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Silk Road

Tamarapu Sampath Kumaran

About the Author:

Mr T Sampath Kumaran is a freelance writer. He regularly contributes articles on
Management, Business, Ancient Temples, and Temple Architecture to many
leading Dailies and Magazines. His articles are, popular in The Young World
section of THE HINDU

His e-books and articles on Hindu deities, Festivals, Nature, and different cultures
of people around the world are educative and of special interest to the young.
He was associated in the production of two Documentary films on Nava Tirupathi
Temples, and Tirukkurungudi Temple in Tamilnadu.
These e-book series are being presented, since reference books seem to be losing
patronage among the younger generation. The internet, which has crept into study
rooms, is slowly showing the encyclopedia and reference books borrowed from
libraries their way out. Students consider the internet a worthy alternative.

Acknowledgement - Pictures and references: Courtesy -

Silk Road
The Silk Road is a term that refers to the network of interlinking trade routes that
stretched across Asia all the way to Europe, connecting as well parts of the
Mediterranean, North, and East Africa. The Silk Road was the most enduring trade
route in human history, being used for about 1,500 years
Silk Road is fascinating and full of military conquest, fearless explorers, religious
pilgrims and great thinkers, along with the humble tradesmen who risked life and
limb for profit as they led their loaded caravans across dangerous deserts,
mountains and steppes.

In the history of Great Silk Road there were familiar figures such as Alexander the
Great, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane..
The Silk Road, or Silk Route, is a series of trade and cultural transmission routes
that were central to cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent
connecting the East and West by linking traders, merchants, pilgrims, monks,
soldiers, nomads, and urban dwellers from China to the Mediterranean during
various periods of time. It lasted until 15th century, when newly-discovered sea
routes to Asia opened up.

Extending 4,000 miles (around 6,500 kilo meters), the Silk Road derives its name
from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out along its length, beginning
during 206 BC 220 AD of Han Dynasty, largely through the missions and
explorations of Chinese imperial envoy, Zhang Qian. In the interest of the safety of
their trade and products the Chinese extended the Great Wall of China to ensure
the protection of the trade route.

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor opening long-distance, political and
economic interactions between the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent,
Persia, Arabia and Europe.
Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were
traded, and various technologies, religions, and philosophies, diseases such as
plague have also spread along the Silk Routes. In addition to economic trade, the
Silk Road served as a means of carrying out cultural trade among the civilizations
along its network. The vast grassland of Asia provided fertile grazing, water, and

easy passage for caravans, enabling traders to travel immense distances, from the
shores of the Pacific to Africa and Europe.
It started at Changan (Xian) and ended at Antioch or Constantinople (Istanbul),
passing by commercial cities such as Samarkand and Kashgar. It was very rare that
caravans traveled for the whole distance since the trade system functioned as a
chain. Merchants with their caravans were shipping goods back and forth from one
trade center to the other. Major commodities traded included silk (of course), gold,
jade, tea and spices. Since the transport capacity was limited over long distance
and often unsafe, luxury goods were the only commodities that could be traded.
Economies of scale, harsh conditions and security considerations required the
organization of trade into caravans slowly trekking from one stage - town and or
The Silk Road Seidenstrae, was coined by Ferdinand Von Richthofen, German
trader, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. Silk Routes
included an extensive network of routes including some rough caravan tracks.
Following contacts between metropolitan China and nomadic western border
territories in the 8th century BC, gold was introduced from Central Asia, and
Chinese jade carvers began to make imitation designs depictions of animals locked
in combat. This style is particularly reflected in the rectangular belt plaques made
of gold and bronze with alternate versions in jade and steatite.

