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Silk Road

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Silk Road extending from Europe through Egypt, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia,Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Java-Indonesia, and Vietnam until it reaches China. The land routes are red, and the water routes are blue.

The Silk Road (from German: Seidenstraße) or Silk Route is a modern term referring to a historical network of interlinking trade routes across the Afro-Eurasian landmass that connected East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean and European world, as well as parts of North and East Africa. Extending 4,000 miles (6,500 km), the Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade along it, which began during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BC by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian, but earlier trade routes across the continents already existed.

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Persia, Europe and Arabia. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and various technologies, religions and philosophies, as well as the bubonic plague (the "Black Death"), also traveled along the Silk Routes.

The main traders during Antiquity were the Indian and Bactrian traders, then from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdian traders, then afterward the Arab and Persian traders.


Woven silk textiles from Tomb No. 1 at Mawangdui, Changsha, Hunan province, China, 2nd century BC, Han Dynasty

The Silk Road gets its name from the lucrative Chinese silk trade, a major reason for the connection of trade routes into an extensive transcontinental 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.



Cross-continental journeys

As the domestication of pack animals and the development of shipping technology both increased the capacity for prehistoric peoples to carry heavier loads over greater distances, cultural exchanges and trade developed rapidly. In addition, grassland provides fertile grazing, water, and easy passage for caravans. The vast grassland steppes of Asia enabled merchants to travel immense distances, from the shores of the Pacific to Africa and deep into Europe, without trespassing on agricultural lands and arousing hostility.

Chinese and Central Asian contacts

Chinese jade and steatite plaques, in the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes. 4th–3rd century BC. British Museum.

From the 2nd millennium BC nephrite jade was being traded from mines in the region of Yarkand and Khotan to China. Significantly, these mines were not very far from the lapis lazuli and spinel ("Balas Ruby") mines in Badakhshan and, although separated by the formidable Pamir Mountains, routes across them were, apparently, in use from very early times.

A Scythian horseman from the general area of the Ili river, Pazyryk, c. 300 BC.

The Tarim mummies have been found in the Tarim Basin, in the area of Loulan located along the Silk Road 200 km East of Yingpan, dating to as early as 1600 BC and suggesting very ancient contacts between East and West. These mummified remains may have been of people who spoke Indo-European languages, that remained in use in the Tarim Basin, in the modern day Xinjiang region, until replaced by Turkic influences from the northern Xiongnu Empire, and by Chinese influences from the eastern Han Dynasty, who spoke a Sino-Tibetan language.

Following contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic western border territories in the 8th century BC, gold was introduced from Central Asia, and Hotan Kashteshi Hotan jade carvers began to make imitation designs of the steppes, adopting the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (depictions of animals locked in combat). This style is particularly reflected in the rectangular belt plaques made of gold and bronze with alternate versions in jade and steatite.

The expansion of Scythian cultures stretching from the Hungarian plain and the Carpathians to the Chinese Kansu Corridor and linking Iran, and the Middle East with Northern India and the Punjab, undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Silk Road. Scythians accompanied the Assyrian Esarhaddon on his invasion of Egypt, and their distinctive triangular arrowheads have been found as far south as Aswan. These nomadic peoples were dependent upon neighbouring settled populations for a number of important technologies, and in addition to raiding vulnerable settlements for these commodities, also encouraged long distance merchants as a source of income through the enforced payment of tariffs. Soghdian Scythian merchants played a vital role in later periods in the development of the Silk Road.

Persian Royal Road

Achaemenid Persian Empire at its greatest extent, showing the Royal Road.

By the time of Herodotus (c. 475 BC), the Royal Road of the Persian Empire ran some 2,857 km from the city of Susa on the Karun (250 km east of the Tigris) to the port of Smyrna (modern İzmir in Turkey) on the Aegean Sea. It was maintained and protected by the Achaemenid Empire (c. 500–330 BC), and had postal stations and relays at regular intervals. By having fresh horses and riders ready at each relay, royal couriers could carry messages the entire distance in nine days, while normal travellers took about three months. This Royal Road linked into many other routes. Some of these, such as the routes to India and Central Asia, were also protected by the Achaemenids, encouraging regular contact between India, Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. There are accounts in the biblical Book of Esther of dispatches being sent from Susa to provinces as far out as India and the Kingdom of Kush during the reign of Xerxes the Great (485–465 BC).

