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History 100

World History to 1500

All material appearing on this page is copyrighted by Michele Scott James, 2006.

Lecture 7

The Silk Road: The First Information Superhighway?


You think that the internet has been influential….

People love to say that the world is so “small” now, and what they mean is that the world is interconnected. Conversely, they think that the world used to be insular (isolated from and unconcerned about the outside world). To some extent this is true. No one in the past could phone or email someone half way across the world, so in that respect we are much more interconnected.

Silk Road map
The eastern portion of the Silk Road land routes

But peoples in ancient times moved around more than we give them credit for. We have already studied two major migrations, those made by the Bantu and Indo-Europeans. We have studied huge empires like Persia, Alexander’s Greece, and Rome. We have studied a sea empire, the Phoenicians/Carthage, and now we are going to study one of the most important institutions of the ancient world: the Silk Road.

What exactly was the Silk Road? Well, it wasn’t a giant highway running down the center of Eurasia. It was (and actually still is) a web of caravan tracks that snakes it’s way across Eurasia from China to the Mediterranean. It also has caravan routes extending into north Africa and across the Sahara into Sub-Saharan Africa. So, though we think of Rome as the terminus of the Silk Road, it really stretches into the far south of Africa.

The Silk Road also has a number of sea routes associated with it, and although in the times we are discussing the land routes were more used, the sea routes became more important as Europeans became more active participants in Silk Road exchange during the 16th century (the 1500s).

The Silk Road passed through several empires on its way across Eurasia: Qin and then later Han China, Mauryan India, Persia, Alexander’s Greece, then later Rome.


Little Las Vegases

Desert oasis
A desert oasis near Dunhuang

So far as we know, no one ever made it all the way from China to Rome on the Silk Road. I say from China to Rome, because this is the direction the Silk Road ran; the most valuable commodities traveled from east to west, and lesser-valued goods (with the exception of Persian horses) traveled east. Only a few people we know of made it from the Mediterranean to China, and they didn’t until the 13th (check) century. Instead, people tended to travel for a few days or a few weeks along the Silk Road selling or trading their goods, and then returning home with more goods to sell or trade. Much of what went on was barter rather than cash sales.

So where were the malls? In the deserts that span much of central Eurasia there are oases (plural of oasis) where people stopped to rest and water their pack animals. Eventually a whole industry grew up around this practice, and the oases grew into large market towns that met the needs of travelers along the Silk Road. This included large markets that ran continually, and charged admission to get in to buy or sell wares; some even charged people to leave! It also included accommodations and entertainment: everything from souvenirs to prostitutes and alcohol. A student of mine in the past likened them to little Las Vegases, an apt description.

Huge Buddha statues along the Silk Road
These Buddhas are carved into the living rock. Notice how small the people beside them look.


That is until I tell you that they also grew up to be great centers of Buddhist learning and practice. Here is where the similarity to Las Vegas weakens. Las Vegas isn’t known as a religious center--drive through weddings and Elvis impersonators don’t count. The oasis towns of the Silk Road were known as religious centers, and many people went there on pilgrimage and to study, some staying on to practice for many years. Some of the best Buddhist art is along the Silk Road, and many ancient texts have been found in the caves there.



Explain the Silk Already

An example of multicolored traditional Chinese silk with a dragon
A traditional Chinese subject in traditional colors

Though it’s called the Silk Road, many other goods traveled along it. Silk was however the most valuable of those commodities, and hence the name. Silk was so valued in Rome, that the Romans developed a trade deficit with China so that upper class Roman ladies (the ones Ovid was teaching people how to seduce) had to have silk garments. Of course, silk was so valuable that by the time it reached Rome it wasn’t one hundred percent silk. Ingenious entrepreneurs had unraveled the silk cloth, and rewoven it using lesser fibers, and then sold it, still calling it “silk.” By the time this cloth reached Rome it contained very little silk!

The other goods sold on the Silk Road were such things as incense and religious icons from China and India, spices from all over Asia, exotic woods (by sea only), finished wares like porcelain (Zimbabwe has blue Chinese porcelain dating from the Ming dynasty 1368-1644 CE), dried fruits and fish, and fresh food stuffs (short distances only).

From the west came horses, wine and grape seedlings, and chairs. The horses were Persian horses, sometimes called blood-sweating horses for their speed and strength. They were highly valued by the Chinese and other empires for their use in warfare. Chairs became all the rage in China, and the emperor got the biggest one; this is the origin of the Chinese Imperial Throne; the last one is located today in the Forbidden City. Chairs didn’t catch on in Japan though until the 20th century.



