the east along all the routes of the Silk Road was one of the most significant things in history that almost never gets mentioned.
The reason why it is so important is that it was the event that ushered in the European Age of Exploration. The Europeans set out to find alternate trade routes because they didn’t want to pay the high prices that the Ottomans demanded.
A very direct line can be drawn from the Ottoman control of the Silk Road trade routes to the European colonization of the Americas.
The Silk Road system of trade between the eastern and western parts of Eurasia was one of the most important developments in human history.
The Silk Road changed all of the civilizations that it touched, and its effects can still be seen today in our technology, religion, and culture.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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