The Silk Road, or Silk Route as it is also known, refers to a series of trade and cultural routes that connected the West and East from the Mediterranean Sea to China. Getting it’s name from the highly lucrative silk trading that occurred all along the 4,000 miles it stretched. Chinese silk was one of the most desired commodities available to humanity at the time and the Chinese were keen to protect this trade which they had stretched out into Central Asia even to the extent of extending the Great Wall to ensure it’s safe passage.
The Silk Route and Civilisation
The Silk Road was a major factor in the development of many civilizations along the route, not only the Chinese themselves but also Persia, Europe and the Indian subcontinent. It served as a kind of United Nations of it’s time, opening both political and economic dialogues between the great powers of the time. Silk wasn’t the only commodity to be traded along the route with all manner of goods being sold as well as political and religious philosophies and even the Bubonic Plague.
The term “Silk Road” in itself is a bit misleading as it wasn’t as such a single road as much as a network of routes that spanned countries and continents with it’s routes developing and multiplying over time. It originated in the 1st Century BC when the Chinese wanted to create a route to India and the West. With the Roman Empire taking control of Egypt in 30 BC trade and communications blossomed between the Europeans, the Chinese, the Middle East and Africa. The Romans wanted a route to connect the Central Asian Silk Routes created by the Chinese with their own routes that stretched to Pakistan.
The Silk Route and Mongolians
After the collapse of the Roman Empire the trade continued to blossom through Medieval times with Religions such as Islam and Buddhism passing along it into Central Asia and China. This eventually brought the end of western expansion of the Chinese empire. The Mongol expansion of the 13th and 14th Centuries brought political stability to the region and re-established the Silk Road through Karakorum, the route that most people follow on China tours these days. The Travels of Marco Polo opened the West’s eyes to the cultural differences between themselves and the East and the book was widely read.
With the collapse of the Mongol empire the overland Silk Routes began to be replaced by maritime ones, most famously having Christopher Columbus sail West in 1492 in search of a direct trade route to China only to find the disappointment of another continent in the way. The Portuguese were the first to re-establish the trade routes to China with the British and Dutch following some centuries later.
Silk Route influence in Xian
Of the many routes that existed the one that joins Xian in the East of China and the very end point (or beginning) all the way along to Karakorum in the West of China is the route that most people now retrace on theirChina holidays. Xian still has a strong Muslim community that is there in the first place because of this most ancient of trade routes, the great Mosque there being one of the things to see when visiting the ancient Tang Dynasty capital. It is certainly a route well worth retracing on any China tour.