The Silk Road: A Historical Link Between Significant Empires


The Silk Road is an ancient trading route that runs from east to west throughout Eurasia. It was first established in China about 130 BCE under the Hang Dynasty. The Silk Road connects East Asia and Southeast Asia with South Asia, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Southern Europe via land and maritime routes. Despite the fact that the Silk Road was not a single path connecting east and west. Ferdinand von Richthofen, a 19th-century German geographer, had invented the name “Silk Roads” (Seidenstrassen) during a lecture in 1877. However, he understood that trans-Eurasian trade was a greater trend.

The routes also describe the use of spice, musk, and tea, suggesting their importance. These commodities traveled great distances when traded from one merchant to another. The growth of technologies (such as gunpowder, paper, or cotton manufacturing) had a significantly greater impact than silk. The ancient Rome prized Chinese silk, which led to the shaping of a trade route between the East and West.

Sericulture, the method of cultivating silk worms and producing silk yarn, was first established in China in the third millennium BCE. Zhou Dynasty folk songs regularly mentioned silk weaving and textiles.

Jade Trade

China Jade
Credit: Henan Museum Collection

It was claimed that the Yuezhi jade was the most valuable currency in the state. Chinese communities in the Yellow and Yangzi River Valleys have valued jade more than gold since history. The majority of the jade objects discovered in their monarchs’ tombs were manufactured in Khotan, a desert oasis on the border of the Takla Makan Desert in modern-day Xinjiang. The Silk Road was first used ,from Khotan (Xinjiang) to Eastern China, for jade as early as 5000 BCE. The term “Jade Road” would have been more appropriate than “Silk Road” had it not been for the far larger and geographically wider nature of the silk trade; the term is in current use in China.

The Silk Road serves as a symbol for cross-cultural trade. Along the Silk Roads, the relationships between great civilizations, the creation and fall of empires. These links were not static, and changed the fortunes of communities and empires. It is also widely assumed that the route was one of the primary routes through which the plague bacteria that caused the Black Death pandemic.

From the East – Initiation Of the Silk Road

Asia China
Credit: Top China Travel

Seven agrarian states in what is now eastern China were fighting for supremacy in the fifth century. Three northern states, the Qin, Zhao, and Yan, had to deal with nomadic cavalry attacks as well as with one another. The Xiongnu, another powerful nomadic union, lived east of the Yuezhi region, on Mongolian grassland. They were constantly at war with neighboring Chinese states.

When Shihuangdi, the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, united the seven nation states and formed the Qin Empire in 221 bce, the Xiongnu(nomads) were a major threat to his imperial rule.

The Qin, and later Han, rulers sent large quantities of silk textiles and floss to calm the nomads or to trade for horses. Some of the silks were government-made products for presentation to the Xiongnu nobles, but farm women produced many more plain silk textiles .

Silk textiles were used to line fur coats, and silk floss was used to pad quilted cloth. The quilted material was not only warm but also very light, and it was used to make coats and pants in addition to bedding. The chieftains of the steppe wore fine silk clothes that made them appear far more elegant than their subjects.

Importance of Silk

The ruling elites, whether wandering or settled, and their thirst for rare items from faraway nations fuelled early international commerce. Only unique and luxurious commodities purchased from abroad could distinguish the political elite from their subjects. The chief of the Xiongnu nomads mostly distributed Han silk robes to maintain the loyalty of his most important followers and to demonstrate the political hierarchy. On the steppe, silk became a symbol of authority and pride.

The route attracted a large number of foreign merchants to the Great Wall’s gates. Through the Gate of Jade, an increasing number of goods, spices and scents, gemstones, and woolen textiles of a wide variety arrived at Chang’an, the capital city. Along with the goods, this trade brought information about foreign climates, meals, clothing, and currencies, and Chinese historians began to collect information about countries as far away as South Asia and the Mediterranean.

Silk textiles were so common at home that every farming household paid a tax to the Han government in grain and silk cloth. Men tilled the land, while women grew mulberry trees for the leaves, which were used to feed silk worms. Silk fiber was obtained from cocoons, silk yarn was spun, and silk fabrics were woven. Brocade, tapestry, and embroidered silk cloth, which required delicate looms, high technical skills, and a smart labor division, were largely the products of enormous government-controlled enterprises. Silk commerce with nomads helped spread the word about these Chinese fabrics.