Hellenistic era

Coin depicting the Greco-Bactrian king Euthydemus (230–200 BC)
Probable Greek soldier in the Sampul tapestry, woollen wall hanging, 3rd–2nd century BC, Sampul, Urumqi Xinjiang Museum.

The first major step in opening the Silk Road between the East and the West came with the expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia. In August 329 BC, at the mouth of the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan he founded the city of Alexandria Eschate or "Alexandria The Furthest". This later became a major staging point on the northern Silk Route.

The Greeks remained in Central Asia for the next three centuries, first through the administration of the Seleucid Empire, and then with the establishment of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Bactria. They continued to expand eastward, especially during the reign of Euthydemus (230–200 BC) who extended his control beyond Alexandria Eschate to Sogdiana. There are indications that he may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 200 BC. The Greek historian Strabo writes "they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni."

Chinese exploration of Central Asia

With the Mediterranean linked to the Fergana Valley, the next step was to open a route across the Tarim Basin and the Gansu Corridor to China Proper. This came around 130 BC, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu). After the defeat of the Xiongnu, however, Chinese armies established themselves in Central Asia, starting the famed Silk Road, which became a major avenue of international trade. Some say that the Chinese Emperor Wu became interested in developing commercial relationships with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthian Empire: "The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Dayuan) and the possessions of Bactria ( Ta-Hsia) and Parthian Empire ( Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China" (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). Others say that Emperor Wu was mainly interested in fighting the Xiongnu and that major trade began only after the Chinese pacified the Hexi Corridor.

A pottery horse head and neck (broken from the body) of the Late Han Dynasty (1st–2nd century AD)

The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses (named "Heavenly horses") in the possession of the Dayuan, which were of capital importance in fighting the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. "Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]… As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six." (Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). The Roman historian Florus also describes the visit of numerous envoys, including Seres, to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14 AD:

Even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres came likewise, and the Indians who dwelt beneath the vertical sun, bringing presents of precious stones and pearls and elephants, but thinking all of less moment than the vastness of the journey which they had undertaken, and which they said had occupied four years. In truth it needed but to look at their complexion to see that they were people of another world than ours.

Henry Yule, Cathay and the way thither

A Chinese Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD) bronze rhinoceros with gold and silver inlay

Opening of the Silk Road

The "Silk Road" originated during the 1st century BC, following efforts by the Yuezhi and Xiongnu in the Tarim Basin to consolidate a road to the Western world and India, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Dayuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west. The Silk Roads were a "complex network of trade routes" that gave people the chance to exchange goods and culture.

Roman Empire

Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, regular communications and trade between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe blossomed on an unprecedented scale. The Greco- Roman trade with India started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130 BC kept on increasing, and according to Strabo (II.5.12), by the time of Augustus, up to 120 ships were setting sail every year from Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt to India.

The party of Maës Titianus became the travellers who penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world, probably with the aim of regularizing contacts and reducing the role of middlemen, during one of the lulls in Rome's intermittent wars with Parthia, which repeatedly obstructed movement along the Silk Road. Intercontinental trade and communication became regular, organized, and protected by the 'Great Powers.' Intense trade with the Roman Empire soon followed, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied through the Parthians), even though the Romans thought silk was obtained from trees. This belief was affirmed by Seneca the Younger in his Phaedra and by Virgil in his Georgics. Notably, Pliny the Elder knew better. Speaking of the bombyx or silk moth, he wrote in his Natural Histories "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk."

A Westerner on a camel, Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534)

The Roman Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral:

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes… Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.

The unification of Central Asia and Northern India within Kushan Empire in the 1st to 3rd centuries reinforced the role of the powerful merchants from Bactria and Taxila. They fostered multi-cultural interaction as indicated by their 2nd century treasure hoards filled with products from the Greco-Roman world, China and India, such as in the archeological site of Begram.

The Roman Empire, and its demand for sophisticated Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century.

Byzantine historian Procopius stated that two Christian monks eventually uncovered the way of how silk was made. From this revelation spies were sent to steal the silkworm eggs, resulting in silk production in the Mediterranean.


