Silk Route

Updated on January 31, 2024
Article bySusmita Pathak
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

What Is Silk Route?

Silk Route was an ancient network of trade paths that stretched from China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean. It facilitated the exchange of commodities, ideas, art, culture, language, and religion across different civilizations during the 2nd century B.C.-14th century A.D.

Silk was the first item extensively transported over these pathways, which passed through China, Arabia, Persia, Greece, India, and Italy, earning it the name Silk Road. Export and import along the route improved the economic conditions of territories it connected in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, making it historically significant. This trading network spanned over 4,000 miles and included both marine and land routes.

Key Takeaways

  • The Silk Route meaning describes a network of roads that stretched from China to the Mediterranean to trade silk during the 2nd century B.C. and the 14th century A.D.
  • Vegetables, fruits, spices, grain, leather items, religious and art objects, and precious metals were other essential commodities exchanged along the Silk Road. 
  • In 138 B.C., Zhang Qian, a Chinese ambassador under the Han dynasty, formally established the Silk Route, which closed after the Ottoman Empire put a trade embargo on China in 1453 A.D.
  • In 2013, China unveiled the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which proposes reconstructing land and maritime channels to establish global trade links with neighboring countries.

Understanding Silk Route

Silk Route was a historic commerce route connecting Asia with the Mediterranean. It aided in establishing a global interchange of goods in exchange for money or equally valued/weighed items. The discovery of diverse paths formed a series of routes to various destinations, thereby stabilizing international tradeInternational TradeInternational Trade refers to the trading or exchange of goods and or services across international borders. read more.

Silk Route

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The Silk Road was not a single pathway but a network of sea and land routes that linked many settlements. This network stretched across more than 4,000 miles for trade and intellectual exchange between two or more nations. It primarily consisted of two major routes – one that connected China to Central Asia and another that linked Central Asia with the West.

Trading posts and markets throughout the Silk Route simplified the exchange, transport, storage, and distribution of goods. It was the busiest trade route of the ancient era. It quickly became an essential aspect of the geopolitical and trade system that every government wanted to control.

The road primarily transported silk, a fabric that elites and aristocrats wore to show off their wealth. It was also one of the most frequently transported materials from China. The country was the global leader in silk production until the world learned of its secret manufacturing process. Chinese traders began using the route to trade silk to the West, and hence it became the Silk Route.

Besides silk, other essential commodities traded along the Silk Route included vegetables, fruits, spices, grain, leather goods, religious and art objects, and precious metals. While silk was traded westward, wool, gold, and silver were traded eastward along the route. Later, the trading of industrial products, such as gunpowder, paper, moldboard plow, stirrup, etc., has had cultural and political ramifications throughout Europe.

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Cultural Significance Of Silk Route

The network of trade routes led to the commercial exchange from one region to another. Additionally, it fostered cross-national interchange of culture, language, religion, art, philosophy, science, and technology. For example, via the Silk Route of China, the nation got exposed to Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism. Other religions, including Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, also spread between civilizations through this route.

It, thus, helped establish long-distance economic and political contacts between various nations. Unfortunately, this commercial and cultural trade channel was also responsible for spreading pandemics like the bubonic plague.

History Of Silk Route

Zhang Qian, a Chinese diplomat during the Han dynasty, officially opened the Silk Route. The then emperor Wu of Han asked him to oversee cultural engagement in Central Asia in 138 B.C. It was one of the first attempts to encourage intellectual exchange between the East and Europe. However, historical facts suggest that the road was in use as a commercial route way before that.

Qian later expanded these routes in Central Asia through explorations and military conquests. Its sea and land pathways were preferable routes for trade during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). But its territorial boundaries were constantly shifting due to changes in the Chinese leadership.

The route originated at Xi’an and ran along the Great Wall of China. It then passed through the Takla Makan Desert and the Pamir mountains and then to the Levant via Afghanistan. The rest of the Silk Route trade then used to occur across the Mediterranean Sea. However, the length of the journey, the rise of Arabian power, and the presence of bandits in the Levant made it unsafe for traders. It was the Mongols who revived the road in the 13th century and made it safer for merchants.

Current State

The Silk Route was accessible until the Ottoman Empire declared a trade embargoEmbargoAn embargo is a political decision taken by countries where the government passes an order to restrict the free trade of goods & services between two nations for a specified period and may include restricting all types of goods & services or trading of particular interest like more on China in 1453 A.D. Since then, it has not been in use for economic, cultural, and intellectual exchange. Despite this, it continued to have a significant impact on global trade, history, and civilization.

Objectives of China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) Initiative

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In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced constructing a new double trade corridor, bringing the Silk Route back into the spotlight. This initiative, dubbed One Belt, One Road (OBOR) or New Silk Road, proposes to restore historic land and maritime routes of the ancient Silk Route to establish significant global trade relationships. It will reopen trade channels between China and over 60 countries, mainly in Central Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. It will also boost its domestic growth by lowering the cost of exports.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Silk Route?

The Silk Route was a network of commercial routes expanding from China to the Mediterranean via Central Asia. Because silk was the first material transported along these paths, the road was dubbed the “Silk Road.” This 4,000-mile long pathway facilitated commerce, cultural, and intellectual contacts between two or more nations.

What was the importance of the Silk Route?

Silk was sold westward over the Silk Route, while wool, gold, and silver were traded eastward. However, the road also permitted the exchange of products and the interchange of culture, language, religion, art, philosophy, science, and technology from one region to another. As a result, it became an essential element of the geopolitical system and trade that every country aspired to rule.

Why was the Silk Route dangerous?

The length of the journey and the presence of bandits in the Levant made the route unsafe for trade. Bandits knew it was the single major trade route for merchants, so they were ready to threaten them and steal their goods. Furthermore, the development of Arabian dominance made the Silk Route dangerous for merchants who were concerned about their safety while traveling for business.

This has been a guide to Silk Route and its meaning. Here we discuss the history, cultural significance of the silk route along with its current state. You can learn more from the following articles –

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