Trade Along the Silk Route

Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

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- Trade Along the Silk Routes -
"Silk Road" Definition & Term
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丝绸之路 ; Silk Road ; Seidenstraße ; طريق الحرير ; Великий Шёлковый Путь ; Zhibek Zholu ;
La Route de Soie ; Ruta de la Seda ; Via della Seta ;
جاده ابریشم

Trade routes since antiquity have played a major role in the cultural, political, military, economic, religious, and artistic exchanges that took place between the major centers of civilization in Europe and Asia. Some of these trade routes (both land and maritime routes) had been in use for centuries, but by the beginning of the first century A.D., merchants, diplomats, and travelers could cross the ancient world from the Mediterranean Sea in the west, to China and beyond, across Korea to the Sea of Japan in the east. The trade routes served principally to transfer luxury goods, foodstuffs, and raw materials from the Mediterranean, Persia, India, Central Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods, such as China who supplied silk to Asia and the Mediterranean world, while spices were obtained principally from South Asia. The incense routes from Arabia had also been in use for centuries. And thus, all these variety of goods were transported over vast distances (either by pack animals overland, or by seagoing ships) along the network of silk, spice, and incense routes, which were the main arteries of contact between the various ancient empires. The Silk Routes influence not only carried over into Korea and Japan, but also to the maritime routes which extended to the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Malacca, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, Italy, and Portugal. By the 19th century, well-known historical figures had left their mark upon these routes, as well as armies engaged in war, military and political leaders, rulers and administrators, emissaries, envoys, diplomats, religious figures, learned scholars, scientists, explorers, archeologists, topographers, geographers, historians, travelogue writers, artists, nomads, bandits, robbers, secret agents and spies of the "Great Game," and passengers of the luxurious "Orient Express" to Istanbul. 

Cities, towns, "caravanserais," fortresses,
oases, and ports along these trade routes grew rich providing services to merchants and acting as international marketplaces. Cities such as Palmyra and Petra, on the fringes of the Syrian Desert, flourished mainly as centers of trade supplying merchant caravans, while policing the trade routes. They also became cultural and artistic centers, where peoples of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds could meet and intermingle. In the East, the city of Chang'an in China, the starting point of the Silk Road, was also such an ancient Silk Road city that was described as a cosmopolitan center. It was under Han Emperor Wu that the first Chinese missions were sent westward to Inner Asia, an event considered to mark the beginning of the Silk Road (largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian after 138 BCE). Istanbul was a unique city along the Silk Road serving as an inter-continental crossroads and port from where goods were transported overland or by ship to Europe and other continents. Today it is the only city in the world bridging the two continents of Europe and Asia.

The trade routes can therefore be described as the communications highways of the ancient world. New inventions, ideas, religious beliefs, languages, social customs, architectural and artistic styles, diplomats, armies, as well as goods, were spread and transmitted by people moving from one place to another.

The story of cultural exchange and the interconnected history of the East and West demonstrates how the world's oldest network of trade routes had an impact on the cultures of China, the Far East, Central Asia, Africa, and the West. It is an ongoing story, for these ancient routes continue to link our past to our present, and inevitably link our present to our future.

Silk | Ipek