A sancai statue of foreigner with a wineskin, Tang Dynasty (618–907)

The Silk Road represents an early phenomenon of political and cultural integration due to inter-regional trade. In its heyday, it sustained an international culture that strung together groups as diverse as the Magyars, Armenians, and Chinese. The route experienced its prime periods of popularity and activity in differing eras at different points along its length.

In the west, the Silk Road reached its peak during the time of the Byzantine Empire; in the Nile- Oxus section, from the Sassanid Empire period to the Il Khanate period; and in the sinitic zone from the Three Kingdoms period to the Yuan Dynasty period. Trade between East and West also developed on the sea, between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China, fostering across the Indian Ocean.

Under its strong integrating dynamics on the one hand and the impacts of change it transmitted on the other, tribal societies previously living in isolation along the Silk Road or pastoralists who were of barbarian cultural development were drawn to the riches and opportunities of the civilizations connected by the Silk Road, taking on the trades of marauders or mercenaries. Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors able to conquer rich cities and fertile lands, and forge strong military empires.

A.V. Dybo noted that "according to historians, the main driving force of the Great Silk Road were not just Sogdians, but the carriers of a mixed Sogdian-Türkic culture that often came from mixed families."

The Sogdians dominated the East-West trade after the 4th century up to the 8th century, with Suyab and Talas ranking among their main centers in the north. They were the main caravan merchants of Central Asia. Their commercial interests were protected by the resurgent military power of the Göktürks, whose empire has been described as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians". Their trades with some interruptions continued in the 9th century within the framework of the Uighur Empire, which until 840 extended across northern Central Asia and obtained from China enormous deliveries of silk in exchange for horses. At this time caravans of Sogdians traveling to Upper Mongolia are mentioned in Chinese sources. They played an equally important religious and cultural role. Part of the data about eastern Asia provided by Muslim geographers of the 10th century actually goes back to Sogdian data of the period 750–840 and thus shows the survival of links between east and west. However, after the end of the Uighur Empire, Sogdian trade went through a crisis. What mainly issued from Muslim Central Asia was the trade of the Samanids, which resumed the northwestern road leading to the Khazars and the Urals and the northeastern one toward the nearby Turkic tribes.

Map of Eurasia showing the trade network of Jewish merchants, c. 870 AD

The Silk Road gave rise to the clusters of military states of nomadic origins in North China, invited the Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, and later Islamic religions into Central Asia and China, created the influential Khazar Federation and at the end of its glory, brought about the largest continental empire ever: the Mongol Empire, with its political centers strung along the Silk Road (Beijing in North China, Karakorum in central Mongolia, Sarmakhand in Transoxiana, Tabriz in Northern Iran, Sarai and Astrakhan in lower Volga, Solkhat in Crimea, Kazan in Central Russia, Erzurum in eastern Anatolia), realizing the political unification of zones previously loosely and intermittently connected by material and cultural goods.

In Central Asia, Islam expanded from the 7th century onward, bringing a stop to Chinese westward expansion at the Battle of Talas in 751. Further expansion of the Islamic Turks in Central Asia from the 10th century finished disrupting trade in that part of the world, and Buddhism almost disappeared. For much of the Middle Ages, the Islamic Caliphate (centred in the Near East) often had a monopoly over much of the trade conducted across the Old World (see Muslim age of discovery for more details).

Mongol age

The Mongol Empire and its sphere of influence (to include vassal states such as Goryeo at its height. The gray area is the later Timurid empire.

The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1207 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-establish the Silk Road (via Karakorum). It also brought an end to the Islamic Caliphate's monopoly over world trade. Because the Mongols had dominated the trade routes, it allowed more trade to come in and out of the region. Merchandise that did not seem valuable to the Mongols was often seen as very valuable by the west. As a result, the Mongols received in return a large amount of luxurious goods from the West. However, they never abandoned their nomadic lifestyle. Soon after Genghis Khan died, the Silk Road was in the hand of Genghis Khans' daughters. The Mongol diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma visited the courts of Europe in 1287–1288 and provided a detailed written report back to the Mongols. Around the same time, the Venetian explorer Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to travel the Silk Road to China, and his tales, documented in The Travels of Marco Polo, opened Western eyes to some of the customs of the Far East. He was not the first to bring back stories, but he was one of the widest-read. He had been preceded by numerous Christian missionaries to the East, such as William of Rubruck, Benedykt Polak, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, and Andrew of Longjumeau. Later envoys included Odoric of Pordenone, Giovanni de' Marignolli, John of Montecorvino, Niccolò de' Conti, or Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan Muslim traveller, who passed through the present-day Middle East and across the Silk Road from Tabriz, between 1325–1354.

