The Silkroad is the name given to the trade routes between China and Europe and Western Asia through th centuries. The region is not the most hospitable in the world. Much of its are is passes by the Taklimakan desert, one of the most hostile environments on earth. Rugged mountains with little vegetation, and almost no rainfall; sandstorms are very common, and have claimed the lives of countless people. The locals have named the land with pride `Land of Death'; few travelers in the history have had anything good to say about it.
The Silkroad covers a vast area, through which few roads pass; caravans throughout history have skirted its edges, from one isolated oasis to the next. The climate is harsh; in the summer the daytime temperatures are in the 40's, with temperatures greater than 50 degrees Celsius measured not infrequently in the sub-sealevel basin of Turfan. In winter the temperatures dip below minus 20 degrees. Temperatures soar in the sun, but drop very rapidly at dusk. Sand storms here are very common, and particularly dangerous due to the strength of the winds and the nature of the surface. Unlike the Gobi desert, where there there are a relatively large number of oases, and water can be found not too far below the surface, the Taklimakan has much sparser resources.
The land surrounding the Taklimakan is equally hostile. To the northeast lies the Gobi desert, almost as harsh in climate as the Taklimakan itself; on the remaining three sides lie some of the highest mountains in the world. To the South are the Himalaya, Karakorum and Kunlun ranges, which provide an effective barrier separating Central Asia from the Indian sub-continent. Only a few icy passes cross these ranges, and they are some of the most difficult in the world; they are many over 7000 and 6000 in altitude, and are dangerously narrow, with precipitous drops into deep ravines. To the north and west lie the Tianshan and Pamir ranges; though greener and less high, the passes crossing these have still provided more than enough problems for the travelers of the past. Approaching the area from the east, the least difficult entry is along the `Gansu Corridor', a relatively fertile strip running along the base of the Qilian mountains, separating the great Mongolian plateau and the Gobi from the Tibetan High Plateau. Coming from the west or south, the only way in is over the passes.
After the passes one ends up into the high mountains and beautiful valleys on the the southern side and equally hospitable but more stable mountain modern cities.
Based on the historical records the Silkroad was not one particular route it was at least 3 routes from China to Europe going through different regions .
Northern route of Silkroad
The northern route started at Chang'an (now called Xi'an),
once ancient capital of China but was moved towards east during the Later Han
dynasty to Luoyang. The route was defined around the 1st century BC as Han Wudi
put an end to harassment by nomadic tribes.
This route went northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu and Shaanxi Province and split into three further routes, two followed the mountain ranges in north and south of the Taklamakan Desert and rejoined at Kashgar, and the other going north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar, and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan). The routes split again west of Kashgar, with a southern branch heading down the Alai Valley towards Termez (in modern Uzbekistan) and Balkh (Afghanistan), while the other traveled through Kokand in the Fergana Valley (in present-day eastern Uzbekistan) and then west across the Karakum Desert. Both routes joined the main southern route before reaching ancient Merv, Turkmenistan. Another branch of the northern route turned northwest past the Aral Sea and north of the Caspian Sea, then and on to the Black Sea.
A route for caravans, the northern Silk Road brought to China many goods such as "dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia; frankincense, aloes and myrrh from Somalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt, and other expensive and desirable goods from other parts of the world." In exchange, the caravans sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer ware, and porcelain.
The southern route or Karakoram route was mainly a single route running from China through the Karakoram mountains, where it persists to modern times as the international paved road connecting Pakistan and China as the Karakoram Highway. It then set off westwards, but with southward spurs enabling the journey to be completed by sea from various points. Crossing the high mountains, it passed through northern Pakistan, over the Hindu Kush mountains, and into Afghanistan, rejoining the northern route near Merv, Turkmenistan. From Merv, it followed a nearly straight line west through mountainous northern Iran, Mesopotamia, and the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant, where Mediterranean trading ships plied regular routes to Italy, while land routes went either north through Anatolia or south to North Africa. Another branch road traveled from Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and on to Alexandria and other eastern Mediterranean ports from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome.
