Old World Contacts

The Silk Road was a collection of routes that stretched some 8,046 km from East Asia to the Mediterranean. It was originally composed of a number of caravan routes dating from around 300 BCE, along which jade was imported into China from the region around the Central Asian town of Hotan. Around 200 BCE, these routes were extended to meet the Middle Eastern road system. By 100 BCE, this link became an active trade route between the Mediterranean world and China.

In Chinese, the western portion of the Silk Road was called "Tian Shan nan Lu" or "the road south of the celestial mountains." The Chinese termed the eastern portion of the Silk Road in the vicinity of Xian, the "Imperial Highway." The name "Silk Road" itself was coined by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. Traders from East and West usually met each other near the town of Os, roughly halfway along the length of the Silk Road system. There, they exchanged cargoes and proceeded from whence they came. Merchants, for the most part, only travelled along certain sections of the road. The first Westerner to travel beyond the town of Kashi, just southeast of Os, was probably a Nestorian Christian priest from Syria called Olopun. His journey occurred around 635 CE. In the early thirteenth century, Genghis Khan made use of the Silk Road in his conquest of Central Asia and parts of China. He did much to improve travel along the road by increasing policing and establishing a system of post stations and couriers. This improved transport and communications network helped the Mongols to control their new empire. With the advent of greater security along the Silk Road during the Mongol regime, long-distance travel became increasingly viable. Marco Polo, probably the most famous traveller of the Silk Road, made a journey from Venice all the way to Beijing between 1271 and 1275.

The Silk Road was in use for over 2,000 years, and wheeled and caravan traffic was quite dense along certain stretches. Parts of the road near the city of Samarkand were worn into hollows nearly 4 metres deep. The Silk Road reached the peak of its use during the fourteenth century; then decline set in. This was due to various factors, such as the disruption of traffic caused by the militant expansion of Turkish Islam, the fall of the Mongol Empire, and the drying up of many important oases along its routes. With the establishment of an alternate sea route between West and East (the "Spice Route") in 1497 by Vasco da Gama, the decline became irrevocable.

The Silk Road played a unique and central role in the processes of cross-cultural contact and exchange in the Old World. Goods, technology, ideas, and culture moved back and forth along its length. It was a principal conduit for the spread of Buddhism from India to Central Asia and China. Islam likewise arrived from the west along the Silk Road. Ideas about mathematics, astronomy, and medicine travelled east and west, along with different forms of music, dance, painting, and other artistic media. From China to the West passed silk, jade, spices, ginger, tea, peach and pear trees, porcelain, papermaking, printing, and gunpowder. From the West into China came glass, grapes, cotton, wool, gems, ivory, and larger breeds of horses. Because of the vast distances to be covered and the expense of transport, long-distance trade along the Silk Road was usually limited to items of high value and low bulk. Ideas, on the other hand, moved back and forth with much greater freedom.

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Old World Contacts / Department of History / The University of Calgary
Copyright © 2000, The Applied History Research Group