The 13th century also saw attempts at a Franco-Mongol alliance, with exchange of ambassadors and (failed) attempts at military collaboration in the Holy Land during the later Crusades, though eventually the Mongols in the Ilkhanate, after they had destroyed the Abbasid and Ayyubid dynasties, eventually themselves converted to Islam, and signed the 1323 Treaty of Aleppo with the surviving Muslim power, the Egyptian Mamluks.

Map of Marco Polo's travels in 1271–1295.

Some research studies indicate that the Black Death, which devastated Europe in the late 1340s, may have reached from Central Asia (or China) to Europe along the trade routes of the Mongol Empire.


The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural and economic unity of the Silk Road. Turkmeni marching 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 the Black 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 about 1453 with the Ottoman supremacy at Constantinople. Ottoman rulers of the day were anti-western, countering the crusades, and aware of the loss of Andalusia in the west, so expressed their displeasure by embargoing trade with the west. Things had eased a bit around a century later, and Venice was able to cut an uneasy deal with the Ottomans, regaining for a time some of their economic clout as middlemen.


The disappearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols' reign was one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous Chinese empire through another route, especially by sea. Tremendous profits were to be obtained for anyone who could achieve a direct trade connection with Asia. This was the main driving factor for the Portuguese explorations of the Indian Ocean, including the sea of China, resulting in the arrival in 1513 of the first European trading ship to the coasts of China, under Jorge Álvares and Rafael Perestrello, followed by the Fernão Pires de Andrade and Tomé Pires diplomatic and commercial mission of 1517, under the orders of Manuel I of Portugal, which opened formally relations between the Portuguese Empire and the Ming Dynasty during the reign of the Zhengde Emperor. The handover of Macau (Macao) to Portugal in 1557 by the Emperor of China (as a reward for services rendered against the pirates who infested the South China Sea) resulted in the first permanent European maritime trade post between Europe and China, with other European powers following suit over the next centuries, which caused the eventual demise of the Silk Road.

Italian pottery of the mid-15th century was heavily influenced by Chinese ceramics. A Sancai ("Three colors") plate (left), and a Ming-type blue-white vase (right), made in Northern Italy, mid-15th century. Musée du Louvre.

When he went West in 1492, Christopher Columbus reportedly wished to create yet another trade route to China. It was initially a great disappointment to have found a continent "in-between" before recognizing the potential of a "New World".

In 1594, Willem Barents left Amsterdam with two ships to search for the Northeast passage north of Siberia, on to eastern Asia. He reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya and followed it northward, being finally forced to turn back when confronted with its northern extremity. By the end of the 17th century, the Russians re-established a land trade route between Europe and China under the name of the Great Siberian Road.

The desire to trade directly with China and India was also the main driving force behind the expansion of the Portuguese beyond Africa after 1480, followed by the Netherlands and England from the 17th century. While the Portuguese (and, subsequently, other Europeans) were entering China from its southern coast, by the sea route, the question arose as to whether it happens to be the same country as Cathay which Marco had reached by the overland route. By c. 1600, the Jesuits stationed in China, led by Matteo Ricci, were pretty sure that it was, but others were not convinced yet. To check the situation on the ground, Bento de Góis, a Portuguese former soldier and explorer who had joined the Jesuits as a Lay Brother in Goa, India, traveled in 1603–1605 from India via Afghanistan and one of the routes of the traditional Silk Road (via Badakhshan, the Pamirs, Yarkand, Kucha, and Turpan to the Ming China's border as Suzhou, Gansu.

Leibniz, echoing the prevailing perception in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, wrote in the 17th century that: Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies... Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China.

In the 18th century, Adam Smith declared that China had been one of the most prosperous nations in the world, but that it had remained stagnant for a long time and its wages always were low and the lower classes were particularly poor:

China has long been one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary. Marco Polo, who visited it more than five hundred years ago, describes its cultivation, industry, and populousness, almost in the same terms as travellers in the present time describe them. It had perhaps, even long before his time, acquired that full complement of riches which the nature of its laws and institutions permits it to acquire.

