Ancient History: The Silk Road

The public domain map in green, blue, and tan shades depicts the Silk Road Route that ran from China through India and Persia and into Europe,, as well as a more southerly route that encompassed modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, the coast along the Indian Ocean, and eastern Africa up to Europe via the Red Sea.
Map of the Silk Road Routes (Public Domain)

Formally established during the Han Dynasty of China, the Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes that was the lifeline of commerce from 130 BCE – 1453 CE. Many different branches comprised this road connecting China, India, and Persia, with Persia being a gateway further into Europe. The main route of the Silk Road was established much before the Han dynasty; known as the Persian Royal Road during the Achaemenid Empire, it connected north Persia (modern-day Iran) to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). The Persian Road was maintained with a system of postal stations and gradually expanded into the Indian sub-continent across Mesopotamia and into Egypt.  

Howard County Library System and the Walters Art Museum present a fascinating class that looks at works from the Walters Art Museum that illuminate the expansive story of the Silk Road. 

May 17 from 12 – 1 pm. Register here.  

A manuscript page with Arabic script at the top, featuring a shade tree, bamboo, and a man in a turban studying with writing tools surrounding him. A smaller figure kneels in the bottom right hand cornder.

The term “Silk Road” wasn’t coined until 1877, when German geographer and historian Ferdinand von Richthofen first used it to describe the trade routes. Historians now prefer the term “Silk Routes,” which more accurately reflects the fact that there was more than one thoroughfare. 

Many different goods including gunpowder, precious stones, and ivory were traded along this route; however, it was the exotic silk that gave its name to this road. Many of the goods traded across this route had a great impact on the cultural development of the world. Paper and gunpowder, both developed in China, and the rich spices from India contributed to both European culture and warfare. Similarly, techniques for making glass migrated eastward to China from the Islamic world. However, silk continued to be the most sought-after and expensive commodity, especially in Rome. The Byzantine emperor Justinian (327-565 CE) sent emissaries to steal the closely guarded secret of silk and bring it back to initiate the Byzantine silk industry. In 1453 CE, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire which closed the Silk Road and cut ties with the west.  

The legacy of the Silk Road is the impact on art, religion, technology, science, and language that fostered a growth and enrichment of world civilization. Unfortunately, disease also traveled along and the bubonic plague of 542 CE was thought to have spread to Constantinople via the Silk Road. Famous Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled overland on the Silk Road to the Mongol Empire ruled by Kublai Khan in 1275 and wrote the epic The Travels of Marco Polo (also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive). 

The closing of the Silk Road in 1453 forced traders to explore sea routes and discover new ports. This was the beginning of the Age of Discovery which led to a new era with the rise of seafaring nations. Join us for the class with a docent from The Walters Art Museum to learn more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s