Times & Places

The Silk Road

The term "Silk Road" was coined in the late 19th century by German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen (1833-1905) to describe the ancient transcontinental trade route that operated from the end of the 2nd century B. C. until the 15th century. The Silk Road was not a single path between Europe and Asia, but a network of land and sea routes that spanned anywhere from four to seven thousand miles. Nor was silk the only commodity traded along these routes, which became conduits for goods, religions, ideas, technologies, and art forms and styles. There is evidence trade along the eastern part of what became the Silk Road, from China to Central Asia, was taking place from at least the 2nd millennium B.C.; and the development of other networks of exchange was furthered by a series of historical events prior to the traditional date of its establishment.

Trade between East and West was facilitated by Alexander the Great's 4th century B.C. conquest of the Persian empire, which included Asia Minor, the Levant Coast, Syria, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and India. He was responsible for spreading Greek culture to Central Asia in the forms of language, religion, and art. For example, a blend of Hellenistic and Indian Buddhist art created the Gandharan tradition which depicts Buddhist subjects in a blend of both eastern and western design motifs. The later establishment of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, which made Bactria and Sogdiana trading hubs between China, India, and Iran, also contributed to East-West exchange.

The commencement of Silk Road trade is dated to the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - A.D. 220) sometime between 105-115 B.C. and attributed to the Chinese diplomat Zhang Qian. The Han Emperor Wudi sent diplomat Zhang Qian to contact the displaced Yuezhi nomads to form an alliance against the nomadic Xiongnu, and to bring back 'heavenly horses' from the kingdom of Ferghana. On his way, he was captured, imprisoned, and later escaped, bringing back detailed reports of previously unknown lands which enabled him to revolutionize Chinese trade. Trade soon became the primary implement of foreign policy and China issued state controlled commerce of all silk products which ultimately enriched the treasury. Trade occurred at limited and specified markets within the Chinese capital of Chang’an (now Xi'an) and watch towers were erected for military supervision. For the majority of its existence, the Silk Road was controlled by Chinese forces.

In 30 B.C., following the Roman conquest of Egypt, exchange flourished between China, India, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, and the Roman Empire. Roman sea trade was lucrative thanks to the speed and cargo capacity of ships; and soon a maritime trade route developed. The west maintained direct contact with Asia until the 2nd century by sailing from Africa to the southern ports of India. In China, ports in Guangdong and Fujian province were the starting points for sea routes. Chinese ships traded with Southeast Asian kingdoms as early as the Eastern Han (A.D. 25-220); and sailed to India, Persia, and Japan. Though the land routes were primarily under Chinese control, sea routes were controlled by Arab mariners, many of whom settled in China during the Tang period (A.D. 618-906).

The Han and Tang dynasties were among the periods the Silk Road thrived, including the later Yuan dynasty of Mongol rule (A.D. 1279-1368). Popularity in specific routes, northern, southern, or sea differed depending on the conditions of the area and the political circumstances of the period. For example, due to a competent army and strategic commerce, China gained control of the Tarim Basin in the first century. However, with the collapse of the Han dynasty in A.D. 220, thus dividing China into city-states once more, trade between the east and west declined. China was reunified in the late 6th century by the short lived Sui Dynasty; and the Tang dynasty was firmly established by the middle of the 7th century. Tang military was posted throughout the country to maintain peace and secure trade routes. This tactic promoted free flow of trade, low prices, and a revitalization of the Chinese economy.

Tang rulers loved all things exotic and not only craved foreign goods but also new ideas or schools of thought from outside cultures. The Tang dynasty was widely known as secure and prosperous, cultivating an environment of religious tolerance evident through the many Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim pilgrims that influenced the native Chinese. The foreign taste of the Tang court spread to its citizens and soon excessive extravagance began to drain the Chinese economy. Rebellions sprung throughout China while Muslim armies invaded and gained control over Central Asia; and the western route was disrupted by the Arab conquest of the Sasanian empire in the 7th century. By the 9th century, the Chinese people no longer desired foreign influence of any kind and widespread xenophobic, peasant uprising began. Tang rule saw its end by the 10th century.

The Song court (A.D. 960-1279) gained control soon after but failed to reestablish economic stability, and trade along the southern route of the Silk Road had effectively ceased in the 12th century. and eventually gave way to Mongol invaders in the 12th century. They took control over China and established the Yuan Dynasty, which marked the last flourishing of the Silk Road. The disintegration of the Silk Road began with the division of the Mongol Empire in 1262. This instability along with the growing rate of Chinese nationalism led to several rebellions in the south of China during the 14th century. Ultimately, the Mongol established Yuan Dynasty was replaced by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. Consequentially, the Mongols no longer governed the majority of the Silk Road and the increasing growth of Islam began to take over.

Beginning in the 1330s, much of Asia suffered the bubonic plague which originated in an area of northern China that suffered famine and natural disasters, giving rise to infected rats. This epidemic spread to Europe through international trade. In 1368, the Ming Dynasty closed relations with the west for fear of foreign diseases, bring about an economic drain similar to that which took place during the Tang Dynasty. It can also be argued that the decline of the Silk Road was exacerbated by the growth of maritime trade. Merchants began to abandon the land routes and exclusively travel overseas because it was a safer, quicker, and more economical. In addition, the Taklimakan and Gobi Deserts became increasingly treacherous, at times swallowing up previously occupied trade settlements. By the end of the 14th century, travel along Silk Road routes had virtually ceased.

Adapted from

  • "Silk Road Docent Training," 2011. File on TAZ.

Related Multimedia

Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology, Whitfield was Director of The International Dunhuang Project
1st Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; speaker is Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art, DMA
Gallery talk by Dr. Anne Bromberg, The Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art, DMA
1st Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; speaker is Curator of Ancient and South Asian Art, DMA
Boshell Lecture by Elizabeth Wayland Barber; in conjunction with new Silk Road installation on third floor galleries

Web Resources

  • UNESCO
    View the Silk Road online platform.
  • TED-Ed
    Watch an animated short about the Silk Road.