The Silk Route



The Silk Route or Road refers to a network of ancient trade routes established during the Han Dynasty of China. The routes linked the regions to the ancient world of commerce. The Silk Road was critical to the cultural interaction of the regions of Eurasia for centuries. The trade routes connected the East to the West and stretched from the Korean peninsula to the Mediterranean Sea through Japan among other central Asian territories (Härtel & Museum für Indische Kunst, 1982). The concept of the Silk Road thus refers to both the marine and terrestrial routes that connect Europe to Asia. The Silk Road succeeded the overland Steppe route, which stretched over the Eurasian Steppe. The existence of the Silk Road demonstrates the existence of extensive commercial activities between the west and the East punctuated with immense trade of cultural values and practices.

While the Silk Road term is a modern coinage, the name arises from the lucrative trade on horses and silk that formed the basis for the interaction between the west and the east. The large scale trading in silk and horses began during the Han Dynasty, which existed between 207 BCE and 220CE. The dynasty expanded throughout central Asian sections of the trade routes. The missions and explorations of Zhang Qian, a Chinese Imperial envoy led to the development of the trade routes as he led the trade on silk (Harmatta & Unesco, 1999). The Chinese focused on the safety of the trade routes a feature that compelled the dynasty to extend the length of the Great Wall of China to enhance the security and safety of the routes. 

The commercial activities on the Silk Road were instrumental in the development of the civilizations of China, Persia, Europe, Japan, Goguryeo Kingdom that later morphed into Korea and the Horn of Africa. The routes opened up long distance economic and political relations between the regions thus enhancing mutual developments as each region protected the underlying mutual interests in the routes and the inherent trade (Hattori & Gray, 2000). While silk was the primary product that China exported at the time, the regions traded other numerous goods besides religion, technologies and syncretic philosophies. Similarly, the silk routes facilitated the spread of various diseases including plagues. The main traders who used the route were Chinese, Indians, Somalis, Arabs, Persians, Jews, Romans, Greeks and Armenians among others.       

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Persian Royal Road

Historians argue that the history of the Silk Road predates the famous Han Dynasty. The Persian Royal Road, which would later become a vital artery of the Silk Road had existed long before the creation of the Silk Road and probably contributed to the creation of the famous trade routes. Established during the Achaemenid Empire, which existed between 500 and 330 BCE, the Persian Royal Road extended through the expansive Persia from Susa in Northern Persia to the Mediterranean Sea. Extending from Susa, which the modern day Iran to the Asian Manor in the Mediterranean Seas which is modern-day Turkey, the Persian Royal Road had unique features that enhanced its functionality (Anderson, 2009). The features included postal stations along the route with a fresh supply of horses that kept the postal service efficient. 

Strathern (1994) explains that the royal road created the most efficient ancient postal service in the history of the eastern civilization. Centuries later, the Persian Royal Road would constitute the creed for the American postal service. The Persians maintained the royal road and expanded it progressively by opening up smaller sides roads. Eventually, the royal road crossed into the Indian sub-continent crossed Mesopotamia and reached Egypt in the Northern parts of Africa. The Persian Royal Road became instrumental in the development of the Silk Road since the new routes simply infused into the royal road thus extending its reach across the region.      

Western contact with China

Western contact with China began soon after Alexander the great defeated the Parisians and established the city of Alexandria. The wounded veterans who settled in the city, the Macedonian warriors intermarried with the indigenous populations thereby the Greco-Bactrian culture, which would later flourish in the Seleucid Empire after the death of Alexander. The Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus I who lived between 260 and 195 BCE extended the holdings of the Greco-Bactrians to Seres, which was the name the Romans and Greeks used about China, implying “the land which produced silk” (Holcroft, 1999).

While the Greco-Bactrians prospered, the Han Dynasty faced constant harassment by the nomadic tribes of Xiongnu who inhabited the northern and eastern borders of the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu would later send Zhang Qian on a shuttle diplomacy mission with the tribes to the west to negotiate with the Yuezhi people to help them defeat the Xiongnu tribes. In the expedition, Qian interacted with numerous communities including the Dayuan which was another name for the Greco-Bactrians. Qian reported to Emperor Wu that the Dayuan people had great horses that the community would use in defeating the invading tribes (Wenzel, 2000). Qian’s expedition did not only further the interactions between the east and the west but also led to the development of an expansive horse-breeding program. The Han Dynasty employed the horses and later defeated the nomadic tribes. The success led Emperor Wu to speculate on other benefits that would arise from arising from trading with the west a feature that led to the opening of the Silk Road.

From 171BCE to 138BCE Mithridates I of Parthia launched an elaborate campaign to consolidate and expand his kingdom in Mesopotamia (Reid & Unesco, 1994). However, King Antiochus VII Sidete of the Seleucid opposed the campaign thereby launching an armed opposition a feature that led to the outbreak of a full-blown war between his kingdom and the kingdom of Parthia. The Parthian forces won the war thus brining Mesopotamia under the Parthians thus bringing with it the Silk Road to the Parthian territory. The Parthians consolidate their hold on the routes to become the critical intermediaries between the west and China.   

