Today if you want some silk pajamas, you get on Amazon and place an order. Their marketplace connects you with a distributor sourcing from a Chinese factory, and your pajamas cross the ocean in a boat or plane and then are delivered to your door by truck. But what would you have done 2,000 years ago before the invention of the phone and internet, boxcar trains, and carrying containers?
Luckily for you, you would still have had access to Chinese goods thanks to the Silk Road, a trade network stretching some 6,500 kilometers, or 4,000 miles, across Asia that connected Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai to Europe. And it was more than just pajamas. The Silk Road built and defined empires and connected the Old World through ideas, religion and even disease.
The origins of the Silk Road actually started in China going West, and not for trade purposes either. Rather, it was about diplomacy.
At the end of the 2nd Century BC, the Xiongnu people on the northern Chinese border were causing considerable problems for the Han Dynasty. The Xiongnu were a confederation of nomadic tribes living on the Eurasian Steppe in what are now parts of Mongolia and Siberia who had taken advantage of the somewhat violent and chaotic period during the transition from the Qin to the Han Dynasty to expand as far south as the Great Wall of China and begin raiding Han settlements on the Chinese frontier. Many Han emperors had attempted to make peace with the Xiongnu, including a marriage alliance in 198 BC, but conflicts continued.
In 139 BC, Emperor Wu decided to send a political emissary named Zhang Qian to make alliances with other peoples to the West to fight with the Han in the all-out war Emperor Wu would ultimately initiate in 133 BC. Zhang Qian was captured by the Xiongnu and imprisoned, but he escaped after 13 years and traveled back to China, telling Emperor Wu of what he had seen in the West. Most of all, he spoke of the wonders he’d found in the Fergana Valley in modern-day Uzbekistan such as wheat, grapes and, most importantly, “heavenly horses.”
The area of Fergana was controlled by the Dayuan people, possible descendents of ancient Greek colonizers. The Han Dynasty established trade routes with them, the first stretch of what would ultimately become the Silk Road. However, the Chinese desire for these “Heavenly Horses” proved to be more than the Dayuan could—or wanted to—provide.
To get his hands on more horses, Emperor Wu decided to just take over the Fergana Valley, so in 104 BC, he sent an army of 40,000 men on the 5,000-kilometer march to attack the Dayuans. That’s over 3,000 miles, roughly the distance from New York to LA. As you might expect, that was an exhausting hike, and only half the army made it to Fergana where they were handedly defeated.
But Emperor Wu was not to be deterred. He sent 60,000 men the next year, this time succeeding after a 40-day siege. This means that the Han Empire devoted around 100,000 soldiers to the conflict, known as the “War of the Heavenly Horses.” For reference, that’s more manpower than the entire military of Australia.
Now with access to thousands of war horses, the Han Dynasty expanded and applied its military strength throughout its territory. Moreover, they applied Confucian principles and a light hand to their governance that led to stability, economic growth and peace called the Pax Sinica during which their empire spread as far west as modern-day Turkistan in Eastern Kazakhstan. This expansion connected China even more to the West and increased the demand among the Chinese for luxury goods from far-off lands, further paving the way for the Silk Road.
At roughly the same time as the Pax Sinica, another important civilization of the era had grown and reached a point of great stability and prosperity: the Roman Empire. In this case, while the Romans expanded west as well, much of their expansion pushed eastward into Anatolia and the Levant, modern day Turkey, Syria and Israel.
This gave them access to another important trade route that already existed in the Middle East called the Royal Road, established in the 5th Century BC by the Persian King Darius I of the Achaemenid Empire. It connected Sardis in western Turkey to the Achaemenid capital Susa in modern-day Iran and later Persepolis.
The road was originally designed for communication with couriers called Angaros running messages from one end of the 2,700-kilometer or 1,700-mile road on horseback in just nine days. Even today, it would take you nearly four days to drive from Sardis to Susa if you drove eight hours per day, so the Angaros were making pretty good time.
