Silk Road Trade & Travel Encyclopedia

Definition & History of the "Silk Road," or "Silk Route"
(The "Silk Routes" are collectively known as the "Silk Road")

The "Silk Road" is a network of ancient overland trade routes that extended across the Asian continent and connected China to the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, the "Silk Road" also enabled the transmission of knowledge and ideas between the Eastern and Western worlds. The summary below is a selection of definitions and entries commonly found on the Internet and in reference books. As students explore this subject in depth, and try to define the Silk Road, they will realize that the Silk Road is a term that varies in meaning (making it an excellent essay topic).

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-- "The Silk Road" is made up of an interconnected network of trade routes that have bridged the Asian and Mediterranean worlds since antiquity.

-- "The Silk Road" is a series of  trade routes between China and the Mediterranean Sea, extending some 6,400 km (4,000 mi). [The total length of all routes can be debated]

-- "The Silk Road" is an ancient overland trade route that connects China with Europe. Originally a caravan route and used from c. 100 BC, the 4,000-mi (6,400-km) route began in Xi'an, China, followed the Great Wall to the northwest, climbed the Pamir Mountains, crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where goods were taken by ship to Venice and other European cities. Silk and other items were carried westward, while such goods as wool, gold, and silver were carried eastward.

-- "The Silk Road" is a trade route that passed from the eastern borders of Europe through north India, then through the oasis kingdoms at the borders of the Himalaya mountain range and the Taklamakan Desert, terminating in the desert regions of Tun-huang in western China. This route served as the primary path of commerce for the states along its way until the 15th century, when maritime routes became increasingly used. Its significance for Buddhism is that it was the principal path for the early transmission of Buddhism from India to China, and later for Chinese pilgrims travelling from China to India in search of teachings and scriptures. After the 8th century, Islam spread along the Silk Road across Central Asia to China. Scientific developments, knowledge, and new inventions were also shared upon the routes. The rise and fall of empires along the regions of the routes also had an impact on trade and cultural exchanges. The Silk Routes influence carried over into Korea and Japan, and along the maritime routes which extended to the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand, Malacca, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, Italy, and Portugal and beyond. The "Silk Road" has been proposed for consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage.

-- "The Silk Road" is a series of interconnected trade routes linking Asia and Europe, consisting of a network of caravan routes running from China across Central Asia to the shores of the Mediterranean. Its starting point was the ancient Chinese capital of Chang'an (modern Xi'an) in China; the endpoints were a number of cities on the Eastern Mediterranean. Some of its branches ran into South Asia, while others ended at Caspian or Black Sea ports. Among the modern countries traversed by the various routes are China, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It flourished from the 2d cent. BC to the 15th cent. AD, when sea routes between Europe and Asia were established, though caravan trade continued along the Silk Road into the 17th century and later. At different times the Silk Road was under the control of the Chinese, Turks, and Mongols. The end of the security provided by "Pax Mongolica" under the Mongol Empire was a factor in the route's decreased usage. The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent (c. 1215-1360) had helped bring political stability. Another period when the Silk Road flourished was under the Tang dynasty (618–907), known as a "Golden Age" of cosmopolitan culture in China which reflected the height of cultural exchanges. Traders usually traversed only a section of the routes, transferring their goods to other caravans at various points along the way. Silk was only one of the commodities traded. Goods from China included gold, silver, iron, weapons, porcelain, lacquerware, tea, paper, gunpowder, and medicines; from India, slaves, animals, furs, fabrics, woods, jade and other precious stones; and from Persia, incense, foodstuffs, dyes, and silver goods. Other commodities that originated in Asia and were traded included spices, ivory, flowers, horses, jewelry, minerals, and individuals with special skills. From the West, traders brought wool and linen, vessels of bronze and glass, amber, coral, glass beads, coins and bullion, wine, and ambergris. The Silk Road also led to the exchange of knowledge, culture, religion, and technology between the East and West. Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Zoroastrianism were among the faiths that spread along the route. Algebra, astronomy, Arabic numerals, medical techniques, architectural styles, and a host of primarily Chinese techniques and inventions (e.g., printing and papermaking) spread from East to West, while various construction techniques, seafaring methods, medicinal plants, and cotton cultivation spread from West to East.