Modern day

The Eurasian Land Bridge is sometimes referred to as the "New Silk Road". The last link in a railway route along the Silk Road was completed in 1990, when the railway systems of China and Kazakhstan connected in Alataw Pass (Alashan Kou). Currently (2008), the line is used by direct passenger service from Urumqi in China's Xinjiang to Almaty and Astana in Kazakhstan.

Since July 2011 Chongqing is officially linked to Duisburg, Germany by a freight rail across Eurasia. Compared to the traditional sea trade routes from Guangzhou and Shanghai, the rail link to Europe cuts travel time from about 36 days by container ship to just 13 days by freight train.

Since 1993 the United Nations World Tourism Organization has commenced an international programme to develop sustainable tourism along the route to foster peace and understanding.

Routes taken

The Silk Road comprised several routes.

Overland routes

The Silk Road in the 1st century.

As it extends westwards from the ancient commercial centers of China, the overland, intercontinental Silk Road divides into the northern and southern routes by passing the Taklimakan Desert and Lop Nur.

Northern Route

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 BC 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 the Fergana 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 from Somalia; 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.

Southern Route

The southern route or Karakoram 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 Alexandria and other eastern Mediterranean ports from where ships carried the cargoes to Rome.

South-west Route

The southwest route is believed to be the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta which has been the subject of international interest for over two millennia. Strabo, the 1st Century Roman writer, mentions the deltaic lands: ‘Regarding merchants who now sail from Egypt…as far as the Ganges, they are only private citizens...’ His comments seem to be interesting since the Roman beads and other materials are being found at Wari-Bateshwar ruins, the ancient city with roots from much earlier before the Bronze Age presently being slowly excavated beside the Old Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. Ptolemy’s map of the Ganges Delta, a remarkably accurate piece of mapping, showed quite clearly that his informants knew all about the course of the Brahmaputra River, crossing through the Himalayas then bending westward to its source in Tibet. It is doubtless that this delta was a major international trading centre, almost certainly from much earlier than the Common Era. Gemstones and other merchandise from Thailand and Java were traded in the delta and through it. A famous Chinese archaeological writer Bin Yang, whose work, ‘Between Winds and Clouds; The Making of Yunnan’, published in 2004 by the Columbia University press and some earlier writers and archaeologists, such as Janice Stargardt strongly suggest this route of international trade as Sichuan- Yunnan-Burma-Bangladesh route. According to Bin Yang, especially from the 12th century the route was used to ship bullion from Yunnan (Gold and Silver being among the minerals in which Yunnan is rich), through northern Burma, into modern Bangladesh, making use of the ancient route, known as the ‘Ledo’ route. The emerging evidence of the ancient cities of Bangladesh, in particular Wari-Bateshwar ruins, Mahasthangarh, Bhitagarh, Bikrampur, Egarasindhur and Sonargaon are believed to be the international trade centers in this route.

Cultural exchanges

Iconographical evolution of the Wind God. Left: Greek Wind God from Hadda, 2nd century. Middle: Wind God from Kizil, Tarim Basin, 7th century. Right: Japanese Wind God Fujin, 17th century.

Richard Foltz, Xinru Liu and others have described how trading activities along the Silk Road over many centuries facilitated the transmission not just of goods but also ideas and culture, notably in the area of religions. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam all spread across Eurasia through trade networks that were tied to specific religious communities and their institutions. The spread of religions and cultural traditions along the Silk Roads, according to Jerry H. Bentley, also led to syncretism. One example was the encounter with the Chinese and Xiongnu nomads. These unlikely events of cross-cultural contact allowed both cultures to adapt to each other as an alternative. The Xiongnu adopted Chinese agricultural techniques, dress style, and lifestyle. On the other hand, the Chinese adopted Xiongnu military techniques, some dress style, and music and dance. Of all the cultural exchanges between China and the Xiongnu, the defection of Chinese soldiers was perhaps the most surprising. They would sometimes convert to the Xiongnu way of life and stay in the stepps for fear of punishment.

Transmission of art

Many artistic influences were transmitted via the Silk Road, particularly through Central Asia, where Hellenistic, Iranian, Indian and Chinese influences could intermix. Greco-Buddhist art represents one of the most vivid examples of this interaction.

