Silk Road Trade

The Chinese Han court welcomed Western trade for one of the first times in its history some 2,000 years ago. What his courtiers could not imagine was that they were laying the foundations of one of the oldest, largest, and longest-lasting trading systems in the world.

That said, the ancient Silk Road system has seen the rise and fall of countless cultures and civilizations throughout its 1,600-year existence, emerging from nearly every experience bigger and better than before.

So what are the events that define the history of the Silk Road and why did this system eventually end?

When did the Silk Road begin?

A confused collection of ever-changing routes and roads carried goods across Asia and Europe for a considerable stretch of antiquity, from roughly 130 BC to 1450 AD.

Commonly called the Silk Road, this land and water system spanned a whole 6,000 miles and connects countless territories, from China and India to Iran and Italy. Traversing the most difficult terrains, including mountains, deserts, steppes and seas, the system crosses China’s ancient capital city of Xi’an to Central and Western Asia, all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road transported all kinds of items, including salt, spices, precious stones, precious metals, paper, and porcelain. But the system was originally built on the transmission of finished silk fabric, which was only made in China at the time the system was founded.

Read more: What was traded on the Silk Road?

Initial transactions

At the time, Chinese courtiers understood that silk was worth a significant amount in their own society and treated the production methods as a state secret. But they were not fully aware of the value of the fabric in the West, as their only foreign trade in textiles was part of their diplomacy.

When the tribes of the Xiongnu people raided the borders of China around 200 BCE, for example, the Han court provided the tribes with silk as part of their a plea for peace. And when the tribes of the Xiongnu people were still plundering the borders of China around 130 BC, the Han court provided the rival tribes with silk in exchange for a special kind of faster and stronger horse that played an important role in the defeat of the Xiongnu a few decades later.

Trade intensification

These interactions, in addition to a series of missions sent in search of foreign allies, revealed for the first time the intensity of the Western demand for silk. And once it was discovered, the Chinese court armed a fleet of merchants with the fabric and directed them westward, all in an effort to encourage future trade relations and formalize future trade routes.

Read more: Silk production is an ancient practice that presents an ethical dilemma

Traveling along the Silk Road

These traders initiated the Silk Road, although they were not the only travelers to take to the system. Instead, merchants from all over Central and Western Asia rushed to the routes where they carried their goods along small section system before passing them on to the next seller in a chain of intermediaries.

Their journey was arduous, with traders facing threats on the ground and bandit bandits who roamed the Silk Road. But because their goods were in demand, the trade continued for centuries, surviving some of the greatest political disasters and upheavals of antiquity.

Phases of the Silk Road Trade Route

Scholars of the Silk Road trade route tend to discuss three phases of particularly intense trade, each characterized by its own distinct mix of merchants, goods, and political challenges.

The first phase

The first phase of this trade took place from about 200 BC to 220 AD and centered on the movement of silks from China to Rome, where people were ambivalent about textiles. Some Romans thought that wearing silk was an appropriate sign of their worth, wealth and authority, while others saw silk as an indecent pleasure and tried to ban its importation.

Despite the debate that surrounded the textile, Roman imports of silk soared during this phase, thanks to the peace and prosperity that Rome’s early emperors ensured. And when Chinese silk went west, the Romans sent their glass, gold and silver east.

The second phase

In 220 AD, China fell into a period of political turmoil, leading to a temporary withdrawal from the Silk Road trade. In the midst of this turmoil, the secrets of silk production were smuggled out of the state, ending China’s monopoly on the material.

After the Tang Chinese court restored the state to its former prosperity around 600 AD, silk manufacturers already appeared in Byzantium, which was located in Anatolia and served as the successor to the rapidly declining state of Rome. But since the quality of Chinese silk still remained superior, a new phase of the silk trade arose from about 620 to 910 AD, this time from China to Byzantium and beyond.

The third phase

Beginning in Central Asia and advancing into China, India, Iran, and Anatolia, Mongol conquests under Genghis and Kublai Khan eventually stabilized the entire continent, facilitating communication and trade across Eurasia. As the various trading centers of Asia and Europe came under the unified control of the Mongols, the third and final heyday of the silk trade occurred, lasting from about 1210 to 1360 AD.

While silk was still one of the main products that traveled the Silk Road, textiles were sent west with pearls and precious stones, spices, ceramics, carpets and much more. In addition to these material goods, the Mongols’ openness to foreigners and foreign ideas also facilitated the movement of people, philosophies, and pathogens across vast stretches of the Silk Road routes.

Read more: The life of Genghis Khan, the ruthless warlord who created the world’s greatest empire

When did the Silk Road end?

Although it survived and sometimes thrived during times of trouble, trade along the Silk Road began to deteriorate around 1360 AD. Already depleted by outbreaks of the bubonic plague during the Black Death some 20 years earlier, trade was further weakened by the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire.

The really decisive blow to trade came around 1450 AD, when the taxes and tolls of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire curbed almost all remaining trade along the traditional Silk Road routes.

Read more: Genghis Khan had a soft side

Forging new paths

Experts say the fall of the Silk Road forced European merchants to seek alternative routes to the trading centers of Asia. And tempted by the idea that there was a better way to travel, these traders headed for the seas, which were not as affected by the taxes and bandits that had always been involved in traditional overland trade.

Ushering in a new era of cross-cultural trade and contact in which travelers would jump between the “Old World” and the “New World” with dramatic and devastating consequencesthis search for sea routes only reinforced the ancient shift to worldwide interaction that began with the Silk Road as late as 130 BC.

Read more: The Silk Road was more than an extensive trade route

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