The expansion of Scythian cultures, stretching from the Hungarian plain to the
Chinese Kansu Corridor, and linking Iran and the Middle East with Northern India
and the Punjab, undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the
Silk Road.
The first major step in the development of the Silk Road was the expansion of the
Greek empire of Alexander the Great into Central Asia, which became a major
staging point on the northern Silk Route, had postal stations and relays at regular
intervals. By having fresh horses and riders ready at each relay, royal couriers
could carry messages the entire distance in nine days, while normal travelers took
about three months. This Royal Road linked into many other routes. Some of these,
such as the routes to India and Central Asia, were also protected by the
Achaemenids, encouraging regular contact between India, Mesopotamia, and the
The Han army regularly policed the trade route against nomadic bandit forces
generally identified as Xiongnu. Han general Ban Chao led an army of 70,000 to
secure the trade routes, reaching far west to the Tarim basin. Ban Chao expanded
his conquests across the Pamirs to the shores of the Caspian Sea and the borders of
Parthia. It was from here that the Han general dispatched envoy Gan Ying to
Daqin (Rome). The initial use of the sea route linking the Mediterranean basin and
India took place during the Roman Era. Between the 1st and 6th centuries, ships
were sailing between the Red Sea and India, aided by summer monsoon winds.
Goods were transshipped at the town of Berenike along the Red Sea and moved by
camels inland to the Nile. From that point, river boats moved the goods to
Alexandria, from which trade could be undertaken within the Roman Empire.
A maritime Silk Route opened up between Chinese-controlled Giao Chi (centered
in modern Vietnam, near Hanoi), probably by the 1st century. It extended, via ports
on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to ports in Egypt and the
territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea.

Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, regular communications and
trade between China, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe
blossomed on an unprecedented scale. The eastern trade routes from the earlier
Hellenistic powers and the Arabs that were part of the Silk Road were inherited by
the Roman Empire. With control of these trade routes, citizens of the Roman
Empire would receive new luxuries and greater prosperity for the Empire as a
whole. The Greco-Roman trade with India started by Eudoxus of Cyzicus in 130
BC continued to increase, and, by the time of Augustus, up to 120 ships was
setting sail every year from Myos Hormos in Roman Egypt to India. The Roman
Empire connected with the Central Asian Silk Road through their ports in
Barygaza (known today as Bharuch) and Barbaricum (known today as the cities of
Karachi, Sindh, and Pakistan) and continued along the western coast of India. A
travelling party of MaesTitianus penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from
the Mediterranean world, probably with the aim of regularizing contacts and

reducing the role of middlemen, during one of the lulls in Rome's intermittent wars
with Parthia, which repeatedly obstructed movement along the Silk Road.
Intercontinental trade and communication became regular, organized, and
protected by the 'Great Powers.' Intense trade with the Roman Empire soon
followed, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk supplied through the
The story of silk trade is very cognitive. Silk was, of course, why the great route
was established in the first place. According to the Chinese, silk was discovered
one day when a queen accidently dropped a silkworm cocoon into her hot cup of
tea, and as she plucked it out unraveled a shiny silken thread. Woven into fabric
and sent west, silk soon became the most demanded and expensive textile in Rome.
Roman artisans began to replace yarn with valuable plain silk cloths from China.
Chinese wealth grew as they delivered silk and other luxury goods to the Roman
Empire, whose wealthy Roman women admired their beauty. The Roman Senate
issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and
moral grounds, since the importation of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of
gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral.
There are many other luxury goods besides silk that were transported along Silk
Road. Heading west were porcelain, furs, spices, gems and other exotic products of
Asia. Chinese inventions like gunpowder and paper first travelled to Europe along
Silk Road with many other products. Being shipped east were cosmetics, silver,
gold, amber, ivory, carpets, perfume and ceramic from Europe, Central Asia,
Arabia and Africa. The Silk Road gave rise to the clusters of military states of
nomadic origins in North China, ushered the Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, and
later Islamic religions into Central Asia and China, and created the influential
Hazard Federation. At the end of its glory, the routes brought about the largest
continental empire ever, the Mongol Empire, with its political centers strung along
the Silk Road - Beijing in North China, Karakorum in central Mongolia,
Samarkand in Transoxiana, Tabriz in Northern Iran, Sarai and Astrakhan in lower
Volga,Solkhat in Crimea, Kazan in Central Russia, Erzurum in eastern Anatolia,
realizing the political unification of zones previously loosely and intermittently
connected by material and cultural goods.

