- When China opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., people started trading goods on the Silk Road.
- People traded goods for hundreds of years until 1453, when the Ottoman Empire shut down trade.
- Even though it has been almost 600 years, traders still remember how to use these routes for their business!
What is the Silk Road?
The Silk Road is a network of routes for traders. Because it is more than one, the Silk Roads have been used for more than 1,500 years.
The word “trade” also means the exchange of things between different countries. The trade network is called the Silk Road, but some historians call it the Silk Routes instead because it accurately shows how traders took many different paths.
The Silk Road is over 4,000 miles long. It goes across the Gobi Desert and the Pamir Mountains.
How did the Silk Road appear?
In the first century CE, silk became a problem. People were importing it from China, and the Romans were wearing it extravagantly.
Merchants had to take apart and reuse their silk to make it last longer. This made the silk clothes a very bad quality. The Roman Senate prohibited the use of silk.
This law did not last because people wanted silk, and trade over it was too important. Finally, roads to China helped to bring very good quality silk to Rome. To understand how we have to trace how silk got from China to Rome.
The Need for Heavenly Horses
The emperor of Han, Wu, had many wars with the people who lived in the land. These people were Xiongnu nomads, and they made trades grow.
Nomad horse riders have been raiding Chinese settlements for many years. Emperor Wu needed new horses for his army so he could beat the nomads.
Emperor Wu sent Zhang Qian to find allies in the fight against the Xiongnu nomads. Zhang went to Uzbekistan and saw horses that were hardy and strong, like something from heaven. The region also had rice, wheat, and grapes.
The Chinese people wanted to buy so many horses that they refused to sell any more. This led to a war also known as the War of the Heavenly Horses. The control of the horse zone opened a route to the West.
The Han Dynasty brought in horses to help them control the land. This led to an era of peace called Chinese Peace.
During this time, people in China had a better life. Cities grew in size, and economic growth led to more money. That meant that people could buy more expensive things from other places.
The Roman Expansion
The Roman empire was also expanding at this time. They got control of the western Mediterranean Sea after winning the Punic Wars. The Roman empire expanded, and they controlled all of the Mediterranean coasts by a few centuries later.
The first century CE is when the Roman Peace started. It lasted for about 200 years and was a time of a few wars.
In Han China, the people had political stability, and they could trade more. Rome traded with other countries and got goods from them.
The two empires of Han China and Rome were far apart. Central Asia has many mountains, vast deserts, and extensive grasslands. Traders helped connect the empires.
People in China made silk. Silk was taken to Rome. Both the Romans and the Chinese controlled many lands and kept them peaceful.
The Han people conquered central Asia. Then, traders who were nomads carried goods to the West or South. Trade brought new ideas, new faiths, and new goods to places they had not been before.
How was the Silk Road Traveled?
The trader’s camels helped them to carry their goods. Camels are good for traveling on land.
Camels are animals that can live in a desert because they have fur and can carry up to 500 pounds at a time. Camels made it possible to trade goods across the desert by carrying them, which made trading on the Silk Road possible.
There was no single government to take care of the roads. Robbers went around robbing people.
To protect themselves, traders joined together in groups. They had camels and other animals that they used to carry things. Large inns called caravanserais would receive a large number of travelers.
Few people traveled the full distance, so there were many middlemen and trading posts.
The oceans were also used to transport goods. Sailors need to understand wind and storms so they can successfully sail the ocean.
The Indian Ocean has winds that come from the northeast in winter and from the southwest in summer. Merchants were able to travel from the Red Sea in the summer to India.
Then they traveled back during winter. They shared information about this with other sailors, who then spread it everywhere.
Ports were on the coast of oceans, and they were necessary for trading. They could also get fresh water. The ships had trouble with fresh water, so it was a great way to get it.
Pirates were another risk in the Silk Roads. Pirates attacked ships because they had money.
People from Rome tried to avoid crossing into territory controlled by Parthians, their enemies. So the people take routes in the Silk Road to the north. They go across the Caucasus region and over the Caspian Sea.
The Silk Road had lots of rivers. Sometimes there was water, but sometimes the rivers went dry. This made it hard to trade over them. The Silk Road offered other routes to get to the same places easily.
What was Traded on the Silk Road?
More goods were available thanks to the Silk Road. Silk became a popular item because of its soft texture and how shiny it is. So people used silk as money in central Asia.
However, the process of making silk was a secret in China. It was only in China that people could make it.
This meant that trade goods traveled across Asia. There were many people and places involved in the Silk Road trade network.
Paper was invented in China by Cai Lun. He made it by cooking plants and water together. Then he pressed it and let it dry. Thanks to the Silk Roads, this technology of making paper would reach Europe in the Middle Ages.
People in China knew about magnetite and how it behaves. They made the first compass with magnetite stones or needles that were suspended in air or water.
The compass reached Europe through the Silk Roads in the Middle Ages. The Italians were able to find their way because they turned it so that it pointed to where they wanted to go.
On the compass, you can find out which way is north and south and east and west. With a compass, sailors could count on an instrument that allowed them to orient.
The Printing Press
The first mechanical printing techniques were made in China. They used wooden plates on which they engraved the words, and there was a fast reproduction of fabrics and paper. Later, models of mobile devices were created that would later inspire the invention of the printing press.
The printing press was a new technology that was sent to Europe from Asia through the Silk Road. This invention changed the world because it helped people with learning, commerce, communication, and maps.
Gunpowder was invented accidentally by Chinese alchemists or monks. They were working on heating some materials together with honey. Suddenly, there was smoke and fire that burned everything. When gunpowder was put in a container, it created an explosion because there was too much gas.
The Silk Road was the route that the explosive dust came through Asia. Gunpowder came to Europe. In the West, people used it for military reasons. They could make new weapons with it and more powerful ones too. This helped them take control of countries around the world in later years.
Other Goods and Ideas
People traveled on the Silk Road because they wanted to trade things like spices, beads that are made of glass, silk, ginger, and lacquerware. They also traded in furs from animals and slaves.
People who lived near the Silk Road had different religions and customs. They started to share ideas and beliefs. Towns along the Silk Road became interesting multicultural cities.
Marco Polo and the Silk Road
Marco Polo was a famous traveler from Italy. He went to China when he was 17 years old.
Marco Polo and his father traveled for 3 years before getting to Kublai Khan’s palace. Marco stayed at Khan’s court after he came back from Asia. He went on missions to places never visited by Europeans before.
When he came back, Marco wrote about his adventures, and this made him famous.
The Importance of the Silk Road
The exchange of information along the Silk Road gave rise to new technologies. These technologies changed the world.
Some things they brought to China were good. One thing was horses, and one thing was gunpowder. Having good horses helped the Mongolian Empire grow. Chinese gunpowder changed how people fought wars in Europe and beyond.
New diseases also traveled along the Silk Road. Some people say that the Black Death, which killed so many people in Europe during the Middle Ages, came from Asia. They think it got to Europe through the Silk Road.
The Age of Exploration gave people faster routes between the East and West. Parts of the Silk Road were still crucial for traveling among different cultures.
The Silk Roads were also very important for spreading religions. Buddhism traveled to many other countries, including the Silk Road countries. People there built Buddhist temples. We find them today in Afghanistan, China, and Indonesia.
Different religions spread along the Silk Roads. People traveled and picked up different cultures and beliefs as they went. These people then took these new things back to their countries with them.
People came to Indonesia and Malaysia with the Indian religion that is called Hinduism. People also came with Islam, which is from Arabia. They traveled the Silk Roads to get here.
Today, some parts of the Silk Road are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
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