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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Five Questions about the Silk Road

1. What was the Silk Road?

The Silk Road was not a single road at all, but a network of trade routes connecting China to trade partners throughout Asia, Europe and portions of Africa. Depending on the time period, at least three overland routes operated at a time, plus the maritime (sea) trade routes.

2. What cultures were connected by the Silk Road?

China can be considered the “anchor” of the trade routes, and their oldest trading partners were likely the nomads of the central Asian steppes, and settlements in Thailand and along the Ganges River in India. Across the centuries, many other cultures became involved, including Persia, Parthia, Japan, Rome and other Italian cities, Vietnam, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire, Egypt, the Indonesian islands, and other civilizations in the Near East and the Arabian Peninsula. Because goods were traded indirectly – passing from merchant to merchant down the road – some wound up in surprising places, such as silks from China in a 6th century German burial.

3. What goods were exchanged on the Silk Road?

Silk was one of the major exports from China, which kept the secret of its creation (silkworms) carefully hidden for thousands of years, but arguably the trade of horses and camels was more important in sustaining and expanding the Road. China, unable to raise good cavalry horses for its army, exchanged silk for horses from steppe nomads, who in turn traded the silks and more horses further west and south for other desirable products, such as grains. Spices were also widely traded, especially along sea routes, as well as incense, glass and other luxuries. Precious metals and stones were exchanged – China imported a great deal of gold and silver from the west, and some of the oldest trade on the routes (dating as far back as 5,000 BCE) was of jade, a stone highly prized for carving.

The Silk Road also saw the exchange of ideas – from artistic styles to technologies to religious – and, occasionally, diseases.

4. When was the Silk Road established?

As stated above, some jade trade can be traced as early as 5,000 BCE, although the more extensive trade for horses likely began closer to 2,000 BCE. Other portions of the Road had their own histories, but many scholars date the Road to the 1st century BCE, when China consolidated routes to India and to Western powers, including Persia and Rome.

Trade along the Road rose and fell with the civilizations surrounding it. The major periods of trade occurred under Han Dynasty China (particularly 130 BCE – 200 CE), T’ang Dynasty China and the Byzantine Empire (especially the 8th century), and the Mongol Empire (13th-14th century).

5. How long did it take to travel the Silk Road?

The land route from Rome to the Chinese capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was roughly 4,300-4,500 miles. A single traveler could make the journey in around a year, and some diplomats and envoys are recorded doing this (though most took longer, due to the complications of travel). However, merchants generally only traveled short distances, exchanging goods at the next large city before returning home. Depending on how long an object waited to be bought and carried along the next leg of the journey, it could be in transit for years, even decades!

The sea route from Egypt to eastern China could be quicker, but was also much longer – ships needed to sail around the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, and Mainland Southeast Asia, a distance of at least 7,500 miles – and even more prone to disruption by weather. Traveling by sea took anywhere from 6 months to over a year.

Performers from India Society of Worcester at WAM's 2017 Diwali celebration
Curious to learn more? Come to WAM’s upcoming Fall Community Day – Travel the Silk Road! Held in partnership with the India Society of Worcester and the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts, this FREE* day will include crafts, music, stories, food and activit
ies from countries all along the traditional Silk Road. We hope you will join us on Sunday, November 3 and travel the Silk Road!

*Admission and most activities are free, though some workshops will have an additional charge.

- Sarah Leveille
Digital Media Specialist
October 17, 2019

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