Emergence of the Silk Road

The thought of manufacturing silk cloth from a worm sounded incredible to most societies because most societies only understood how to produce textiles from animal hair or plants. The unique textile accompanied the west with the migration. To fulfill the demand for luxury items at either end of the whole route, new towns for traders were established along these routes. Merchants frequently formed caravans. Caravan cities began to emerge along the Silk Road’s trunk routes from the early first century, under the reign of Han emperor Wudi. Because the Han court was so interested in the goods arriving from the west, this powerful emperor made ensuring their safety a top priority.

Trade with the Western Regions suffered during the chaotic period of royal transition from the Former Han to the Later Han, at the start of the Common Era. The new oasis states struggled for power at the same time. Tensions between the oases could potentially disrupt trading networks. The survival of Central Asian commerce required a demand for western commodities in Han cities, as well as an administration capable of preserving order. In the mid-first century, the Han court reclaimed control of the Western trade routes and launched many military missions to restore control of the areas of the Western Regions closest to China.

Many silk textiles created in China, as well as some locally made ones, have survived in local tombs in Central Asian oases due to the arid conditions. Some of these pieces date back to the Han dynasty, and they range in weight from lightweight tabby and gauze—in which the designs are created by weaving elevated patterns over the same color material—to the heaviest textiles, such as brocades and embroidery.

Heavenly Horses of the Han Dynasty

The Han court valued the attractive horses from the western section of the Central Asian steppe above all the foreign commodities brought to the Great Wall’s gates. After centuries of relations with nomads, settled kings had not only come to value the advantages of cavalry in battle, but also cavalry culture as an economic asset.

Since, China’s soil has been deficient in selenium, causing muscle weakness and stunted growth in horses. As a result, Chinese horses were too weak to withstand the weight of a Chinese soldier. Nomads on the Eurasian steppes bred superior horses which the Chinese wanted. On the other hand, agricultural communities could only make nomads demand items, such as grain and silk. After the completion of the Great Wall, nomads gathered at the wall’s gates to trade. Soldiers stationed at the wall were frequently paid in silk, which nomads exchanged for grain. Moreover, the Chinese continued to dominate the Silk Roads.

The Han conquered Central Asia. Nomadic traders moved products further west or south from there. Trade introduced new beliefs, ideas, and things to locations where they had never been before.

Royal Road

Trade Silk Road
Credit: Slide Player

The Persian emperor, Darius I during the Achaemenid Empire, built The Royal Road, which ran more than 1,600 miles west from Susa (modern-day Iran) to Sardis (near the Mediterranean Sea in modern-day Turkey) .

The Persians further extended the Royal Road to include lesser routes linking to the Indian subcontinent and northern Africa.

Alexander the Great, ruler of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, was able to expand his empire into Persia along the Royal Road. The Silk Road eventually covered parts of the route.

From the West

The Silk Road- Roman Empire
Credit: Film score click track

The King of Macedonia

Greek Dynasty
Credit: Media Storehouse

The expansion of Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire into Central Asia was the next big step in the Silk Road’s growth. He founded Alexandria Eschate, or “Alexandria the Farthest,” at the mouth of the Fergana Valley in 329 BCE.

For the next three centuries, the Greeks remained in Central Asia. They continued to advance eastward, particularly under Euthydemus’ reign (230–200 BCE), when he expanded his rule beyond Alexandria Eschate to Sogdiana. He may have conducted journeys as far as Kashgar, on the western side of the Taklamakan Desert, resulting in the earliest known relations between China and the West around 200 BCE.

However, at the Battle of Corinth (146 BC), the Greek peninsula succumbed to the Roman Republic, and Macedonia became a Roman province.

Roman Empire

Roman empire
Credit: Public domain via Wikipedia

Northern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iran) became China’s closest trading partner, resulting in significant cultural interactions. The Chinese invented paper during the Han Dynasty, and gunpowder, which had far more cultural impact than silk. More than the fashion that arose out of the silk business, the rich spices of the east played a role.

Even then, by the time of Augustus (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE), trade between China and the west had established itself. The most highly prized item in Egypt, Greece, and Rome was silk.

It had thus traveled to Egypt and Rome by the first century B.C. Silk became connected with wealth and power through the beginnings of the empire—Julius Caesar entered Rome. During this time, the Roman empire was growing. Rome also achieved control of the Mediterranean Sea’s western shores. Rome grew to govern the whole Mediterranean coastline over the next few centuries.