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Silk Road trade goods

Numerous merchandise traveled through the Silk Road. Key among the products was silk from China. Under the leadership of Empire Wu, the Han dynasty mastered the art of cultivating silk. Silk remains one of the strongest natural materials used in the manufacture of high-quality garments. Silk thus became an essential commodity in the west where it became important in the manufacture of prestigious robes (Lokesh, Banerjee & Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, 2008). The large demand for silk from the west sustained its production in China and subsequent transportation through the Silk Road. Horses were yet other important commodities traded between the west and the east. The Han Dynasty needed the strong thoroughbred horses from the western kingdoms (Weatherford, 2004). The collaboration between the Han Dynasty and the Dayuan led to the development of an elaborate horse-breeding program that sustained the interest in the Silk Road. Trading on horses continued even after the Han dynasty defeated their annoying neighbors.

Gary (2001) asserts that other significant products traded on the route-included paper, which was an invention by the Han Dynasty. Paper became increasingly valuable in the west and the development of scripts spread. China also invented which became an equally valuable commodity the region exported to the west. Rich spices from the east were also transported to markets in the west. The west, on the other hand, exported various minerals to the east. The minerals included gold, silver, ivory, gems, and glass among others. The Silk Road thus experienced intense trade as the economies in both regions continued to grow.

Besides the commodities, the parties traded culture. Every new invention and product from one part of the world led to a systemic blooming of culture on both sides. The development of silk in China led to a blooming of the fashion industry in the west. Silk became the most sought-after commodity in Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The ruling families in the territories and the wealthy class began adopting a culture of flamboyance as they adorned expensive robes made from high-quality silk (Frankopan & Overdrive Inc, 2016). Gunpowder revolutionized wars in both parts of the world. Similarly, paper led to the development and spread of various civilizations across the region. However, the Silk Road was also a conduit for diseases to spread rapidly to different parts of the world. Transportation of rats with the wagons and caravans helped spread the plague among other diseases.    

Legacy of the silk route

The Silk Road’s value was in the exchange of culture that underscored the exchange of commodities along the silk route. The rout facilitated the exchange of various elements of civilization including philosophy, religion, art, technology, science, architecture and language among others. The trade along the route contributed to the development of the contemporary society. The cultural exchanges led to developments of the ancient kingdoms. The spread of diseases along the route was equally significant since it influences the geopolitical factors that characterized relations between the territories. The bubonic plague of 542 CE, for example, arrived in Constantinople through the silk route and would later annihilate the Byzantine Empire thereby changing the geopolitical and socioeconomic factors in the region (Hansen, 2012). Furthermore, the closing of the Silk Road compelled merchants among other business people to take to the sea in an attempt to ply their trade. The following years experienced an increased voyaging that led to the age of discovery between 1453 and 1660. The age of discovery led to increased interaction among people from different parts of the world thus marking the inception of the age of globalization.   

The new Silk Road

An enormous earthquake hit Tashkent in Central China in 1966. The quake compelled the city to rebuild a feature that had an immense toll on the city’s domestic markets but led to the revival of modern Silk Road as towns along the route began to rebuild. The construction of the Eurasian land bridge that connects China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Russia marked the modernization of the ancient Silk Road as contemporary societies strive to maintain the commercial ties. Beginning from January 11, 2011, the Trans-Eurasia Logistics launched a freight service on the rail that connected Chongqing in China to Duisburg in Germany (Elisseeff & Unesco, 2000). In September 2013, Xi Jinping, the president of China introduced a plan to create a new silk road that would connect China to Europe known as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR). The discussion demonstrates that the Silk Road remains relevant to date as western countries continue to engage in commercial activities with their eastern counterparts.     

Impact of the Silk Road on the current society

 The Silk Road contributed to the development of the modern day society. The routes created an interconnected network of commerce that demonstrated that the world would become better with increased integration. The routes created an insatiable demand for critical commodities that the world could not live without even after the closing of the routes. As such, the merchants took to the sea a feature that led to the development of globalization (Killion, 2006). Countries in the modern society strive to maintain diplomatic relations because of the importance of cross-border trade as demonstrated by the silk routes.

The Silk Road led to the development of the modern global culture characterized by tolerance and advanced technology (Rastogi & Arvis, 2014). The invention of paper, for example, led to the growth of knowledge and the inherent blossoming of various sectors of the global economy. The routes demonstrated the dynamic nature of culture. Religious groups have embraced ministry as they spread their religions to different parts of the world. Similarly, culture remains a primary commercial commodity as the United States continues to export its culture to different parts of the world. As such, the Silk Road contributed to the development of modern-day commerce among other critical elements of the contemporary society.    

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Impact of the Silk Route to the future society

The Silk Road will remain relevant in the future. First, leaders continue to plan for ways of sustaining the trade between the east and the west. The intensifying commercial activities between the two regions will sustain the economic growth of the countries in the parts of the world. China remains a major economy that is a leading source of steel among other fundamental products. Furthermore, China is a hub for technological innovation (Thomas, Kiser & USAF Institute for National Security Studies, 2002). The Silk Road opened the world to trade thereby laying the foundation for global trade in the future. The countries will strive to maintain the commercial relations by opening up their countries to foreign trade. Similarly, the systemic exchange of culture will continue to open new markets thus sustaining productivity while sustaining the world as a global village.   


Summarily, the Silk Road was a significant historical trade route that linked the west to the east. The route enabled ancient societies to trade critical commodities including silk, horses, gunpowder, paper, and mineral among others. The extensive commercial activities sustained the development of the countries while contributing to the development of the contemporary culture owing to the underlying cultural exchange that characterized the commercial activities at the time. The route remains significant to the contemporary society. It will continue to influence future commercial and cultural developments.

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