The history of the Silk Road

The start of the Silk Road in China

The house of Han, reigned over China from 206 BCE to 220 AD. This was considered China's Golden Age as the Han dynasty wielded great power and brought prosperity to the nation. Science, art, technology, astronomy, cartography and paper making all saw significant advances. Under the leadership of several emperors, including Emperor Wu, the Han expanded their territory into northern China and onwards to the Tian Shan Mountain range and into Central Asia. The further the regal tentacles reached the more they discovered about a world that was previously outside their realm. Official diplomats and special envoys were employed to explore and bring back information to the imperial court, and through missions such as these navigable routes into Central Asia began to develop. By around 114 BCE, these routes were opening up to traders and merchants who were keen to take advantage of the potential trade and myriad merchandise offered by these new markets. Tea, porcelain, perfumes, paper, rice and items made from silk, were exported from east to west.

The Silk Road in Persia

Long before the existence of the Han dynasty, the Persian Empire controlled territory stretching from the Aegean Sea to the eastern outreaches of modern-day Iran. In order to keep abreast of what was going on across his empire, King Darius I (550–486 BC) employed mounted messengers to relay information between the ancient cities of Sūsa (Shush, Iran) and Sardis (Sart, Turkey). The royal riders were expected to make the entire 2,700km journey in less than nine days; on foot, it took 90. The Royal Road, as it became known, was later used by Alexander the Great, after he defeated the Persian Empire in 333 BCE. The king of ancient Greece continued to wage war across Central Asia and into North West India. In so doing, Alexander was unwittingly preparing a path for the forthcoming Roman Empire which would subsequently use many of the military routes for trade with the Han dynasty.

All roads lead to Rome

The meeting of the two empires, Han and Roman, in the middle of Central Asia, brought benefits to both nations. The Chinese valued the metal weaponry, armour, glassware and horses coming from the west, whilst rich Roman households valued the silk items from China amongst their most prized possessions. The connection between continents provided prosperity, and allowed for cultural, philosophical and religious exchanges, too. Markets in towns and cities flourished, whilst roadside inns and rest houses (caravanserais) provided lodgings and a place to refuel for traveling merchant entourages. Unfortunately, diseases, such as the bubonic plague, were also thought to have been rife on the road around the time of the Roman relationship with China.

Stolen silk & severed ties

Although the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD did nothing to dent the popularity of the trading routes, it did lead to a discovery that would damage meaningful trade beyond compare. The Byzantine Empire discovered how to create silk. It’s thought that a couple of western devils disguised as monks sneakily stole and smuggled silkworms and their eggs back to the folks at home, enabling the Byzantines to develop their very own, and very profitable, silk industry. The subsequent fall of the Byzantines to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 did nothing to revive relations and all routes with the west were severed forthwith.

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The Silk Road small group tour

The Silk Road small group tour

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A road by any other name

Around 300 years before the collapse of the Silk Road, a young Italian writer named Marco Polo travelled from Europe to Asia, with his merchant father and uncle. Now, Marco Polo certainly wasn't the first to make the journey; however, he was one of the first to record his discoveries. The Travels of Marco Polo was based on the stories that Polo had recounted about his experiences in the Far East. The book provided many Europeans with their first inspirational taste of travel adventures – including the Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus.

Another European traveler also left a lasting legacy when documenting the geographical and economical activity of ancient Asia. German Ferdinand von Richthofen was the first to use the term Seidenstraße – Silk Road – in 1877, in his Asian atlas.
More recently, certain routes, such as the 5,000km-long Chang'an-Tianshan Corridor, were inscribed onto the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Many cities in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are renowned for their Silk Road significance. A two-week small group tour takes you overland between some of the sites that would have provided travelers and merchants on the Silk Road with opportunities to refuel or sell their wares. Sightseeing in cities like Samarkand, Bukhara and Almaty, as well as overnight camping trips within the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains, will all go some way to revealing the allure and the romance of the road. Although times must have been incredibly tough, there’s no getting away from how exciting and epic an adventure it must have been for those early travelers on their first forays far, far, from home.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rudra Narayan Mitra] [The start of the Silk Road in China: Popolon] [The Silk Road in Persia: Kalpak Travel] [A road by any other name : Kalpak Travel]