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A Historical Look at the Silk Routes

  • Richard E. Crandall
May/June 2017

This article is a sidebar to "Reinventing the Silk Routes of Eurasia."

Even in their earliest days, the Silk Routes made up a complicated trading network. The flow of goods could be helped or hindered by political and environmental factors. To fully understand the complications, it is necessary to look at a number of factors, including the actual trade routes, the products traded, political and religious differences, and even the biological disruptions that affected trade.

Principal trade routes: The first Silk Routes were overland. As navigation and ship construction improved, maritime routes became more prevalent to extend trade to other countries and reduce some of the difficulties with the land routes. Travelers on the land routes had to contend with hazardous terrains as well as differences in cultures, languages, currency, and attitudes of the rulers in the countries to be traded with or crossed in order to reach more-remote trading areas. Maritime routes sometimes reduced the complexity of reaching selected target countries, especially in Europe. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 greatly reduced the time required to move goods to Europe.

Products: One of the most highly prized early products traded along the Silk Routes was silk from China. This was a unique product not found in other areas and a much sought-after good, especially among the rich and the ruling class. However, it was not the only product that was traded along these routes. Cotton and spices from India and the Spice Islands; furs and timber from the nomads in the northern steppes; horses from central Asia; and, once the maritime routes were established, gold from western Africa all flowed along these paths. However, there also was a dark side of this trade, as drugs and slaves made their way from country to country.

Conquest and expansion: In their quest for riches and territories, local rulers often decided to expand their domains by invading neighboring lands. The Roman Empire expanded from its origin in Rome into the Byzantine Empire and even established a new seat of government in Constantinople. Later invaders included Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan of Mongol fame. The Mongols were especially successful in establishing what some consider the largest empire in the world. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, their empire stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan; northward into Siberia; eastward and southward into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau; and westward as far as the Levant and Arabia (Frankopan 2016). In the past century, especially since World War II, Russia and the United States have been active in establishing controlling positions in the Eurasia area, primarily because of the oil and gas reserves.

Political differences: The forms of government in the countries along the Silk Routes have varied throughout the history of the region. Almost every form of government has been tried in the region at some point, making trade among these countries highly complex.

Religious tension: The countries traversed by the Silk Routes boast a variety of religions. One of the earliest religions was Zoroastrianism, which spread throughout the area for a while, although it is largely non-existent as a major religion today. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism also spread across the Eurasia area. One of the most active religions was Islam, which originated in Arabia but rapidly expanded throughout most of the civilized world. Although these religious groups advocate peace and tranquility, the faithful were not above using force to establish their positions in newly occupied territories.

Pandemics: One of the most severe disruptions to trade was the Bubonic Plague, or Black Death, during the 14th century. The disease followed the trade routes all the way to Europe, and it is estimated that it caused 75 million–200 million deaths.

Despite these challenges, the Silk Routes offered multiple benefits to participating countries—even beyond the transfer of goods. As traders moved from country to country, they also carried knowledge about new ideas, cultures, languages, and arts. In this way, countries could learn from each other and gain greater understanding of and respect for their trading partners. When there is greater respect among peoples, there also is less violence and more peace. As Brahm (2016) puts it: “This is the power of the Silk [Routes] consensus.”

References

  1. Brahm, Laurence. 2016. “Silk Road Consensus Emerges Linking Middle East and China.” Institutional Investor, June 4. http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/blogarticle/3559812/silk-road-consensus-emerges-linking-middle-east-and-china/banking-and-capital-markets-emerging-markets.html#.WMaulPnyuUk.
  2. Frankopan, Peter. 2016. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. New York: Alfred A. Knoff.

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