Despite the fact that Rome and Han China both grew significantly, there was still a significant distance between them. Mountains, deserts, and huge meadows abound throughout Central Asia. Traders were crucial in connecting the Roman and Han empires.

Roman traders made their transactions at stores on the Mediterranean’s east coast. Traders of many Asian nations traveled the silk routes to caravan towns, bringing silks to these Roman depots. Life in Rome and other major towns evolved as the Roman Republic became the Roman Empire in the first century. The empire’s ever-expanding reign merged people and goods from the Mediterranean coasts and further east.

Fall of the Roman Empire

The growth of Rome as an imperial force produced a great market for commodities transported by camels overland. Spices, perfumes, and silk, which were all new and luxurious at the time, became the most valuable goods.

Indeed, the empire’s treasury was bleeding. Roman markets were purchasing so much Chinese silk and other luxuries from faraway parts of Asia. Rome’s bullion supply was exhausted due to wealthy Roman ladies buying so many expensive silk materials to beautify themselves .

The Western Roman Empire, along with its demand for skilled Asian goods, eventually fell apart in the 5th century.

Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire
Credit: Human History In Brief

The eastern half of Rome, the Byzantine Empire , which survived, carried on the Roman obsession with silk.  Tired of paying the expensive fees the Chinese wanted for silk, the Byzantine emperor Justinian (r. 527- 565 CE) sent two ambassadors disguised as monks, to collect and smuggle silkworms back to the west. The strategy worked, and the Byzantine silk industry was born. The west realized that silk was not cultivated on trees in China, but rather silkworms were spun.

The origin of silk was a secret for a long time. Once it was revealed, the Chinese closely guarded their silkworms and the procedure of extracting silk. Even though the Byzantines had already obtained silkworm eggs from China, the quality of Chinese silk was far superior. Emperor Justinian I employed local silks for rites and aristocratic attire throughout Europe.

The Persians, too, learned how to make silk, and under Arab rule, Damascus became a silk hub. When the Ottoman Empire conquered the Byzantine Empire in 1453 CE, it closed the ancient Silk Road routes.

Tang Empire

Tang Empire Asia China
Credit: Wikipedia

China’s Tang dynasty established a second Silk Road (618 to 907 A.D.) By this time, Central Asians had learnt to cultivate silk. However, Chinese silks were still in high demand due to their superior quality. The Tang rulers, like their Han forefathers, required horses for military purposes. In the eighth century, the Tang traded silk for horses, exchanging 40 bolts for each pony.

Cultural interaction based on silk reached its peak during the Tang dynasty. Silks were not the only medium of cultural interaction. The Silk Road network transported medicine, religion etc. Arabs visited India and China, while Chinese tourists visited Central Asia, India, and Persia. These routes transported Buddhism from India to Tibet and China. Sufi scholars and armies brought Islam throughout the continent, from Western Asia to China and India. Martial arts, calligraphy, and painting also travelled these paths.

Chang’an, the Tang capital, became a global hub, attracting traders from all across the Silk Road from all over Asia.

Mongol Empire

Mongol Empire Trade Asia China Silk Road
Credit: Heritage Images/Contributor/Getty Images

From roughly 1207 to 1360, the Mongol advance across Asia served to restore political stability and re-establish the Silk Road. Because the Mongols gained control of the trade routes, trade was able to flow freely across the region. However, the Mongols never gave up their nomadic lifestyle.

A third Silk Road flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries, with the Mongol descendants in control of Asia.

Explorers wanted a deeper understanding of the Far East’s culture and geography. Marco Polo, a Venetian explorer, traveled from Italy to China along the Silk Road in 1275, under the Mongolian Empire. In 1295, Marco Polo came to Venice along the Silk Road for the second time, just as the Mongolian Empire was falling apart. His travels along the Silk Road inspired him to write “The Travels of Marco Polo”.


Silk Road Trade

The Mongol Empire’s fall led to the weakening of the Silk Road’s political, cultural, and economic unity . The Turkmeni marching lords captured areas from the fading Byzantine Empire around the western part of the Silk Road. Following the fall of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Road’s great political powers became economically and culturally isolated. The decline of nomad authority followed the formation of regional states, as a result of the Black Death’s devastation.

Armenians, placed at a crossroads between Europe and Asia, played an important role in increasing exports. Armenia held a monopoly on practically all trade roads in this region, as well as a massive network. From 1700 to 1765, Armenians were solely responsible for the export of Persian silk.

The silk trade grew until the Safavid Empire fell apart in the 1720s.


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