In Central Asia, Islam expanded from the 7th century onward, bringing a stop to
Chinese westward expansion at the Battle of Talas in 751. Further expansion of the
Islamic Turks in Central Asia from the 10th century finished disrupting trade in
that part of the world, and Buddhism almost disappeared. For much of the middle
Ages, the Islamic Caliphate (centered in the Near East) often had a monopoly over
much of the trade conducted across the Old World.
The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1207 to 1360
helped bring political stability and re-established the Silk Road (via Karakorum). It
also brought an end to the Islamic Caliphate dominance over world trade. Because
the Mongols came to control the trade routes, trade circulated throughout the
region. Merchandise that did not seem valuable to the Mongols was often seen as
highly valuable by the west. In return the Mongols received a large amount of
luxurious goods from the West. However, they never abandoned their nomadic
The fragmentation of the Mongol Empire loosened the political, cultural and
economic unity of the Silk Road. Turkmeni marching lords seized land around the
western part of the Silk Road, belonging to the decaying Byzantine Empire. After
the Mongol Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Road became
economically and culturally separated.
The Silk Road also served as a vector for the diffusion of ideas and religions
(initially Buddhism and then Islam), enabling civilizations from Europe, the
Middle East and Asia to interact. From the 9th century, maritime routes controlled
by the Arab traders emerged and gradually undermined the importance of the Silk
Road. Since ships were much less constraining than caravans in terms of capacity,
larger quantities of goods could be traded. The main maritime route started at
Canton (Guangzhou), passed through Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the
Red Sea and then reached Alexandria. A significant feeder went to the Spice
Islands (Maluku Islands) in today's Indonesia. The diffusion of Islam was also
favored through trade as many rules of ethics and commerce are embedded in the

The Silk Road reached its peak during the Mongolian Empire (13th century) when
China and Central Asia were controlled by Mongol Khans, which were strong
proponent of trade even if they were ruthless conquerors. At the same time
relationships between Europe and China were renewed, notably after the voyages
of Marco Polo (1271-1292). During the Middle Ages, the Venetians and Genoese
controlled the bulk of the Mediterranean trade which connected to the major
trading centers of Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria.
The Silk Road was significant in the development for a number of civilizations in
China. The route began to link communities that had traditionally been tribal and
isolated societies. One of the choice professions was to become a marauder as
knowledge of the precious goods traveling along the route became more and more
popular. The bandits used the rough terrain to their advantage to overpower and
seize merchants goods. In reaction to the increased risk, the merchants costs also
As merchants and other travelers traversed Silk Road, they also carried culture, art,
philosophies and beliefs with them. Buddhism came to China on The Silk Road
and Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Confucianism all had their itinerant
proselytizer. Goods and ideas were exchanged in cities with exotic names like
Antioch, Babylon, Erzerum, Hamadn, Bukhara, Samarkand, Khiva, Kashgar and
Xian, as well as in dozens of others whose names are now lost in time. However,
many remain and travelers again have the chance to visit these sites, relive the
legends and capture some of the magic.
The pioneer of the Great Silk road as considered by historians was Chzan Tsan, a
Chinese diplomat who lived in the 1
century B.C. The fact that Central Asia had
been conducting trade in the Tian-Shan is verified by the large amount of Chinese
coins, bronze looking glasses, silk remnants, and fragments of Chinese pottery
which have been found by archeologists. Thanks to China, silkworm breeding and
paper manufacturing began developing in Central Asia, whereas it was due to
Central Asia that China took up cultivation of grapes, alfalfa, onions, cotton,
pomegranates, walnuts, fig trees and cucumbers.

A modest commercial traveler called Francesco Pegolotti, of Bardi's firm in
Florence, came home to Italy in 1355 after eight years of traveling. He had covered
thousands of Chinese leas, Arab farsahs and European miles of the Great Silk
Road. He became the author of a book that was titled "Trade practice, or a treatise
on land division, trade measures, and other things the knowledge of which is
necessary for merchants of all countries".
During the 6-14th century, there were thousands of large and small routes that
crossed Asian Continent leading to the West. Caravans followed these routes and
each was filled with exotic clothes, eastern goods and spices. These routes raised
the Great Silk Road. Along Great Silk Road towns, cities and caravanserai were
created. Hence the various centers for national crafts, art schools, madrasahs,
palaces and mausoleums. Traders, missionaries and refuges were travelling
together bringing along new religions, customs, products like glass, porcelain, soap
and gunpowder and most important a different culture. They were the ones who
created herbariums, collected methods of curing diseases and studied the stars. In
many ways, for more than thousands of years Great Silk Road linked many
countries and its people by means of peaceful activities such as trade, culture and
spiritual exchanges that is unique to all mankind. The Great Silk Road routes
started from a town called Lanchjou and stretched to cities of Tor and Sodom, both
Mediterranean ports which acted as a junction between the East and West. This old
East-West trading trail transplanted culture, customs and religious from one center
to the next and vice-versa.
In the Han Dynasty, the ancient road originated from the historical capital of
Chang'an (now Xian). This trade route ran through Gansu Province via Tianshui,
Lanzhou, Wuwei, Zhangye, Jiuquan, Jiayuguan (an important military garrison and
barrier of the Great Wall) and Dunhuang along the Hexi Corridor. Dunham is
famous for its Magao Caves and other cultural relics. It was also a key point of the
route, where the trade road divided into three main routes: the southern, central and
northern routes.
The three main routes spread all over the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. The
Southern Route wandered west along the northern foot of the Kunlun Mountains,

