A brief history of the Silk Road
The foundations for the Silk Road, the most important route for both trade and culture in history, were laid over 2,000 years ago and were born of China’s curiosity about the people and the land beyond its borders.Read more
In 139 BC, the Imperial court at Chang’an, today known as Xi’an, decided to send a delegate, Zhang Qiang, on a mission of investigation to explore the world to China’s west and to seek out allies in the process. He set off with a 100-strong team, but returned 13 years later with only two and with zero alliances, but with stories of Central Asia, Persia and the Mediterranean world that pricked the ears of the Emperor Wu Di. Further expeditions were dispatched immediately with the initial purpose of purchasing horses for military purposes, but that soon had set the wheels of trade in motion.
Before long, there was a constant stream of trade: the West headed into the desert with figs, grapes, walnuts and wool, and the East with porcelain, peaches, paper and printing. The commodity that held most mystique though was silk – the silkworm was a complete mystery to the West, but had been understood and cultivated for centuries in China, who went to extreme measures to protect their monopoly, punishing smugglers with death.
It was not until hundreds of years later that sericulture - the production of silk and the rearing of silkworms – reached the West when crafty Nestorian monks successfully smuggled larvae out of China in their walking sticks, by which times the Romans had become utterly obsessed with the fabric: it’s said that by the first century AD, silk was travelling west in such huge quantities that the outflow of gold to pay for it was so great it had begun to challenge the strength of the Roman economy.
As well as a trading route for exotic goods, the Silk Road quickly became an important information highway, carrying new ideas about art, religion and culture from the East to the West and vice versa. Monasteries, chapels and stupas, some of which still exist today; the spread of Christianity into the East and Buddhism into China from India; even the idea of paper money, which travelled from the Mongols to the Middle East, are all ideas that journeyed their way into the hearts and minds of many along the Silk Road.
Although the Silk Road trading boom continued for centuries, reaching its crescendo under the Tang dynasty it was not without its problems: it was slow, expensive as supply of goods was limited, and dangerous due to frequent pillaging from tribes. It was also physically arduous, taking months to part complete with the constant threat of extreme conditions and natural disaster caused by deserts and high mountain passes.
By the 13th century, after a final flourish under Mongol rule, the arrival of sericulture in Europe together with the accessibility of sea routes between China and the West had opened the minds of merchants and explorers worldwide and the Silk Road slowly became obsolete making way for the Age of Exploration.