As a trade network, this route reached its peak during the reign of Alexander the Great who used it during his conquests through the Middle East and down into the Indian subcontinent. Later, the Romans improved it by paving it with a hard-packed gravel surface 6.25 meters wide, over 20 feet, and adding a stone curb.
Roman trade with the East continued expanding until they encountered the Chinese expanding West. There was one good in particular that quickly enamored the Romans, the Silk Road’s namesake of course. The Chinese had developed silk thousands of years prior, sometime around 2,700 BC, when they discovered that the fibrous cocoon of the silkworm, the caterpillar of the Bombyx moth, could be spun and woven in fabric.
The Chinese knew the value of what they had. The fabric was worn and highly prized by the Chinese imperial court, and its production was an aggressively guarded secret. Teaching the process to a foreigner was a crime punishable by death. Without any way to make the fabric themselves, the Romans had to import all their silk from China, increasing the flow of trade.
Silk actually became quite the controversial fabric in the Roman Empire because the garments were revealing and shapely. As a result, many conservative Romans considered them immodest for women and effeminate for men. In fact, the Roman philosopher, writer and imperial advisor Seneca the Younger wrote:
“I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one’s decency, can be called clothes. … Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife’s body.”
In the year 14, the Roman Imperial Senate even went so far as to make silk illegal for men to wear. The government also instituted price controls and other trade regulations that resulted in merchants manufacturing clothing with even thinner silk fabric. This only made them more transparent and increased the taboo.
It seems that the conservative complaints about silk only raised the demand, though, because the Roman’s love for the fabric grew until it was the most valuable commodity in the Empire through the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd Century.
By the year 60, the West had finally learned that silk was the product of the silkworm, but they still had no knowledge of how to produce it. The Chinese secret wasn’t finally revealed until the 6th Century when the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sent spies disguised as monks to China to steal the silkworms and bring them back. From then on, the West was able to produce its own silk, but the elaborate network of trade along the Silk Road had already been established.
Silk was far from the only good traded on the Silk Road. Other Eastern goods in high demand in the West included tea, rice, the porcelain dishes that we know as “China,” and spices. Perhaps even more significant than any of these, the Silk Road gave the West access to two revolutionary inventions: gunpowder and paper. These both allowed for intellectual and military innovation in the West that would set the stage for Europe’s colonial empires.
Naturally, the Chinese wanted things in return, including their ever-present desire for large, hardy horses which had started the Silk Road in the first place. They also traded for other animals like dogs as well as food like grapes and honey, certain textiles, and gold and silver.
Rome and China usually didn’t trade directly with one another either. Even at their most expansive, the two empires were still over 2,500 kilometers or 1,500 miles apart.
Consequently, trade between East and West rarely involved merchants traveling from one end of the Silk Road to the other. Instead, the Silk Road was more an elaborate network of paths and cities that would slowly move goods along, getting them to where they were wanted. For this reason, some modern historians prefer the term “Silk Routes.” The name Silk Road was never used at the time anyway, coined centuries later in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen.
In the West, these routes reached the Mediterranean Sea in Anatolia, now Turkey, where sea merchants could transport goods around the Roman Empire and later to the fragmented kingdoms of Medieval Europe. From the Mediterranean going east, a route followed the old Persian Royal Road down into the Indian subcontinent, crossing through the brutal Hindu Kush mountains and giving both China and Europe access to Indian products.
If you didn’t take the Royal Road southward and instead continued straight east toward China, two different routes crossed through the Eurasian Steppe north of the Tian Shan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert in the modern-day countries of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. They met at the Great Wall of China and followed the route of the Great Imperial Highway until splitting again to go north or Beijing or south to Shanghai.
Other merchants chose to go by boat, traveling through the Red Sea, which was connected to Roman Egypt, down into the Indian Ocean. From there you could reach ports in Persia and India that connected to the network of land routes, or you could continue on to China or even Indonesia.
Just as happens with railroads or highways today, the large amount of trade activity brought wealth to those living along the routes who were an integral part in moving goods along. Many cities sprung up, grew and enriched themselves such as Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), Aleppo (now in Syria), Mosul (now in Iraq) and Xi’an (now in China), as well as port cities like Zanzibar and Alexandria.