The southwestern route is believed to be the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta, which has been the subject of international interest for over two millennia. Strabo, the 1st-century Roman writer, mentions the deltaic lands: "Regarding merchants who now sail from Egypt...as far as the Ganges, they are only private citizens..." His comments are interesting as Roman beads and other materials are being found at Wari-Bateshwar ruins, the ancient city with roots from much earlier, before the Bronze Age, presently being slowly excavated beside the Old Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Ptolemy's map of the Ganges Delta, a remarkably accurate effort, showed that his informants knew all about the course of the Brahmaputra River, crossing through the Himalayas then bending westward to its source in Tibet. It is doubtless that this delta was a major international trading center, almost certainly from much earlier than the Common Era. Gemstones and other merchandise from Thailand and Java were traded in the delta and through it. Chinese archaeological writer Bin Yang and some earlier writers and archaeologists, such as Janice Stargardt, strongly suggest this route of international trade as Sichuan-Yunnan-Burma-Bangladesh route. According to Bin Yang, especially from the 12th century the route was used to ship bullion from Yunnan (gold and silver are among the minerals in which Yunnan is rich), through northern Burma, into modern Bangladesh, making use of the ancient route, known as the 'Ledo' route. The emerging evidence of the ancient cities of Bangladesh, in particular Wari-Bateshwar ruins, Mahasthangarh, Bhitagarh, Bikrampur, Egarasindhur, and Sonargaon, are believed to be the international trade centers in this route
The history of the Silk Road pre-dates the Han Dynasty in practice, however,
as the Persian Royal Road, which would come to serve as one of the main arteries
of the Silk Road, was established during the Achaemenid Empire (500-330 BCE).
The Persian Royal Road ran from Susa, in north Persia (modern day Iran) to the
Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and featured postal stations
along the route with fresh horses for envoys to quickly deliver messages
throughout the empire. Herodotus, writing of the speed and efficiency of the
Persian messengers, stated that “There is nothing in the world that travels
faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor
darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated
stages with utmost speed" (these lines, from his Histories, 8.98, would
centuries later form the creed of the United States of America’s post office).
The Persians maintained the Royal Road carefully and, in time, expanded it
through smaller side roads. These paths eventually crossed down into the Indian
sub-continent, across Mesopotamia, and over into Egypt.
After Alexander the Great conquered the Persians, he established the city of Alexandria Eschate in 339 BCE in the Fergana Valley of Neb (modern Tajikstan). Leaving behind his wounded veterans in the city, Alexander moved on. In time, these Macedonian warriors intermarried with the indigenous populace creating the Greco-Bactrian culture which flourished under the Seleucid Empire following Alexander’s death. Under the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I (260-195 BCE) the Greco-Bactrians had extended their holdings. According to the Greek historian Strabo (63-24 CE) the Greeks “extended their empire as far as the Seres” (xi.ii.i). `Seres’ was the name by which the Greeks and Romans knew China, meaning `the land where silk came from’. It is thought, then, that the first contact between China and the west came around the year 200 BCE.
The Han Dynasty of China (202 BCE – 220 CE) was regularly harassed by the nomadic tribes of the Xiongnu on their northern and western borders. In 138 BCE, Emperor Wu sent his emissary Zhang Qian to the west to negotiate with the Yuezhi people for help in defeating the Xiongnu. Zhang Qian’s expedition led him into contact with many different cultures and civilizations in central Asia and, among them, those whom he designated the `Dayuan’, the `Great Ionians’, who were the Greco-Bactrians descended from Alexander the Great’s army. The Dayuan had mighty horses, Zhang Qian reported back to Wu, and these could be employed effectively against the marauding Xiongnu. The consequences of Zhang Qian’s journey was not only further contact between China and the west but an organized and efficient horse breeding program throughout the land in order to equip a cavalry. The horse had long been known in China and had been used in warfare for cavalry and chariots as early as the Shang Dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE) but the Chinese admired the western horse for its size and speed. With the western horse of the Dayuan, the Han Dynasty defeated the Xiongnu. This success inspired the Emperor Wu to speculate on what else might be gained through trade with the west and the Silk Road was opened in 130 BCE.