passing Ruoqiang (Charkhlik), Qiemo (Cherchen), Hetian, Yecheng (Karghalik),
Shache (Yarkand) and reached Kashgar (the last point of the Silk Road in China).
Then this route crossed the snow-covered Pamirs, reached Pakistan and India via
Kashmir; it could also reach Europe through Islamabad, Kabul, Mashhad, Baghdad
and Damascus.
The Central Route ran west along the southern foot of Tianshan Mountains,
passing Loulan (now Ruoqiang), Turpan , Korla, Kuche (Kuqa), Aksu and
Kashgar, afterwards went over the freezing Pamirs, wound to Mashhad via the
Fergana Basin, Samarkand, Bukhara and finally joined the Southern Route. The
Northern Route went west along the northern foot of Tianshan Mountains, taking
merchants westwards to Hami (Kumul), Urumqi and Yining, and then reached the
areas near the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk
Road is one of the main factors for the development of ancient Chinese
technologies that helped to advance civilization around the world. The Chinese are
famous for introducing their Four Great Inventions, gunpowder, paper making,
printing techniques, and the compass, to the western world. Papermaking was
invented in the Han Dynasty in 105 CE and was made of a mixture of bark, cloth,
and worn fishnet. This new type of paper replaced the heavy bamboo slips and
wooden books that were bulky and heavy to carry and expensive to make, utilizing
the cheap and abundant availability and accessibility of cloth and bark. This
papermaking technique was originally brought to the Arab world after Tang
dynasty paper works were captured by Arabs during a war and brought back to the
Middle East along the Silk Road and continued to spread along the trade routes
because of it was cheaper and easier to make and lighter to carry along the trade
route. Furthermore, gunpowder was invented in ancient China, originally created
as an elixir for immortality. This gunpowder was originally used for explosives and
flaming arrows in Chinese military. However, the modern and widespread
application of gunpowder for military purposes wasnt exploited until the 13

century by Europeans. Another great Chinese invention spread through the Silk
Road was the moveable and reusable type printing press, the technique that led to
the development of the Guttenberg press that has had a huge impact on the
development of civilization and spread of knowledge and ideas throughout the
world. This moveable type printing invention took place in the Northern Song

Dynasty and was actually not very influential in China because the Chinese
alphabet has so many characters. Finally, the Chinese also invented the first
compass, using an iron magnetic needle that floated in water. This original
compass was not used for navigation until the 11
century under the Yan Dynasty
and was introduced as a navigation tool to Europe in the 14
The disappearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols' reign was
one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous
Chinese empire through another route, especially by sea. As European powers
developed their maritime technologies from the 15th century, they successfully
overthrew the Arab control of this lucrative trade route to replace it by their own.
Ships being able to transport commodities faster and cheaper marked the downfall
of the Silk Road by the 16th century.
Tremendous profits were to be obtained for anyone who could achieve a direct
trade connection with Asia. This was the main driving factor for the Portuguese
exploration of the Indian Ocean, including the sea of China, resulting in the arrival
in 1513 of the first European trading ship to the coasts of China, under Jorge
Alvares and Rafael Perestrello, followed by the Fernao Pires de Andrade and Tome
Pires diplomatic and commercial mission of 1517, under the orders of Manual I of
Portugal, which opened formally relations between the Portuguese Empire and the
Ming Dynasty during the reign of the Zhengde Emperor. The handover of Macau
to Portugal in 1557 by the Emperor of China (as a reward for services rendered
against the pirates who infested the South China sea) resulted in the first permanent
European maritime trade post between Europe and China, with other European
powers following suit over the next centuries, which caused the eventual demise of
the Silk Road.
Again, the Great Silk Road will be re-opened to tourists, magnificent architectural
monuments, and unique works of calligraphy, silks, rugs and pottery produced by
ancient craftsmen in our fascinating tours.

