The Silk Road: Meeting Point of Cultures

Named after the trade of lucrative Chinese silk along it to distant Rome, the Silk Road is historically glorified as the link between the eastern and western civilizations. The celebrated 6,200-miles long trade network stands testimony to the travelogue of celebrated caravans and army hordes that transcends ethnic boundaries and geographical restrictions and brought people, philosophies, and cultures closer.

An amalgamation of historical network interlinking important trading destinations, the transcontinental network occupies a pride of place in numerous traveler accounts and Chinese cultural trails.

History of the Silk Road

The earliest history dates back to the second millennium BC when a part of the route around Yarkand, Badakhshan, Pamir, and Khotan was central to jade, lapis lazuli, and spinel trade between Central Asia and China. Archeological findings indicate existence of colonies by people speaking Indo-European languages in Xinjiang region around 1600 BC.

Gradual expansion of Scythian cultures across the Persia- Kansu corridor led to various nomadic establishments dominating the trade routes passing through Central Asian and Indian territories. They provided security to caravans and encouraged long distance trade connecting China with other Asian regions.  A distinct class of Soghdian Scythian merchants came into existence playing key role in the trade across the Silk Road. Greek historian Herodotus has mentioned about existence of well-guarded interlinking trade routes known as the Royal Road during the Achaemenid Persian Empire connecting India, China, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean.

Silk Road in China - Northern Route

During Alexander’s invasion of Asia and consequent Greek presence in Asia for 300 years resulted further expansion of the trading route from Chinese Turkestan to Europe. Establishment of a number of cities across the Silk Route resulted in its concretization and development of trade networking that contributed to first contact between China and the West.

The Chinese patronization of the route began with the onset of foreign diplomatic missions starting from the time of Han dynasty. Envoy Zhang Qian set out in 130 BC as the first official envoy representing the Chinese imperial court of Emperor Wu. His entourage visited many places in Central Asia up to Persia and prepared detailed account of all major trade routes connecting these with China. It opened up the Chinese Han hinterland for trade with the West.

In 97 AD, Gan Ying, the Han Chinese envoy, reached Rome following the Silk Road and the first Roman embassy to China followed it exactly the same way. Subsequently missions and merchants from both China and outside followed Zhang’s footsteps to traverse through these roads and trade flourished on this transcontinental route. During the Mongol domination, the route was central to many military expeditions. Celebrated Florentine explorer Marco Polo reached China following the transcontinental route and his memoires exalted its significance. 

Geography and Extent

The Ancient Silk Road

Known as the northern route, this was the oldest part of the Silk Road. Xi’an, the ancient imperial capital, was considered the original starting point. During the later period, it was extended further east to Luoyang. On westward journey on this track, one had to go to Dunhuang, the place well-known as home of Mogao Caves and Budhist cultural relics. From there, the route was divided into three sub-tracks, north, central, and south. 

The north route traversed north of the Tian Shan range through Kokand, Almaty and Samarkand. The central and southern routes ran parallel to the north and south mountains bordering the Taklamakan Desert and met at Kashgar. One branch rejoined the north track at Kokand while another went through Termez of Uzbekistan and Balkh in Afghanistan. The routes united before Merv in Turkmenistan.

From Merv, it branched out into two parts, one went south of Caspian Sea via Mesopotamia and Damascus to follow the sea route to Rome from the Levant coast while the other traversed north of the Caspian Sea on to Constantinople or modern Istanbul via the Black Sea.

The Karakoram Route

This route often called the southern route follows exactly the present paved Karakoram Highway that connects China and Pakistan. It goes northward via Afghanistan and joins the ancient Silk Road at Merv.

The Cultural Bridge

The route acted as a cultural bridge that spanned over China, Central Asia, India, the Middle East and Europe. It encouraged cultural assimilations between nomadic tribes and metropolitan China. Chinese colonies in Uighur and Xinxiang came along with the flourishing trading cities on the route. A distinct Sino-Tibetan language developed from the contacts between Turkish and Han cultures. Exchange of ideas, culture and philosophy led to changes at both end. Chinese inventions reach the West while religious and art forms entered China leading to its colorful diversity.

The Silk Road played a role in spreading of Chinese tea culture, agricultural techniques, clothing and philosophy dress style. On the other hand, rulers of China adopted distinct Xiongnu military techniques. The metropolitan Chinese life style, printing technique and exotic goods moved westward while western techniques, literature, and religion were carried into China. While iron manufacturing and paper making went westward through the route, gold and metallurgy techniques were brought to China by traders. The world came to know about Chinese calligraphy and painting while distinct art forms, such as the Scythian-style, Iranian, Greco-Buddhist art and animal forms of the Central Asia, influenced China’s artists.

The world came to know the great thought of Confucius while Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam entered China. Cities on the route became the major centers of Buddhism and Islam in subsequent times. From these centers of learning, Buddhism went deep into China and became its celebrated religion.

The Mongol power invariable followed the Silk Road before its urbane crystallization in China under Kublai Khan. Mongol army moved on the route to conquer Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Steppes. Foreign envoys and explorers reached China through the route while Chinese emissaries visited European and Asian monarchs along with merchant caravans traversing the trade route.

The Silk Road travel offers one the scintillating experience of adventure tourism. Travelers come across many tribes, deserts, mountain trails, flora, fauna, lakes, and oasis on their way. Cities on this route, such as Anxi, Xi’an, Dunhuang, Urumqi, Kashgar and Samarkand, stand testimony to vivid cultural assimilation between civilizations that took place over many centuries.

Read more about Chinese dynasties.

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