Silk was first cultivated in China around 2600 BC, but it would take two and a half millennia for it to spread west. The Romans first encountered the material while battling the Parthians in 53 BC and were told it came from a mysterious tribe in the east. Roman agents were dispatched, commodities bartered and thus the Silk Road was established.
The Chinese had known about trade routes going west across the Taklamakan Desert for centuries, however these routes only became important when Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty formed alliances with western tribes against the northern nomads, China’s old enemy.
In 138 BC, Zhang Qian, a court official, was sent west to negotiate with the Yuezhi tribe. Unfortunately, he was captured and imprisoned for over ten years by the northern nomads. When he eventually escaped, he discovered the Yuezhi had resettled in northern India and had adopted a nonviolent way of life. Zhang Qian compensated for his diplomatic failure by returning with invaluable information about the areas to the west of the empire thus causing the intrigued emperor to launch more exploratory missions.
Trade quickly grew from these diplomatic missions and the Silk Road was established. It would eventually become a vast conduit for exchanging goods and information, stretching between three continents and thousands of kilometres from Chang’an (the Han dynasty capital) to Dunhuang, through Turpan,Kashgar and into modern Afghanistan, Iran and Syria with further branches connecting to the Roman Empire and the Black Sea. Most caravans only travelled a fraction of the route; goods passed through a chain of middlemen from China through Central Asia to Europe.
However, more important than the exchanging of goods was the exchanging of ideas. Buddhism came to China from India over the Karakorum pass and was spread by Silk Road merchants. The Eastern Han emperor showed signs of interest in this new faith, but it was during the Northern Wei dynasty when the government adopted it as the state religion. Many of the local ethnic groups living along the Silk Road adopted Buddhism and the particularly devout carved grand monuments along the route.
It was during the Tang dynasty when the Silk Road reached its apex; the monk Xuan Zang made his epic journey to India in search of Buddhist scriptures; Chang’an, the cosmopolitan capital, had over 5,000 foreign traders and each year tons of silk and spices passed through the city gates. However, when the Tang dynasty fell, so did trade. The Silk Road finally passed out of use in the 10th century with the discovery of faster and more convenient sea routes.
The 19th century saw a revived interest in the ancient Silk Road and it was at this time when the name was first coined. Treasure hunters and archeologists stormed the Silk Road, taking with them whatever treasures they could carry. These relics now fill museums across the world while countless treasures still lie buried in the sand, maintaining the mystique and romance of the Silk Road.
Attractions along Silk Road: