The Silk Road

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Silk Road

During the second century BC, China began its long history of overland trade with the West via the Silk Road. The Silk Road is not literally one road, but rather the name given to an east-west trade route. The exact path that the merchants followed varied depending on political and military conditions at any given time.

The idea for the Silk Road originated when the Han emperor Wu Di sent an envoy north to visit the Yuezhi, a tribe of warrior nomads who had been driven westward by the Xiongnu. This contact showed the Chinese that there were profitable markets outside China for their luxuries. This was the impetus for establishing the Silk Road, which originated on the Huang He River in the Han capital, Luoyang. It continued westward all the way to Constantinople and Alexandria, stopping along the way at Persepolis, Palmyra, and Antioch. By the first century BC, the Silk Road was well established.

At this early date, the Chinese were the only people who had learned to manufacture silk; this fabric was, therefore, both rare and highly prized in India and the West. The Chinese sent silk and spices along the Silk Road to India and then to the West. India was already famous as a manufacturer of cotton textiles, as it remains to this day. The Romans sent luxury goods east to Asia along the Silk Road; a load of Roman valuables such as jewelry took up little space in a trader’s pack, so the profits were enormous. Central Asians plied their trade in the towns along the route; by 100 BC, for example, Iran was selling horses to China. All the ancient civilizations along the Silk Road used it for trade. Like any trade route, the Silk Road also facilitated the exchange of arts and ideas; Buddhism spread outside of India along the Silk Road.

Other Trade Routes

Overland trade routes were always slow and dangerous: animals might get injured or sick, bad weather could destroy a valuable cargo, and gangs of thieves were never far away from a good source of loot. For trade between Europe and Asia, the Silk Road was the most direct route, but sea trade was less hazardous and more efficient where possible. Of course, ships were always vulnerable to bad weather, shipwreck, and pirates, but the risks on land were greater.

Sea trade routes in ancient Asia crossed the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea and followed the coasts of China, India, and east Africa. Indian coastal trade dated back as far as the third millennium BC. The sea traders followed the regular cycle of monsoon winds, which blew eastward in the summer and west in the autumn. In the West, Alexandria was the port that saw the greatest amount of shipping to the east and south.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: 

Early Asian Empires Practice Test

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