The Silk Road


Of all the roads in the world, possibly none is more renowned than the Silk Road. This route is seldom travelled today, having been overtaken by speed trains, luxury liners, autobahns and aeroplanes. Yet it still evokes ideas of adventure, mystery and legends.

The Silk Road was not a single, well-defined thoroughfare but a network of caravan tracks and camel trails that crossed rugged fields, craggy mountains, thick forests, and forded over dainty brooks, racing rivers and ice-covered winter lakes. The route spider-webbed from China and southern Asia, through India, Persia, Turkey, the Mediterranean, North Africa, and into Europe. It passed through a plethora of kingdoms and countries, and scattered along its tentacles were great cities, trading towns, villages and marketplaces. Collectively the roads are estimated to have stretched about 4,000 miles. In addition, there were sections of naval routes that connected various seacoasts and ports.

The name Silk Road is derived from one of the most lucrative commercial ventures of the time – silk trading. It was the 19th century German geographer, Ferdinand von Richthofen, who named it. However, the route existed long before his time and before the silk trading days. Some of the earliest sections of the route date as far back as 5,500 BC in Afghanistan where rock salt and semi-precious stones were exchanged.

For all our fanciful and romantic notions the Silk Road was, to all intents and purposes, a commercial infrastructure, founded and sustained by the tremendous amounts of transport and trading between communities near and far. Just about anything that could be bought, sold and moved was navigated along these roads: spices, tea, silk, herbs, china and precious stones were exchanged for wool, horses, glass beads and wine.

Goods were transported by caravans of camels, horses, mules and any other animal with a strong enough to pull or carry. The caravans did not travel the entire route, but specialised in particular segments. At the trading posts and markets, merchants bought, sold and bartered before moving onto the next post or returning from whence they’d come.

Furthermore, many intangible goods were exchange in the form of learning, ideas, faith traditions, methods of governance, and private lifestyles. The Silk Road was not only traversed by traders, but also by soldiers, civil authorities, missionaries, scholars, physicians, as well as aristocrats and peasants, city dwellers and country folk.

Caravanning was a career on its own and not for the faint of heart. One had to be skilled at the sword, educated in animal husbandry, intimately familiar with every rise and fold of the changing landscape, erudite in several languages and, of course, be a shrewd businessman.

A German gentleman named the Silk Road, but it was an Italian merchant that remains its most famous of travellers – Marco Polo. He spent more than two decades on the road and documented his vast travel experiences in a the volume Il Milione ("The Million").

The Silk Road eventually declined in the 16th and 17th centuries, primarily for two reasons. One was the hostility between countries and opposing states that made overland travel increasingly treacherous. Secondly, and possibly the biggest impact, was the growth of maritime travel which enabled the transport larger cargoes over longer routes.