Silk Road

Silk Road, ancient overland trade route linking Asia and Europe, consisting of a network of caravan routes running from China across central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean. Its starting point was the ancient Chinese capital of Chang'an (modern Xi'an), in N central China; the endpoints were a number of cities on the E Mediterranean. Some of its branches ran into S Asia; others ended at Caspian and Black Sea ports. Among the modern countries traversed by the various routes are China, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It flourished from the 2d cent. B.C. to the 15th cent. A.D., when sea routes between Europe and Asia were established, though caravan trade continued along the Silk Road into the 17th cent. and later. At different times the Silk Road was under the control of the Chinese, Turks, and Mongols, and the collapse of the Mongol Empire was also a factor in the route's lessening usage.

Traders usually traversed only a section of the route, transferring their goods to other caravans at various points along the way, and silk was only one of the commodities traded. Goods from China included gold, silver, iron, weapons, porcelain, lacquerware, tea, paper, gunpowder, and medicines; from India, slaves, animals, furs, fabrics, woods, jade and other precious stones; and from Persia, incense, foodstuffs, dyes, and silver goods. Other commodities that originated in Asia and were traded included spices, ivory, flowers, horses, jewelry, minerals, and men and women with special skills. From the West, traders brought wool and linen, vessels of bronze and glass, amber, coral, glass beads, coins and bullion, wine, and ambergris.

The Silk Road also led to the exchange of knowledge, culture, religion, and technology between the East and West. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism were among the faiths that spread along the route. Algebra, astronomy, Arabic numerals, medical techniques, architectural styles, and a host of primarily Chinese techniques and inventions, e.g., printing and papermaking, spread from East to West, while various construction techniques, seafaring methods, medicinal plants and poisons, cotton cultivation, and horse-related items such as saddles and stirrups spread from West to East.

See studies by P. Hopkirk (1980), I. M. Franck (1986), R. C. Foltz (1999), S. Whitfield (1999), F. Wood (2003), S. Whitfield and U. Sims-Williams, ed. (2004), L. Boulnois (2005), C. I. Beckwith (2009), and V. Hansen (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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