Silk Route is a famous trade network, which united China and Mediterranean during various periods of time. The majority of historians come to a conclusion that this commerce network was established in 130 BC and existed to 15 century AD when the Ottoman Empire refused to make trades with the West and closed the route. The length of the network is approximately 4,000 miles and it linked China with Roman Empire (Li 34). The name of the trade path was received due to the silk, which was the most common product on the network. However, it was named as the Silk Road only in 1877 by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (Li 35). The route has bigger significance than a mere commerce meaning. Due to the commercial network, different countries that were united by it exchanged their cultures. During the antique era, among the major traders within the Silky Road, one could find China, Greece, Persia, Romania, India, Armenia, Bactria and Syria. In addition, there also was Sogdia, but only from the fifth to the eighth century. Besides, in the period of the age of Islam, Arab traders also joined the Silky Route activity and were extremely popular in the so-called market. The exchange between mentioned cultures was an important step for introducing the relations between different cultures at a new level. In fact, all these cultures have very little in common and they reflect opposite values and beliefs. Nevertheless, due to the economic advantages that each of them could give to others, they could find something that united them and it was profit.
The history of the Silk Route is a good example of the way the cultures with different world views could work together to achieve the mutual goals. The well-being of the Silk Route much depended on the efforts of both civilizations. Due to the necessity to create the effective trade network, two struggling cultures could find a compromise. However, the developed commerce is not the only contribution of the network. The tide economic relations had the significant input in the shifts of the political, social and technological development. The exchange of experience and technologies was the integral part of the network. According to such fact, the Silk Route should be discussed from various perspectives, taking into consideration both economic and technological progress.
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The Routes of the Silk Road
Obviously, the Silk Road had its particular routes of transmission of goods. They were the southern route, the northern route and the south-western route. The northern route took its place in Chang’an, which is today known as Xi’an. Chang’an was a capital of China in ancient times, which was lately moved east. Current route was found approximately in the first century BC, the time when the harassment conducted by nomadic tribes was ended by Han Wudi (Li 36).
The route was long as it travelled northwest through the province of China of Gansu from the Province of Shaanxi. Besides, the route split into 3 other routes: two of the three sub-routes followed the mountain ranges up to the south and north of the Taklamakan Desert so that they rejoined at Kashgar. The third sub-route went north of the mountains Tian Shan through Talgar, Turpan and Almaty, which is today known as Kazakhstan. All three sub-routes split west of Kashgar. At the same time, a southern branch headed down the Alai Valley towards Uzbekistan, which was known as Termez in ancient times and Balkh, that is Afghanistan today. The other sub-routes traveled through eastern Uzbekistan (the Fergana Valley Kokand) and west across the Desert Karakum. Further, both routes joined the major southern route before they reached ancient Merv, which is now Turkmenistan (Li 36).
Regarding the southern route, which was also known as the Karakoram route, one can state that it was primarily a single route that went from China through the Karakoram Mountains. In the Karakoram Mountains, the south route endures to present times as the international road that connects China and Pakistan as the Karakoram Highway. Further, the route goes to the west. However, it still spurred the southern era in order to get the opportunity to complete the journey by the sea from different points. Then the route crossed the high mountains and went through northern Pakistan, omitting the Hindu Kush Mountains. Further, it ran to Afghanistan and rejoined the northern route near Turkmenistan (Merv – at ancient times). From the above mentioned point, the route then pursued a straight line through Mesopotamia, northern Iran and the northern tilt of the Syrian Desert to the Levant. In fact, that was the territory where trading ships of the Mediterranean Sea plied habitual routes to Italy. Finally, one more branch of the route ran from Herat to Charax Spasinu through Susa (Mezzavilla 72). It travelled further to other eastern ports of the Mediterranean Sea from where vessels carried goods to Rome.
The Southwestern Route is considered to be one of the most important from the international perspective. The route was an important point, which connected ancient China and India beginning in the third century BC. The Southwestern Route was important from the economic and trade perspective. By that time, the Arabs used primarily the sea way of traveling to the south regions. The opening of the Southwestern Route provided an opportunity to use also the overland route. Hence, the new discovery provided the maritime-overland route, which simplified the economic exchange with the Southwestern regions.
The opening of a new route had caused positive changes. The historians determine such term as “Southernization” (Li 38). Arabs were very interested in the South Route and thus, they used the Silk Route’s southwestern direction to establish connection between South Asia and the Mediterranean region.
Silk Road in Different Dynasties
Silk Road was opened during the ruling of Western Han Dynasty between 139-129 BC (Mezzavilla 76). Zhang Qian provided two expeditions to the Western region till he could finally find the most appropriate route for the future trade. In addition, the last war campaign against Huns in that region has made it a save place for a commerce route. Han Dynasty has established its protectorate of the Western Regions to make the path more attractive for traders. Western Han Dynasty was changed by Eastern Han Dynasty, which lasted almost 200 years (25-220 AD) (Mezzavilla 74). During the ruling of Eastern Han Dynasty, the Silk Route did not experience any significant changes. Ban Chao and Ban Yong made several expeditions against the rebellions in the Western Regions. The conflict in the West meant the troubles in the route and loss for the country’s economy. Thus, it was necessary to establish peace in that region and make the Silk Route an important trade network for all traders.
