The Silk Road or Silk Route refers to a network of interlinking trade routesacross the Afro-Eurasian landmass that connected East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean andEuropean world, as well as parts ofNorth and East Africa. The land routes were supplemented by sea routes which extended from the Red Sea to East Africa, India, China, and Southeast Asia. China traded silk, spices, teas, and porcelain; while India traded ivory, textiles, precious stones, and pepper; and the Roman Empire exported gold, silver, fine glassware, wine, carpets, and jewels.
In recent years, both the maritime and overland Silk Routes are again being used, often closely following the ancient routes.
The Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade, a major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive trans-continental network.
The German terms "Seidenstraße" and "Seidenstraßen"- 'the Silk Road(s)' or 'Silk Route(s)' were coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. Some scholars prefer the term "Silk Routes" because the road included an extensive network of routes, though few were more than rough caravan tracks.
The Silk Routes (collectively known as the "Silk Road") were important trade routes for goods of all kinds between merchants, pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from Ancient China, Ancient India, Ancient Tibet, the Persian Empire and Mediterranean countries for almost 3,000 years. It gets its name from the lucrativeChinese silk trade, which began during the Han Dynasty(206 BC – 220 CE).
Extending 4,000 miles (6,500 km), the routes enabled traders to transport goods, slaves and luxuries such assilk, satin, hemp and other fine fabrics, musk, other perfumes, spices, medicines, jewels, glassware and even rhubarb, as well as serving as a conduit for the spread of knowledge, ideas, cultures, zoological specimens and some non indigenous disease conditions between Ancient China, Ancient India (Indus valley, now Pakistan), Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China,India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia, and Rome, and in several respects helped lay the foundations for the modern world. Although the term the Silk Road implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end. For the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes and were traded in the bustling markets of the oasis towns.
The central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BCE by the Han dynasty,largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian, but earlier trade routes across the continents already existed.In the late Middle Ages, transcontinental trade over the land routes of the Silk Road declined as sea trade increased.Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other products were traded, and various technologies, religions and philosophies as well as the bubonic plague (the so-called "Black Death") also traveled along the Silk Routes. India played a vital role in the trade, being virtually by the center of the route as well as having unique products such as spices, precious stones, and hand-crafted goods. With the fall of the Han dynasty in the 3rd century trading between the east and west had decreased. Byzantine historian Procopius had said that two Christian monks uncovered the way of how silk was made. From this revelation spies were sent to steal the silkworm eggs and after this silk was also produced in the Mediterranean. Emperor Wu Di (141-87 BCE) had to battle the Xiongnu nomads in the north and sent out his general Zhang Qian to find allies and to buy the famous Iranian war horses from Nisaia. Although Zhang Qian failed in his mission, he visited Bactria and had found the way to the west. With Wu Di in power, the Silk Road had been opened.Then it was not until around 1400 when the Silk Road stopped as a shipping route for Silk.
As it extends westwards from the ancient commercial centers of China, the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divides into the northern and southern routes bypassing the Taklimakan Desert andLop Nur.
The northern route started at Chang'an (now called Xi'an), the capital of the ancient Chinese Kingdom, which, in the Later Han, was moved further east to Luoyang. The route was defined about the 1st century BCE as Han Wudi put an end to harassment by nomadic tribes.
The northern route travelled northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu from Shaanxi Province, and split into three further routes, two of them following the mountain ranges to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert to rejoin at Kashgar; and the other going north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan). The routes split again west of Kashgar, with a southern branch heading down the Alai Valley towards Termez (in modern Uzbekistan) and Balkh (Afghanistan), while the other traveled through Kokand in theFergana Valley (in present-day eastern Uzbekistan) and then west across the Karakum Desert. Both routes joined the main southern route before reaching Merv (Turkmenistan). A route for caravans, the northern Silk Road brought to China many goods such as "dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia; frankincense, aloes and myrrh fromSomalia; sandalwood from India; glass bottles from Egypt, and other expensive and desirable goods from other parts of the world." In exchange, the caravans sent back bolts of silk brocade, lacquer ware and porcelain. Another branch of the northern route turned northwest past the Aral Sea and north of the Caspian Sea, then and on to the Black Sea.
The southern route was mainly a single route running from China, through the Karakoram, where it persists to modern times as the international paved road connecting Pakistan and China as the Karakoram Highway. It then set off westwards, but with southward spurs enabling the journey to be completed by sea from various points. Crossing the high mountains, it passed through northern Pakistan, over the Hindu Kush mountains, and into Afghanistan, rejoining the northern route near Merv. From there, it followed a nearly straight line west through mountainous northern Iran,Mesopotamia and the northern tip of the Syrian Desert to the Levant, where Mediterranean trading ships plied regular routes to Italy, while land routes went either north through Anatolia or south to North Africa. Another branch road traveled from Herat through Susa to Charax Spasinu at the head of the Persian Gulf and across to Petra and on to Alexandriaand other eastern Mediterranean ports from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome.
Going back nearly 2000 years, during China's Eastern Han Dynasty, a sea route, although not part of the formal Silk Route, led from the mouth of the Red River near modern Hanoi, through theMalacca Straits to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and India, and then on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea kingdom of Axum and eventually to Roman ports. From ports on the Red Sea, goods, including silks, were transported overland to the Nile and then to Alexandria from where they were shipped to Rome,Constantinople and other Mediterranean ports.
Another branch of these sea routes led down the East African coast, called "Azania" by the Greeks and Romans in the 1st century, CE, as described in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (and, very probably, 澤散 Zesan in the 3rd century by the Chinese), at least as far as the port known to the Romans as "Rhapta," which was probably located in the delta of the Rufiji River in modern Tanzania.
The Silk Road extends from Guangzhou, located in southern China, to present day Brunei, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand,Malacca, Ceylon, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Iran and Iraq. In Europe it extends from Israel, Lebanon (Collectively, the Levant), Egypt, and Italy (historically, Venice) in the Mediterranean Sea to other European ports or caravan routes such as the great Hanseatic League fairs via the Spanish road and other Alpine routes. This water route is called in some sources "the Indian Ocean Maritime System".
The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural and economic unity of the Silk Road. Turkmenimarching lords seized land around the western part of the Silk Road, belonging to the decaying Byzantine Empire. After the Mongol Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Road became economically and culturally separated. Accompanying the crystallization of regional states was the decline of nomad power, partly due to the devastation of theBlack Death and partly due to the encroachment of sedentary civilizations equipped with gunpowder.
Gunpowder and early modernity in Europe led to the integration of territorial states and increasing mercantilism. Meanwhile on the Silk Road, gunpowder and early modernity had the opposite impact: the level of integration of the Mongol Empire could not be maintained, and trade declined (though partly due to an increase in European maritime exchanges).
The Silk Road stopped serving as a shipping route for silk around 1400.