-- "The Silk Road" is surely one of the oldest routes of international trade in the world. First called the "Silk Road" in the 19th century, it is actually a web of caravan tracks connecting Chang'an (now the present day city of Xi'an in China), with Rome, Italy, beginning in the Han Dynasty during the 2nd century BC. The Silk Road contained several major routes leading westward from Chang'an, with perhaps hundreds of smaller roads and paths. As it extended westwards from the ancient commercial centers of China, the Silk Road divided into the northern and southern routes bypassing the Taklamakan Desert and Lop Nur, though central routes were also followed. Its fabled travelers included Zhang Qian, Marco Polo, and Kublai Khan. The Great Wall of China was built (in part) to protect its route from bandits. Historical records reveal that the trade routes developed in the 2nd century BC, the result of the efforts of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty, who commissioned Chinese military commander Zhang Qian to seek a military alliance with his neighbors to the west. It was not until 97 CE when a Chinese military ambassador was sent on a mission to Rome by the Chinese General Ban Chao, that the Chinese gathered information about the West (although Gan Ying never reached Rome, only travelling to as far as the Parthian coast of the Persian Gulf, he is noted in historical records as the Chinese who went the furthest west during antiquity). One extremely important trade item was silk, manufactured in China and treasured in Rome. The process by which silk is made, involving silk worm caterpillars fed on mulberry leaves, was kept secret from the west until about the 6th century AD (according to some accounts, a Christian monk smuggled caterpillar eggs out of China). Silk was only one of many items passing across the Silk Road's network. Precious ivory and gold, food items such as pomegranates, safflowers, and carrots went east out of Rome to the west; from the east came jade, furs, ceramics, and manufactured objects of bronze, iron and lacquer. Animals such as horses, sheep, elephants, peacocks, and camels made the trip (there are accounts that after the first century AD, when the Han Emperor Wang Mang was given a rhinoceros, Chinese Muslim navigator Zheng He brought back lions, oryxes, nilganias, zebras and ostriches from Africa -- but a great commotion seems to have occurred when a giraffe was delivered as a tribute from a ruler in Bengal in 1414). Agricultural and metallurgical technologies, information, and religion were also brought with the travelers.

-- "Silk Road" traders exchanged such items as silk (which was especially important to the Romans), ceramics, glass, precious metals, ivory, gems, medical herbs, exotic animals, and livestock. The Silk Road also transmitted language, disease, and genes. Alliances were forged to fight against common enemies. Buddhism made use of the Silk Road in its spread to Central Asia and China. Manichaeism and Islam also spread along the routes. The road, a series of caravan routes with trading posts and oases, extended almost 7000 miles from Rome and Syria to the Yellow River, in China. Oases, like those in the Taklamakan Desert, were stopping points along the Silk Road that ran to Chang'an, an old capital of China (now, Xian) to Constantinople, Antioch, Damascus, and other cities at the western end of the caravan routes. The routes were most frequently used from about the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century B.C. to the 14th A.D. by which time sea routes were replacing the Silk Roads.

-- "The Silk Road" is an extensive intercontinental network of trade routes across the Asian continent connecting East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean world, as well as North and Northeast Africa and Europe (and thus a  network linking Eurasia). The term "Seidenstraße" (Die Seidenstrassen, literally "Silk Road") was coined in 1877 by the German geographer, cartographer and explorer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen. The term, which has found its way into general usage, is derived from the lucrative Chinese silk trade, which began during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), and later led to increased trade along the routes, transforming the series of routes into an extensive trans-continental network. In recent years, both maritime and overland Silk Routes are again being used, often closely following the ancient routes.