Between 171-138 BCE, Mithridates I of Parthia campaigned to expand and consolidate his kingdom in Mesopotamia. The Seleucid King Antiochus VII Sidetes (138-129 BCE) opposed this expansion and, also wishing revenge for the death of his brother, Demetrius, waged war against the Parthian forces of Phrates II, Mithridates successor. With the defeat of Antiochus, Mesopotamia came under Parthian rule and, with it, came control of the Silk Road. The Parthians then became the central intermediaries between China and the west.
While many different kinds of merchandise traveled along the Silk Road, the name comes from the popularity of Chinese silk with the west, especially with Rome. The Silk Road routes stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up throughout Mesopotamia, to Egypt, the African continent, Greece, Rome, and Britain. The northern Mesopotamian region (present day Iran) became China’s closest partner in trade, as part of the Parthian Empire, initiating important cultural exchanges. Paper, which had been invented by the Chinese during the Han Dynasty, and gunpowder, also a Chinese invention, had a much greater impact on culture than did silk. The rich spices of the east, also, contributed more than the fashion which grew up from the silk industry. Even so, by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE) trade between China and the west was firmly established and silk was the most sought after commodity in Egypt, Greece, and, especially, in Rome.
Prior to becoming Emperor Augustus, Octavian Caesar exploited the controversial topic of silk clothing to denounce his adversaries Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII as immoral. As they both favored Chinese silk, which was increasingly becoming associated with licentiousness, Octavian exploited the link to deprecate his enemies. Though Octavian triumphed over Antony and Cleopatra, he could do nothing to curtail the popularity of silk. The historian Durant writes, “The Romans thought [silk] a vegetable product combed from trees and valued it at its weight in gold. Much of this silk came to the island of Cos, where it was woven into dresses for the ladies of Rome and other cities; in A.D. 91 the relatively poor state of Messenia had to forbid its women to wear transparent silk dresses at religious initiations” (329). By the time of Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE) conservative Romans were more ardent than Augustus in decrying the Chinese silk as immoral dress for women and effeminate attire for men. These criticisms did nothing to stop the silk trade with Rome, however, and the island of Cos became wealthy and luxurious through their manufacture of silk clothing. As Durant writes, “Italy enjoyed an 'unfavorable’ balance of trade – cheerfully [buying] more than she sold” but still exported rich goods to China such as “carpets, jewels, amber, metals, dyes, drugs, and glass” (328-329). Up through the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE), silk was the most valued commodity in Rome and no amount of conservative criticism seemed to be able to slow the trade or stop the fashion.
Even after Aurelius, silk remained popular, though increasingly expensive, until the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE. Rome was survived by its eastern half which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire and which carried on the Roman infatuation with silk. Around 60 CE the west had become aware that silk was not grown on the trees in China but was actually spun by silk worms. The Chinese had very purposefully kept the origin of silk a secret and, once it was out, carefully guarded their silk worms and their process of harvesting the silk. The Byzantine emperor Justinian (527- 565 CE), tired of paying the exorbitant prices the Chinese demanded for silk, sent two emissaries, disguised as monks, to China to steal silk worms and smuggle them back to the west. The plan was successful and initiated the Byzantine silk industry. When the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks in 1453 CE, the Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road and cut all ties with the west.
The greatest value of the Silk Road was the exchange of culture. Art, religion, philosophy, technology, language, science, architecture, and every other element of civilization was exchanged through the Silk Road along with the commercial goods the merchants carried from country to country. Along the network of routes disease traveled also, as evidenced in the spread of the bubonic plague of 542 CE which is thought to have arrived in Constantinople by way of the Silk Road and which decimated the Byzantine Empire. The closing of the Silk Road forced merchants to take to the sea to ply their trade, thus initiating the Age of Discovery (1453-1660 CE) which led to world-wide interaction and the beginnings of a global community.