In the past five years, six Silk Road provinces Shaanxi, Henan, Gansu, Qingh ai,
Ningxia, and Xinjiang have been considered by UNESCO for admittance onto
the World Heritage List. Although it is only on the first phase of the process, called
the Tentative List, the Silk Road seems to qualify for all the criteria thus far. The
World Heritage Centre states that a cultural route is a land, water, mixed or other
type of route, which is physically determined and characterized byshowing
interactive movements of people as well as multi-dimensional, continuous and
reciprocal exchanges of goods, ideas, knowledge and values within or between
countries and regions over significant periods of time; and thereby generating a
cross-fertilization of the cultures in space and time, which is reflected both in its
tangible and intangible heritage. After the Chinese government has completed an
inventory of all the important historical and cultural sites on the Silk Road, it
will continue onto the second step of the process, officially nominating it for
consideration by the Advisory Bodies at the World Heritage Convention. One of
the obstacles causing a delay is that Asian countries dont have the expertise,
money and experience to enforce the protection and management of these heritage
The Silk Road has also recently been part of Yo-Yo Mas vision for cross-culture
communication. He calls it a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across
cultures, art forms and disciplines. The Silk Road Ensemble travels around the
world paying in different locations such as New York City and Harvard.
While one travels along the Silk Road, some of the more interesting places to see
are: the Terracotta Warriors, Birds Island in Qinghai Lake, the Flaming Mountains,
Grape Valley, and the Ancient City of Gaochang Ruins. Also, the best time of year
to visit is between May and October because it provides for the most amiable
weather and you will also be able to see all the fruit and flowers in bloom.
Along the route of the caravans were rich settlements and towns - Merv
(Turkmenistan); Burkhara, Samarkand, Urgench and Khiva (Uzbekistan); Otrar,

Taraz and Chimkent (Kazakhstan); Dgul, Suyab, Novokent, Balasagun, Borskon,
Tash-Rabat, Osh and Uzgen (Kyrgyzstan).
The first, the Southern branch, ran from Termez via Samarkand to Dushanbe's
present location, along a tributary of the Kyzyl-Su up to Alai and exited in the area
of modern Irkishtam, where it switched direction towards Kashgar.
The second, the Fergana branch, led from Samarkand via Hodjent to Isfara,
Kokand and Osh.
The third, Northern branch came from Zamin Rabat to Benkent, Isfidjab
(Chimkent), Taraz (Jambyl), Nuzket (Kara-Balta), and Balasugun (Burana). From
there, caravans traveled along the Boom Canyon to reach the Issyk-Kul area and
further to China across the San-Tash range.
One irony is that the ancient path of merchants of the East and the West got its
name in the 19
century. The name was proposed by Ferdinand von Richthofen,
the author of classical works on the physical geography of China and Asia's
topography. Thus, following his example, this name is recognized all over the
world. Warmly welcomed by the world public is the decision of UNESCO on the
realization of the international program "The Great Silk Road" - a route of
dialogue, mutual understanding and rapprochement of cultures. The Great Silk
Road, like the Phoenix bird, is beginning its revival.
The Chinese Government is seeking the support of other nations through which the
original Silk Road pass through, to revive the past glory and maintain the part
played to integrate cultural bonding among the nations.

Some of the ruined cities on Silk Road:

The ruins of Subashi, at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.

Kashgar Stone is the place where roads from Kashgar, Shache, Yingjisha and
Yecheng to the Pamirs meet.

Set in the middle of the Syrian Desert, the ancient silk-road city of Palmyra was
once a part of the vast Roman Empire

Turpan's ancient Gaochang Ruins in Xinjiang on the Silk Road

Palmyra, Syria: Crusader castle overlooking Roman ruins on the Silk Road

Silk Road Ruins

The ruins at the peak of Mount Nemrut on the Silk Road, Turkey

Jiaohe Ruins