DEFINITION: The phrase “Silk Road” refers to the main overland trading route across the Eurasian landmass that connected China to the Mediterranean Basin during much of recorded history.
ETYMOLOGY: The phrase “Silk Road” derives from the Chinese expression sichou zhilu, which means exactly that: “silk road.”
USAGE: Some 4000 miles in length, the Silk Road largely followed a network of much shorter and older local trading routes, some dating back to Neolithic times.
The Chinese portion of the Silk Road was officially inaugurated under the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD).
The Silk Road as a whole continued to function as the primary trade route between Europe and East Asia for approximately 1500 years, until the sixteenth century, when European maritime trade began to supplant the overland route.
Looked at from the European perspective, the jumping-off points for the Silk Road were the cities of Constantinople, Antioch, and Cairo—the first under Byzantine control until the Ottoman takeover in 1453, and the latter two under Muslim control following the Arab conquests in the seventh century.
The routes leading inland from these three main port cities converged at the ancient Syrian oasis town of Palmyra.
From there, the Silk Road led eastward to Babylon (later, Baghad) in Mesopotamia, across northern Persia (Iran), and through Transoxiana (modern Central Asia, or “Turkestan”), to the far-western region of China now occupied by the so-called Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and sometimes referred to as “East Turkestan.”
From the city of Kashgar, in western Xinjiang, the route split into two paths skirting the Taklamakan Desert along its northern and southern reaches. The divided routes reunited at Anxi, now a ghost town in eastern Xinjiang, just south of the Gobi Desert and near the starting point of the Great Wall.
From Anxi, the Silk Road ran south and east to the old central-Chinese city of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in modern Shaanxi Province, where it split once again into an eastern path leading to Yangzhou on the East China Sea and a northeastern path leading to Beijing.
Much of the journey was very arduous, as the route passed over some of the harshest desert terrain on the planet. Most trading parties passing back and forth along the Silk Road took the form of camel caravans and a good many of the resting places along the way were oases.
However, the value on the European market of the many luxury goods produced only in East Asia—especially silk (whence the trading route’s name)—was such that traders of various nationalities were willing to invest considerable capital into sending trading parties along portions of the Silk Road.
In the earlier centuries, Chinese-based trading parties would meet up with Arab intermediaries at various resting places along the way, with Europeans trading mainly with the Arabs at points in the Near East and in the Mediterranean Basin.
Finally, during the High Middle Ages, individual European trading parties began to travel the entire length of the Silk Road. The best-known European who traveled to China by this route was the Venetian trader Marco Polo.
The book that Polo wrote about his journey, now known as The Travels of Marco Polo, fired the imagination of the European reading public for centuries.