Centuries before freight ships and telecommunications, the far-flung corners of Eurasia were hooked together by a network of trade routes known as the Silk Road. It ran from some 1,500 years from the second century BCE until the mid-15th century CE and became a hugely influential force in the modern world. After all, it wasn't just goods that were ferried along these routes, but also ideas, people, and diseases.
What was the Silk Road?
As per UNESCO, its name stems from the luxurious textiles that are woven from the protein fiber of silkworms, a process that was pioneered in China around 2700 BCE.
China kept silk a closely guarded secret for thousands of years, even sentencing people to death if they revealed how to make silk goods to a foreigner. However, their secrets started to spill and knowledge of silk production leaked into India and Japan.
The initial foundations for the Silk Road were laid by the expansion of China’s Han Dynasty into Central Asia in the second century BCE. This prompted China to send out an envoy to this unexplored and "untamed" part of the world to gain information, as well as find potential trading partners and allies. The person in charge of this mission was General Zhang Qian who is sometimes considered as the "pioneer of the Silk Road".
Also around this time, in the first century BCE, the Roman Empire was emerging as a global superpower that just so happened to have taste for silk, viewing it as a must-have “exotic” accessory.
Where was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road consisted of numerous routes that stretched from East Asia, across the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa, and ended in Europe. The numerous paths took slightly different routes, but the whole road roughly spanned around 6,400 kilometers (4,000 miles).
This included some harsh terrains that were previously avoided by travelers and tradespeople, such as the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains. The promise of wealth changed this and the route started to attract middlemen and opportunists, eventually giving rise to a chain of small settlements and trading posts along the way.
What was traded along the Silk Road?
Silk kickstarted the trade routes, but East Asia was also keen on shipping out other fine goods, such as tea, dyes, perfumes, spices, and porcelain. Likewise, Europe was known to export commodities to Asia, including artwork, honey, wine, animal skins, fur, and precious metals.
Arguably the most important goods to be exported out of China were paper and gunpowder. While paper held the potential to change the way information and knowledge were spread, gunpowder would go on to revolutionize warfare, ultimately changing the trajectory of world history (for better or worse).
It wasn't all fine wines and beautiful clothes, though. Scientists have found evidence that parasitic infections, such as the Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis), were also being "traded" across the Silk Road among the people of Eurasia.
The trade routes may have even played a role in the spread of the Black Death in the 1300s, helping the pathogen travel out of remote Central Asia towards Europe, culminating in the deaths of 75 to 200 million people.
Why was the Silk Road so important?
Ideas, culture, and people also flowed backward and forward across the Silk Road. For the first time, people across Eurasia were becoming exposed to a wealth of new ideas and religions. Buddhism spread from India into China, while Christianity and Islam flourished across Eurasia.
One of the most famous Europeans to travel the Silk Road was Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian merchant who documented his travels across the Middle East, Central Asia, and China. Although he wasn't the first person from Europe to visit this part of the world, his writings are held up as one of the earliest European insights into East Asian culture.
The Silk Road continued to thrive until the Middle Ages, even surviving a blip in activity around the Black Death and the Mongol conquests in the 14th century CE.
By the 15th century CE, the Silk Road ultimately met its end. The Ottoman Empire was gaining power and managed to block the corridor between Europe and Asia, essentially marking an end to the flourishing trade across the continent.
Meanwhile, the empires of Europe were ramping up their efforts through the Age of Discovery. New knowledge and technology were allowing Europeans to reach India, China, and beyond without the need for the Silk Road.
The glory days of the Silk Road were over, but its legacy was undeniably profound. Even today, it continues to inspire culture and geopolitics. China is currently working on the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, which looks to lay down infrastructure that will allow easier trade between China, the rest of Asia, Europe, and Africa. Given the vast ambition of this project and its potential to shape the world, it’s been dubbed the "New Silk Road".