The Mongol khanates

The Silk Road


The Silk Road was not actually a road, but rather a network of inter-connected trade routes running across the steppes and deserts of Central Asia. The routes connected China with India, India with Persia and the Middle East. During the Pax Mongolica, the “Mongol peace” during the thirteenth century, Europe was part of this network too and many exotic goods from Asia were imported. A few Europeans even made the long journey to Asia [Read more: Did Marco Polo Go to China?] and so did the occasional Arab adventurer [Read more: Ibn Battuta, the Greatest Traveler of All Time]. But the first trade routes crossing the Asian landmass were established far earlier, already in the first centuries BCE. A community of traders known as Sogdians took a lead in developing the trade. [Read more: Sogdian Letters]

It was never only silk that was traded here but all kinds of luxury goods, and new ideas and religions too. The Silk Road spread Greek culture from Bactria, and it was along the Silk Road that Buddhist monks left India and traveled to China, and Christian missionaries used it in the 13th century when going to China. It was along the Silk Road that the bubonic plague [Read more: The Black Plague] spread from Asia to the Middle East and Europe.  And yet it can be argued that the trade by sea across the Indian Ocean always was far more important than the rather limited trade across Asia itself. After the Europeans had found a way around Africa in 1498, all trade was conducted by sea, and yet the trade routes continued to be important in Asia itself and only ceased to operate as a network in the early 18th century.

“Silk Road,” the term itself, was invented by the German adventurer Ferdinand von Richthofen who traveled in China between 1868 and 1872. The Silk Road was also the name of a book by the Swedish adventurer Sven Hedin, published in 1938. In the minds of Europeans the name conjures up assorted exotic images which have been exploited by countless TV documentaries and books.