These artistic influences can also be seen in the development of Buddhism, where, for instance, Buddha was first depicted as human in the Kushan period. Many scholars have attributed this to Greek influence. The mixture of Greek and Indian elements can be found in later Buddhist art in China and throughout countries on the Silk Road.

Transmission of Buddhism

Central Asian monk teaching East-Asian monk, Bezeklik, Eastern Tarim Basin, 9th–10th century.

The transmission of Buddhism to China via the Silk Road began in the 1st century AD, according to a semi-legendary account of an ambassador sent to the West by the Chinese Emperor Ming (58–75 AD). During this period Buddhism began to spread throughout Southeast, East, and Central Asia. The Buddhist movement was the first large-scale missionary movement in the history of world religions. Buddha’s community of followers, the Sangha, consisted of male and female monks and laity. These people moved through India and beyond to spread the ideas of Buddha. Extensive contacts started in the 2nd century AD, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin, due to the missionary efforts of a great number of Central Asian Buddhist monks to Chinese lands. The first missionaries and translators of Buddhists scriptures into Chinese were either Parthian, Kushan, Sogdian or Kuchean.

One result of the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road was displacement and conflict. The Greek Seleucids were exiled to Iran and Central Asia due to a new Iranian Dynasty called the Parthians at the beginning of the 2nd century BCE, and as a result the Parthians became the new middle men for trade in a period when the Romans were major customers for silk. The Parthians were Buddhists and, because they found themselves in a main trade centre on the Silk Road, the city of Marv became a major Buddhist centre by the middle of the 2nd century. Knowledge among people on the silk roads also increased when Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty (268-239 BCE) converted to Buddhism and raised the religion to official status in his northern Indian empire.

From the 4th century onward, Chinese pilgrims also started to travel on the Silk Road to India, in order to get improved access to the original Buddhist scriptures, with Fa-hsien's pilgrimage to India (395–414), and later Xuan Zang (629–644) and Hyecho, who traveled from Korea to India. The legendary accounts of the holy priest Xuan Zang were described in a novel called Journey to the West, which told of trials with demons, but also the help of various disciples on the journey.

There were many different schools of Buddhism travelling on the Silk Road. The Dharmaguptakas and the Sarvastivadins were two of the major nikaya schools. These were both eventually displaced by the Mahayana, also known as “Great Vehicle”. This movement of Buddhism first gained influence in the Khotan region. The Mahayana, which was more of a “pan-Buddhist movement” than a school of Buddhism, appears to have begun in north western India or Central Asia. It was small at first and formed during the 1st century BCE, and the origins of this “Greater Vehicle” are not fully clear. Some Mahayana scripts were found in northern Pakistan but the main texts are still believed to have been composed in Central Asia along the Silk Road. These different schools and movements of Buddhism were a result of the diverse and complex influences and beliefs on the Silk Road.

During the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, Merchants played a large role in the spread of religion, in particular Buddhism. Merchants found the moral and ethical teachings of Buddhism to be an appealing alternative to previous religions. As a result, Merchants supported Buddhist Monasteries along the Silk Roads and in return the Buddhists gave the Merchants somewhere to stay as they traveled from city to city. As a result, Merchants spread Buddhism to foreign encounters as they traveled. Merchants also helped to establish diaspora within the communities they encountered and overtime their cultures became based on Buddhism. Because of this, these communities became centers of literacy and culture with well-organized marketplaces, lodging, and storage. The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism essentially ended around the 7th century with the rise of Islam in Central Asia.


Both Bishkek and Almaty now have a major east-west street named after the Silk Road ( Kyrgyz: Жибек жолу, Jibek Jolu in Bishkek, and Kazakh: Жібек жолы, Jibek Joly in Almaty).

Artifacts from the history of the Silk Route are displayed at the Silk Route Museum in Jiuquan, China.

European Trade with China Today

The Figures count in Billions and is based on Data from the WTO and show the Total Trade with China in 2011.

Trading partner European exports to China European imports from China Total trade value with China
1  Germany 89.8 111.6 201.4
2  France 47.6 57.1 104.7
3  Russia 38.1 54.7 92.8
4  United Kingdom 14.1 57.3 71.5
5  Netherlands 9.9 55.6 65.5
6  Italy 14.1 40.6 54.8
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