The Central Asian and Middle Eastern peoples along the Silk Road were also integral because they knew how to handle the harsh desert and mountainous terrain that made up the vast distances between Europe and China. Perhaps most notably, camels had been domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula in the 3rd Millennium BC, later spreading into Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Tough animals, camels could handle harsh environments and carry over 200 kilograms or 500 pounds. This made them perfect for transporting goods along the Silk Road, and they even became a valuable good in and of themselves.
The Chinese sought them heavily, for their military use as well as trade. In fact, they loved camels so much so they placed sculptures of them in tombs to protect the dead from evil.
Camels were important in the West, too. Marco Polo, arguably the Silk Road’s most famous traveler and one of the few who did indeed follow its entire route west to east, took a camel on his journey from his home in Venice to Xanadu and the summer palace of Kublai Khan, the Mongolian Emperor that controlled China at the time. Polo left Italy when he was 17 and reached China around 1275. Polo then lived in China for some 20 years working for Kublai Khan and traveling around China and Southeast Asia until he finally returned to Italy 1295.
Then in 1298 he was captured in battle by the Genoese, Venice’s primary rival. While in prison, he collaborated with the adventure writer Rustichello of Pisa to write Description of the World, later known as The Travels of Marco Polo or simply The Travels, a book that detailed the Eastern world for his curious European audience.
Goods like silk and spices were the least of what traveled along the Silk Road. Tales from explorers like Marco Polo introduced Europeans to new ideas and technology like gunpowder and paper. Art and language moved along the routes as well, connecting the Old World. Even religion was able to travel, Buddhism reaching China from the Indian subcontinent thanks to the trade routes.
It wasn’t all good, either. The Silk Road also facilitated the spread of diseases like the Bubonic Plague, which reached Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, via the trade route in the 6th Century and caused a pandemic that killed tens of thousands. A bacterium that enlarges the lymph nodes, the Bubonic Plague is spread to humans from rats via fleas. The rats thrived in the crowded cities along the Silk Road, making it easy for the plague to move around the world.
The Silk Road’s impact ultimately spread beyond Eurasia, too. In 1453, Cosntantinople finally fell to the Ottomans who controlled much of the Middle East. They boycotted trade with Europe and closed down the Silk Road trade routes under their control.
Consequently, the Europeans, who’d become accustomed to luxury goods imported from China and India, needed another way to get there. In 1492, the Italian explorer Christopher Colombus, funded by the Spanish crown and carrying a copy of Marco Polo’s book, set out believing he could reach East Asia by sailing West. As we know, he was severely incorrect about the circumference of the Earth and found the Americas instead where technologies previously imported from China like gunpowder allowed the Spanish and later other European powers to defeat the Native American empires and colonize the continents.
AN ETERNAL LEGACY
For the most part, the Silk Road no longer exists physically. However, there are a few places where modern highways run along sections of its old routes.
One is the Karakoram Highway, also known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, which stretches 800 kilometers or 500 miles from Hasan Abdal near Islamabad to Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. Built over 19 years from 1959 to 1978, it required 24,000 workers to complete and passes through some of the roughest terrain in the world including the Khunjerab Pass.
Another is the Pamir Highway that crosses 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles through Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Considered one of the wildest roads in the world, it runs through mountain passes over 4,000 meters or 13,000 feet in altitude, hugs rock faces, and experiences landslides and earthquakes.
Other than these highways, there are also a number of monuments and archeological sites preserved along the old routes, some of which tourists can visit like the ruins of Merv in Turkmenistan, Cappadocia in Turkey and the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, China.
You don’t have to risk driving off a cliff to experience the Silk Road, though. If you’ve ever used China, written on paper or finally put on those silk pajamas, you’ve experienced the legacy of the Silk Road and its influence on our modern life. By connecting many of the major civilizations, it spread ideas around the world, uniting humanity and laying the groundwork for our globalized world and international culture.
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