The History of the Silk Road

The Silk Road was never a single road running from East to West rather a series of trade routes running from Xian in China through Central Asia, into Pakistan and India and on to the Middle East and Caucasus – traditionally finishing in Constantinople (Istanbul). While Silk was the commodity which gave these trade routes their name in reality a whole plethora of goods moved along the routes as well as the transmission of ideas and philosophies which allowed cities such as Samarkand to become centres of science and learning.

Though there is no official start date for the Silk Road traditionally the 2nd century BC is seen as its beginning – though we know from archaeological discoveries in Germany and Egypt that silk was reaching the West before then. The decline of overland trade really begin with the opening of the maritime trade routes by explorers such as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan in the 16th century.

138 BC saw the Chinese Emperor Wu Di dispatch his envoy Zhang Qian to investigate the lands to the west of the Hexi Corridor. Despite being captured by the Xiongnu he returned more than 10 years later with discoveries unheard of by the Chinese including wine but most importantly the ‘heavenly horses’ of the Ferghana Valley. This expedition marks the first known crossing of the Tian Shian passes. 119BC saw Zhang Qian launch a further expedition west which established diplomatic relations with Bactria and Sogdiana and formed the basis for trade along the Silk Road.

As China established control over the Tarim Basin trade began flourish based upon a string of oases such as Dunhuang and Turpan which circled the Taklamakan Desert. In 97 AD General Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 across the Tian Shian and Pamirs reaching as far as the Caspian Sea and making an alliance with King Pacorus II of Parthia. This expedition helped establish security along the Silk Road which was by now becoming strategically important for the Chinese.

To the west the Roman Empire was spreading across the Eastern Mediterranean and under this pax romana greater stability was brought to the region. Meanwhile the Parthian Empire had control of much of Iran and Mesopotamia and the 1st century AD saw the rise of the Kushan Empire in Central Asia. With the stability these four empires brought, trade along the Silk Road was able to flourish.

In 226 AD the Parthians were replaced by the Sassanians and in China the Han dynasty was replaced by the Tang in 618AD. This led to some disruption of trade especially with the emergence of Tibet which would challenge China’s control of the Silk Road.

The Tang dynasty period (618-907AD) is seen by many as the high water of the Silk Road. By the 552AD the Emperor Justinian had got hold of silk worms and silk began to be produced in Constantinople, however Chinese silk was regarded as the finest and tea from China also began to be an important commodity traded along the routes. The 7th century saw the rise of Islam and this Abbasid dynasty came into conflict with China in Central Asia. The battle of Talas (751AD) saw an Islamic victory and Chinese prisoners brought with them the secret of paper making. The now established spheres of influence between the Chinese and Abbasids allowed trade to flourish. This period also saw the Turkic Uighur people settle around the rim of the Taklamakan desert giving the region it Uighur feel which it maintains today.

Gradually the Abbasid and Tang dynasties went into decline and this introduced a period of instability along the Silk Road. This period saw the rise of the Hashisheen (or Assassins) who launched raids against caravans from their fortified settlements in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – further reducing trade which by 1200 AD had withered.

The final and ironic flourish of the Silk Road came with the Mongol conquests. By 1227 Genghis Khan had established an empire from Xian to Antioch. With the whole of the Silk Road under one empire, traders were able to travel its length under imperial protection. Under Tamarlane some of Central Asia’s greatest architectural works were built including Registan Square and Bibi Khanum mosque. However with the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire and the Ming dynasty’s increasingly insular attitude the Silk Road went into terminal decline. Perhaps the greatest single death knell was the opening of the sea trade routes to Europe. By the 19th century the great Silk Road was but a distant memory.