In the 3rd Century B.C., Chinese silk fabrics were beginning to find their way throughout the whole of Asia, and were transported overland to the west, and by sea to Japan, in those long itineraries known as the silk road.
When was the term “Silk Road” invented?
The term “Silk Road” didn’t exist at the time of the Silk Road trade and there was no single route across Central Asia. The peoples living along different trade routes never referred to any particular route as the “Silk Road.” They referred to the different sections of the road as the “Road to Samarkand” (or whatever the next major city was). They did call the different routes around the Taklamakan either the “northern” or “southern” route.
In 1877, Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833-1905), a prominent geographer and the uncle of the World War I flying ace, produced a five-volume map of China. One map showed a single line connecting Europe and China, which he called the “Silk Road,” and the name stuck.
What goods were traded on the Silk Road?
Silk wasn’t the only good traded on these routes. Metals, spices, medicines, glass, leather goods, and paper all moved across Eurasia. Paper became the primary writing material for all of Eurasia, and surely had a far greater impact on human history than silk, which was used primarily for garments. Invented during the second century BCE, paper moved out of China, first into the Islamic world in the eighth century, and reached Europe via its Islamic portals in Sicily and Spain. People north of the Alps learned to make their own paper only in the late fourteenth century.
How did they travel?
Merchants and tradesmen traveled in large caravans. They would have many guards with them. Traveling in a big group like a caravan helped in defending from bandits. Camels were popular animals for transport because much of the road was through dry and harsh land.
- It was over 4,000 miles long.
- Marco Polo traveled to China along the Silk Road.
- Not all that was traded along the Silk Road was good. It is thought that the bubonic plague, or Black Death, traveled to Europe from the Silk Road.
- Very few merchants traveled along the entire route. Goods were traded at many cities and trade posts along the way.
- There wasn’t just one route, but many routes. Some were shorter, but more dangerous. Others took longer, but were safer.
Which countries did the Silk Road connect?
The Silk Road connected China with the Iranian world, specifically the city of Samarkand (in today’s Uzbekistan) and the surrounding communities. This was the homeland of the Sogdians, who spoke an Iranian language called Sogdian, and many observed the teachings of the ancient Iranian teacher Zarathustra (ca. 1000 B.C.E., called Zoroaster in Greek), who taught that truth-telling was the paramount virtue. Some of the most exciting finds in the past decade have been the tombs of Sogdian leaders found in the main cities of interior China. The most common long-distance travelers, in fact, were the Sogdians who lived in and around modern-day Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan.
Did the Silk Road connect China and Rome?
No. At least there was no direct traffic during the years of the Roman Empire that we know of. Romans didn’t exchange their gold coins directly for Chinese silk. The earliest Roman gold coins found in China — so far only 48 gold coins (many are fakes) have been discovered after a century of intense investigations — are Byzantine solidus coins dated to the sixth century, several centuries after the capital shifted from Rome to Constantinople (modern Istanbul).
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