During the ruling of the Tang Dynasty, the Silk Road has experienced the dramatic changes. Many historians believe that this dynasty has provided the biggest contribution to the development of the Silk Route. The Tang Dynasty existed almost 300 years (618-907 AD); during that period of time the Silk Route has achieved its highest prospering (Mezzavilla 78). However, the golden age of the Silk Route during the ruling of the Tang Dynasty lasted till the Anshi Rebellion (755–762) (Mezzavilla 77).
The uprising of the trade network during that period of time can be explained taking into consideration the following reasons:
- First, the Tang Dynasty was one of the most powerful during the entire history of China. During the ruling of this dynasty, China experienced many positive changes in political, social and economic life. Chang’an, the largest Chinese city has become the first international metropolis of that time. Hence, such commercial center attracted many foreign traders and merchants from all over the world, who made the Silk Route more luxurious and rich.
- Second, the emperors of the Tang Dynasty paid especial attention to commerce and the management of the western regions. Probably, it played the crucial role in the development of stable and reliable trade network. China has often faced difficulties with the west regions. Rebellions caused great difficulties there and there was no dynasty which did not have problems with conflicts in the north. However, the strict control of that region has provided the durable prospering of the Silk Route, making it safe for caravans. As it was mentioned above, the prospering of the Silk Route reached its top before the rebellion in the west, which has endangered the safe transit for merchants and traders on the route.
- Third, the relations with neighbors were stable and relatively friendly. Byzantine Empire, Arabian empire and Persia were interested in the establishing of good economic relations. The well-being of the Silk Route was very important for the empires, as well as for China. Due to the Silk Route, they receive a great variety of rare goods and could sell the products, which were in plenty. In this way, all participants of the Silk Route were interested in the continuous prospective of the trade network because it provided many benefits for all parties.
- Fourth, the general length of the Silk Road has been enlarged during the Tang Dynasty. In 630, the Chinese military forces defeated the Eastern Turks; it gave an opportunity to enlarge the route in east direction. In addition, the victory over the Eastern Turks played a crucial role in the establishing of friendly relations with the Western Turks. In 646, the Tang dynasty captured control over the Mongolian Plateau (Mezzavilla 82). Hence, one received a new route from Altai through Mongolian Plateau, which enlarged the general length of the Silk Route.
All the above-mentioned factors gave the significant growth to the Silk Route’s development and increased the well-being of those empires and states, which were united by the trade network. After the ruling of the Tang Dynasty, the Yuan Dynasty has replaced it and ruled the next hundred years. Under the control of the Mongolian Empire and the establishing of the Yung Dynasty, the Silk Route has become prosperous again. However, it experienced certain changes, both positive and negative. For instance, the Mongolian empire established a new capital of his empire in the present Beijing, making it one of the most prosperous cities in the empire. The sizes of the empire stretched from Siberia in the North to the South Chinese Sea in the South. The territory of a new Mongol Empire was the largest one during the entire history of China.
The Mongolian Empire did everything to make the Silk Road more profitable than ever. Thus, they welcomed the foreign travelers, especially from the West, giving them different privileges. For instance, one could receive a special passport, which received the name the “Golden Tablet” (Hitch 656). The owner of such passport could receive food and horses on the territory of the Mongolian Empire. In addition, the Mongolian khan appointed some western travellers on the ruling position in his empire. For instance, a famous explorer Marco Polo received a position in the Mongolian court. The Mongolian Empire has made the Silk Route saver and more convenient than ever; even the lone caravans could use the route, knowing that they are in safety.
Regarding Sino-Roman relations, one can state that they were indirect during the whole existence of two empires. With time, the ancient Han Dynasty and the Roman Empire started cooperating closer throughout the expansion of the Roman Empire into the Ancient Near East. At the same time, Chinese military invasions expanded into Central Asia. Such influential intermediary empires as the Kushans and Parthians permanently kept the two contiguous powers of Europe separately (Hitch 654). As a result, mutual knowledge remained low and awareness unclear.
To sum up, it can be said that during the long history of the Silk Route existing, beginning with its creation, the commerce network always changed in order to bring more advantages for those states and empires, which used it. Despite the significant efforts of different Chinese Dynasties to make the Silk Route more prosperous, the conflicts in the North were primarily the main reason why it could not reach the highest level of its development during the ruling of all dynasties.
It can be stated that the trade on the Silk Route was a very important and essential aspect in the development of such great civilizations as China, Persia, the Indian subcontinent, Arabia and Europe. The route opened long distance, economic and political interactions between the above-mentioned civilizations. However, it can be claimed that the Silk Road played a great role in the history of the countries that were engaged in its activity. The main item for trading and even for creating the Silk Route was Chinese silk (Hitch 655). However, one should understand that, although, the route was opened for trading, it was also used for some other reasons and activities.
Therefore, with the existence of the Silk Route, other goods were also traded from one country to another. Moreover, the road became the way of transferring syncretic philosophies, religions and various technologies. Unfortunately, it also became the route for various diseases that now travelled from one country to another. Consequently, one can state that besides economic trade the Silk Route was the means of conducting also cultural trade with many of its aspects among the civilizations that were engaged in the Silk Road activity.
