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What is the Silk Road?

Silk Route definition

Due to advances and innovations in technology and transportation, globalisation has accelerated in the past few decades. As citizens of the 21st century, we enjoy food, clothes and many other things imported from countries geographically distant from us. To define the Silk Route, we have to travel back to the second century, when trade and exchange of goods and services between different countries was far less simple.

The Silk Route, or Silk Road, was a network of ancient trading routes in Eurasia. It connected Far Eastern countries such as China to the Middle East and European countries. Spanning a distance of 6,400 kilometres (4,000 miles), these trading roads facilitated the exchange of goods, services, ideas, languages, beliefs and skills across different kingdoms and empires.

Silk Route definition

The significance of Silk

The Silk Route was so named because silk was one of the major commodities traded within these networks. Established in China during the Han Dynasty in 130 BC, the country was touted as the ‘Land of Silk’ by the ancient Romans. Silk produced by China was popular in the West. German geographer and traveller Ferdinand von Richthofen  (5 May 1833 – 6 October 1905) coined the name ‘Silk Route’ in 1877.

Criticism against the name

There has been some criticism against this naming of the ancient trading route, as it takes away from the various resources that were traded other than silk. Australian-born archaeologist Warwick Ball, a lecturer and former director of excavations at The British School of Archaeology in Iraq, advocates that the spice trade with India and Arabia was far more significant during those times than the silk trade with China. It has also been found that the southern parts of the Silk Road were first utilised for trading jade and not silk.

Origin of Silk Route

The Silk Route has a rich history and was highly popular for facilitating trade with the West during the Han Dynasty and its expansion into Asia (202 BC–220 BC). These routes developed over time according to shifting geopolitical situations.

During the 13th and 14th centuries, with the prominence of the Mongol Empire, the Silk Route thrived and organised trades were carried out. However, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its boycott of trade with the West, trading along this route was curtailed. 

Notable trades on Silk Route

Paper was one of the most important commodities introduced to the West through China via the Silk Route. The discovery of paper in China and its subsequent trading into Western countries led to the beginning of printing and creation of the printing press, which was used to publish literary items such as books and newspapers.

Some of the other things that were traded from west to east via this network included:

  • Horses, dogs, livestock and exotic animals

  • Fruit

  • Weapons and armour

  • Glassware

Apart from goods, trade fostered exchange between different cultures. Buddhism, for instance, travelled from ancient India to China by way of missionaries and pilgrims during the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century.

Today’s Silk Route – a UNESCO heritage site

Some parts of the Silk Route location can be traced through a paved highway connecting today’s Pakistan and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China. 

On 22 June 2014, UNESCO designated a 5,000km stretch of the Silk Route network extending from Central China to the Zhetysu region of Central Asia as a World Heritage site. Covering the Chang’an–Tianshan portion of the Silk Road, this corridor spans modern-day China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

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