-- "The Silk Routes" (collectively known as the "Silk Road") were important paths for cultural, commercial and technological exchange between traders, merchants, pilgrims, missionaries, soldiers, nomads and urban dwellers from Ancient China, Ancient India, Ancient Tibet, Persia and Mediterranean countries for almost 3,000 years. Extending thousands of miles, the routes enabled people to transport goods such as silk, porcelain, furs, perfumes, spices, medicine, jewels, glassware, slaves, and horses.
The northern caravan route brought to China many goods such as dates, saffron powder and pistachio nuts from Persia, frankincense and myrrh from Somalia, sandalwood from India; and glass bottles from Egypt. The Silk Road also served as a conduit for the spread of knowledge, ideas, religion and culture between different parts of the world (Ancient China, Ancient India, Asia Minor and the Mediterranean). Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the great civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome, and helped lay the foundations for the modern world. Although the term the Silk Road implies a continuous journey, very few who traveled the route traversed it from end to end (such as the famous Venetian Marco Polo). For the most part, goods were transported by a series of agents on varying routes and were traded in the bustling mercantile markets of oasis towns, ancient cities, or ports. The Central Asian sections of the trade routes were expanded around 114 BCE by the Han dynasty, largely through the missions and explorations of Zhang Qian, but earlier trade routes across the continents already existed. In the late Middle Ages, transcontinental trade over the land routes of the Silk Road declined as sea trade increased. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other products were traded, and various technologies, religions and philosophies as well as the bubonic plague (the so-called 'Black Death') also traveled along the Silk Routes.

-- "The Silk Road" was a network of trade routes from the Far East to the Mediterranean. Its extent stretched from the city of Chang'an (modern day Xi'an) in China to Constantinople. The term "Silk Road" was coined by Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen, a German geographer. The Silk Road was not one road, but a series of roads, some which passed through the oasis towns of Central Asia, and others which traversed the Karakoram mountain range into India. The Silk Road allowed for the exchange of ideas, beliefs, goods and manufacturing techniques across continents. This connection was made possible by the conquests of the Persians and the Greeks in the West and the unification of the Han dynasty in the East. If one follows the Silk Road from the East, all of the routes began in Chang'an, however, there were various starting points in the West, such as Constantinople, Antioch, Palmyra, Damascus, or Basra. Some of the cities along the routes were: Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Turfan, Urumqi, Kashgar, Samarqand, Khotan, Merv, Bukhara and Hamedan. Many routes crossed along the fringes of the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts. From there, they passed the Oxus River and either went South to India, or North to the Caspian Sea, and the Middle East. The routes were treacherous, and caravans feared attacks by nomads and bandits. In China, this problem was partially dealt with by extending the Great Wall of China along the routes, or having local governments protect the road. The period of Mongol rule in the 13th century, brought "Pax Mongolica," a period of security along the routes. The history of the Silk Road has many eras. The rise and fall of empires, as well as the dynastic changes in China, affected trade. The first centuries of the Tang Dynasty during the 7th Century were considered the Golden Age of the routes. Kingdoms that came into power along the Silk Road, such as those led by the Uyghurs and Kirghiz in the East, and Arabs in Mesopotamia, also helped bring stability to the routes.


The term "Silk Road" was first used for this ancient trade network in 1877. The person who coined the term "Silk Road" was the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen (who used the German word "Seidenstrasse," which literally means "Silk Road"). The term has found its way into general usage in many languages, i.e. "La Route de Soie" in French.

The Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) is credited with the birth of the Silk Road, when Chinese envoys sought to learn the geography of the regions beyond China. As a result of their explorations, the Han Dynasty opened-up to trade with the territories west of China. However, modern-day global transportation and communications are also indebted to all peoples who for centuries were part of the intermingling of cultures along the Silk Routes, as demonstrated by the worldwide impact of the Silk Road's rich civilizations, scientific achievements, discoveries, and living legacies of arts and architecture.

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