You’ve probably heard of the Silk Road from the book or the internet, the ancient trade route ran between the East to the West. Is it really just one single road or else? Let’s find out together.
Historically, the Silk Road began with the Han Dynasty, when imperial envoy Zhang Qian was commissioned to seek military alliance and trading partners beyond the region. It started from Central China Chang-an, passed through the Taklamakan Desert, climbed Pamir Mountains, crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the Mediterranean countries. Instead of one single route, the Silk Road is in fact a network of trade routes spanning over 6,400km.
The terms “Silk Road” and “Silk Routes” were first coined in 1877 by a German geographer and traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen, who named those trade routes 'Seidenstrasse' (silk road) or 'Seidenstrassen' (silk routes), given that silk was the most traded goods along the routes of all times. Although “Silk Road” is still commonly used by the public, modern historians nowadays favour the name “Silk Routes”, as it fits the nature of the intricate routes network.
During the 1st century BCE, Chinese silk was introduced to the Roman Empire and then quickly became the most sought-after exotic luxury. Other traded goods from the East include tea, dyes, porcelain, perfumes and precious stones. Exported goods from the West include horses, camels, honey, glassware, gold and silver. Aside from the economic impact, the Silk Road also plays a significant role in facilitating the exchange of ideas, culture, language, science, arts and religions between the East and the West.
Within its 1,500 years of existence, the Silk Road has seen the rise and fall of numerous empires. From the Parthian Empire, the Roman Empire, to the Mongol Empire. Until 1453, the Ottoman Empire immediately boycotted the trade, ending up with the Silk Road closure. This then prompted European explorers to seek alternative water routes on the sea, ushering in the Age of Discovery.
World’s well-known Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo used the Silk Road to travel to the East and describe his journey experience in the famous book “the Travels of Marco Polo”.
In June 2014, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated a 5,000km stretch of the Silk Road network from Xi’an to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia as a World Heritage Site, named it “Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor”.