The division of the world into the Eastern and Western cultures led to numerous wars and conflicts between the civilizations. Nevertheless, the Silk Rout demonstrated that even the constantly struggling cultures could come to a compromise in order to achieve the mutual benefits. The role of the Silk Route in the world history is not limited by the commerce benefits. The durable trade exchange between Eastern and Western civilizations also had the cultural, political and social meaning.
Western culture has learnt much from the eastern civilization and received cultural impulses for its development. For instance, Arabs helped Europe shape its ideology; the Enlightenment and the scientific development, as well as the political progress was impossible without such contribution. East has always been more oriented on spiritual, social and political development, while the West was more interested in the military progress. The western social model of well-being could not be achieved without Chinese perfection of social relations, labor force division and specialization in different spheres.
The West world has enlarged its technological base due to the Chinese progress. China was one of the most progressive countries in the Middle Age. For instance, in 1078, China produced 125, 000 tons of steel, which was in 3-4 times more than was produced by Britain (Hitch 658). China was also a leader in a textile manufacturing; such experienced was used by Great Britain to make a textile Revolution in the 18th century. In addition, the first paper and book printing was invented in China and lately adopted by other countries. In fact, the rise of the western capitalism was much predetermined by China’s technological development. The western world adopted many useful technologies and discoveries in the sphere of economy, marketing, trading and even military progress, such as gunpowder, which lately was widely used by European nations in numerous wars.
Besides the technological borrowing, one should also mention about the cultural exchange, especially the influence of the Silk Route on the art. For instance the appearing of Greco-Buddhist art is the result of the cultural interaction. The similar impact one could find in In Central Asian, Iranian and Indian cultures. Silk was also presented in the art as one of the central ideas because it also had a religious significance for both civilizations. During Kushan period Buddha was illustrated as a human. The scholars believe that it the reference to the Greek and Indian elements of art.
The spreading of different religious, such as Buddhist, Christianity, Islam and Judaism across Eurasia was much influenced by the Silk trade. During the centuries, the tight commercial exchange has influenced other aspects of life, especially religion. Religion has played a very important role in the Middle Ages. Christianity, which was primarily the European religion, found the followers in China, while Buddhism has enlarged its influence in Europe (Hitch 657). The merchants could see many Buddhist monasteries across the Silk Road. As a result, it led to the appearing of such phenomenon as syncretism, when the representatives of one culture accept the principles of another one, which earlier were unacceptable for them.
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A good example of syncretism during the history of the Silk Route is the relations between Chinese and Xiongnu nomads (Hitch 657). The two cultures have adopted the lifestyle, techniques, dress style and other features of each other. Chinese adopted military innovations and some techniques. The historians say that sometimes Chinese soldiers left the military service and went in the steppes where they converted to the Xiongnu life style. Such necessity was predetermined by the fear of punishment or even the threat of death.
In fact, there are some records kept that give some particular information about the relationships between China and Rome. In 97 BC, Ban Chao, the general of China, made an attempt to send an emissary to Rome. However, his attempt was unsuccessful. Indeed, the fact is known because several ancient Chinese historians managed to record several assumed Roman envoys. Regarding the indirect trade of goods between two countries, which is also known as Silk Road, it is known that the trade was conducted by the sea in order to sell Roman high qualitative clothes and glassware and Chinese silk.
As one can see, the exchange between cultures was not limited only by goods. The western culture, as well as the eastern one has adopted much from each other. In fact, such cultural exchange was not artificial, but a natural phenomenon due to the tight contacts and relations, which existed at that time between the states united by the Silk Route.
The Silk Road is the important page in the history of West-East relations. Due to the trade network, which existed almost fifteen centuries, the different cultures have adopted many features from each other. The Silk Road is often introduced as an important commerce network, which helped sell the goods which were in plenty on the territory of one state and buy those products that were in demand. However, the trade network had also the cultural exchange meaning. Those states and empires which were united by the Silk Road experienced the cultural, informational, social, political and technological exchange.
The well-being of the Silk Road was connected with the ruling dynasty in China. Despite the fact that all dynasties made many efforts to make the trade network more prosperous, there was only one dynasty which could lead the Silk Road to a new level. The Tang Dynasty could achieve success due to certain measures that it took. One of the biggest advantages of that period is the control of the western provinces, which caused great damages of the route. The Mongolian Empire also cared much about the Silk Road. Genghis Khan provided numerous benefits for travellers and merchants in order to make the Silk Road more attractive and safer. He even appointed the foreigners on the high positions in his empire and was always glad to meet them in his Empire.
The Silk Road existed to the fifteenth century, when the Ottoman Empire closed the path in order to forbid the trades with the western states. Before such decision, the silk trade was considered to be one of the largest and most prosperous trade networks in the world. In fact, it united the western and the eastern parts of the world, making them finding compromises and avoiding conflicts, which could destroy the beneficial economic exchange. From the historical point of view, the Silk Road is the largest cultural exchange network that existed for almost fifteen hundred years.