The Han Chinese court welcomed Western trade for one of the first times in its history around 2,000 years ago. What its courtiers couldn't have imagined was that they were laying the foundations for one of the oldest, largest and longest-lasting systems of trade in the world.
That said, the ancient Silk Road system endured the formation and the fall of countless cultures and civilizations throughout its 1,600-year existence, emerging from almost every experience bigger and better than before.
So, what were the events that defined the history of the Silk Road, and why did this system eventually end?
When Did the Silk Road Start?
A muddled collection of constantly changing routes and roads moved commodities across Asia and Europe for a significant stretch of antiquity, from approximately 130 B.C. to A.D. 1450.
Commonly called the Silk Road, this terrestrial and aquatic system spanned as many as 6,000 miles and connected countless territories, from China and India to Iran and Italy. Crossing through the toughest terrains, including mountains, deserts, steppes and seas, the system cut from China’s ancient capital city of Chang’an (Xi’an) to Central and West Asia, all the way to the Mediterranean.
What Was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road transported all sorts of items, including salt, spices, precious stones, precious metals, paper and porcelain. But the system was originally built on the transmission of finished silk fabric, which was only fashioned in China at the time of the system’s foundation.
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At that time, China’s courtiers understood silk was worth a substantial sum within their own society, and they treated its methods of manufacture as state secrets. But they weren’t fully acquainted with the fabric's worth in the West, since their only foreign trade of the textile was a part of their diplomacy.
When the tribes of the Xiongnu people pillaged China’s frontiers around 200 B.C., for instance, the Han court provided the tribes with silk as a part of its plea for peace. And when the tribes of the Xiongnu people were still pillaging China’s frontiers around 130 B.C., the Han court provided the tribes’ rivals with silk in return for a special type of swifter, stronger horse, which was instrumental in the defeat of the Xiongnu several decades later.
These interactions, in addition to a series of missions sent out in search of foreign allies, revealed the intensity of the Western want for silk for the first time. And once revealed, China’s court armed a fleet of traders with the fabric and thrust them westward, all in an attempt to foster future trade relationships and formalize future trade routes.
Traveling the Silk Road
These traders initiated the Silk Road, though they weren’t the only travelers that took to the system. Instead, merchants from all across Central and Western Asia rushed to the routes, where they shuttled their wares along a small section of the system before passing them to the next seller in a sequence of middlemen.
Their travel was tough, with traders facing the threats of the terrain and the bands of bandits that prowled the Silk Road. But because their merchandise was in demand, the trade continued for centuries, surviving some of the biggest political disasters and disruptions in antiquity.
The Phases of the Silk Road Trade Route
Specialists studying the Silk Road trade route tend to discuss three phases of particularly intense trade, all distinguished by their own distinct mix of merchants, merchandise and political challenges.
The First Phase
The first phase of this trade took place from around 200 B.C. to A.D. 220 and concentrated on the movement of silks from China to Rome, where people were ambivalent toward the textile. Some Romans thought that wearing silk was an appropriate sign of their worth, wealth and authority, while others saw silk as an indecent indulgence and attempted to ban its importation.
Despite the debate that surrounded the textile, Roman imports of silk soared throughout this phase, enabled by the peace and prosperity that Rome’s early emperors provided. And as Chinese silk went west, the Romans sent their glass, gold and silver east.
The Second Phase
In A.D. 220, China fell into a period of political turmoil, resulting in a temporary retreat from the Silk Road trade. In the midst of this turmoil, the secrets of silk making were smuggled out of the state, terminating the Chinese monopoly over the material.
Once China’s Tang court restored the state’s previous prosperity around A.D. 600, silk manufacturers were already appearing in Byzantium, which was situated in Anatolia and served as the successor to the rapidly declining state of Rome. But because the quality of Chinese silk still remained superior, a new phase of silk trade arose from around A.D. 620 to 910, this time from China to Byzantium and beyond.
The Third Phase
Starting in Central Asia and advancing out into China, India, Iran and Anatolia, the conquests of the Mongols under Genghis and Kublai Khan eventually stabilized the entire continent, easing communication and commerce across Eurasia. As the various trading centers of Asia and Europe came under the unified control of the Mongols, a third and final flourish of silk trade set in, lasting from around A.D. 1210 to 1360.
While silk was still one of the principal products that traveled the Silk Road, the textile was sent west with pearls and precious stones, spices, ceramics, carpets and more. In addition to this material merchandise, the Mongols’ openness toward foreigners and foreign ideas also facilitated the movement of people, philosophies and pathogens across vast stretches of the Silk Road routes.
When Did the Silk Road End?
Despite surviving, and sometimes thriving, during times of trouble, the Silk Road trade started to deteriorate by about A.D. 1360. Already drained by the bursts of the bubonic plague during the Black Death around 20 years earlier, the trade was weakened even further by the fragmentation of the Mongol Empire.
The truly decisive blow to the trade arrived around A.D. 1450, when the taxes and tolls of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire deterred almost all of the remaining trade along the traditional Silk Road routes.
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Forging New Roads
Specialists say that the fall of the Silk Road forced European traders to search for alternative routes to the commercial centers of Asia. And tempted by the idea that there was a better way to travel, these traders took to the seas, which weren’t as affected by the tolls and the bandits that were always involved in the traditional, terrestrial trade.
Initiating a new age of cross-cultural commerce and contact in which travelers would bounce between the “Old World” and the “New World” with both dramatic and devastating consequences, this search for sea routes merely intensified the ancient shift toward worldwide interaction that started with the Silk Road, all the way back in 130 B.C.