Buddhas painted on the caves at Dunhuang China
An example of the fine artwork that can be found on the walls at Dunhuang Caves, China

Buddhism was the religion that had the strongest foothold during our time period (300 BCE to 300 CE), but many other religions traveled along the Silk Road. Buddhism originated in India and traveled mostly east, but a little west. Hinduism gave much symbolism to Buddhism, which was transported everywhere that Buddhism went, and so Japan has gods riding elephants, when the Japanese of the time had never even seen an elephant! Zoroastrianism traveled out of the Middle East and into India, China, and to the Mediterranean, bringing its cosmology of the forces of light triumphing over the forces of darkness to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Confucianism and Daoism originated in China, and traveled east to Korea and Japan, and south to Vietnam. Christianity traveled around the Middle East and into the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Mystery Religions traveled the world through their influence on Judaism and Christianity.

The year 500 BCE was a watershed year in religious history. For reasons historians do not completely understand, many great religions rose at this time, most of which are the major religions of today. This took place in China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It could have been that life became more complex; many people were living in empires, which engaged in more and more sophisticated warfare. Many people lived in urban areas where the pace of life moved quickly, and materialism was prevalent.


The religions themselves began de-emphasize polytheism, or even to eliminate it entirely. They began to seek a higher order which could in some cases transcend the multitude of gods worshipped (Judaism) or unite the pantheon (Hinduism). This higher order was just, compassionate, and caring. Often this higher order lacked gender (Buddhism) or encompassed both genders (Judaism). This higher order became for some the single source of creation and meaning in the cosmos, even if this higher order went by a multitude of names (Hinduism and the Mediterranean Mystery Religions). This higher order created or defined a moral or religious realm, which could take the form of an afterlife or a higher state of consciousness, or even a paradise on earth (Chinese Confucianism).

In many religions, humans had worshipped the gods through sacrifices, which one scholar asserts was a way of “coercing the gods into doing the will of humans.” During this great development of the world religions, worship tended to move away from sacrifice; not that people abandoned it altogether, it’s just that other things began to take its place. Not only did sacrifice decline, focus on the gods themselves declined, with the focus of religion going from the gods to humans. People often associate this with the rise of philosophy in ancient Greece, for example, or with the development of Confucianism in China, but this emphasis on the human component was an integral part of the development of all of the world religions, even Christianity and Islam, which came later, but grew out of religions present at this time.

Let me explain what I mean. I said that the higher order that humans became focused on was just, compassionate, and caring. The higher order became something for people to emulate, and so the ideal human became just, compassionate, and caring, just like the higher order. People tried to become more spiritual; they tried to evolve into perfected beings themselves in some cases (Buddhism). Some tried to create first within themselves, and then outside of themselves perfection, and then a perfect society (Neo-Confucianism).

These religions asked the questions that we still ask today: Where did we come from? Where are we going? What is our purpose in life? How do we balance self-interest with communal (and increasingly environmental) good? It is to Judaism (and its daughters Christianity and Islam), Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism that many people today turn to for answers.

Many religions traveled along the Silk Road, but the biggest winner of all was Islam, because though Islam began in the Middle East, by the next great rise of the Silk Road (1000-1400) it had spread through the oasis market towns and made them its own.


Silk Road II

Estimates for the beginning of the Silk Road date back as far as 1000 BCE, and it’s still running today; however, there are a few times when the Silk Road becomes prominent in history; the years 300BCE to 300CE and 1000CE to 1400CE are two of those times.

Modern camel caravan on the Silk Road
Modern camel caravan on the Silk Road

In the second act of the Silk Road, the rate of exchange increased, as did the effects of that exchange. The Crusaders traveled out of Europe along the Silk Road to their Holy Land to fight the people who they thought possessed it unjustly. In doing so, they brought back the Bubonic Plague (or the Black Death), which had been moving along the Silk Road for centuries. A small comfort was that eventually the cure for the Plague, discovered in China, also traveled along the Silk Road.

The Mongols ruled Eurasia for parts of the 12th and 13th centuries, and they encouraged trade along the Silk Road; they themselves had made a living on it before moving on to world domination.

Marco Polo, to whom I alluded above, traveled eastward on a number of buying trips, and was eventually invited to work at the court of the Grand Khan Khubilai. He was such an invaluable asset that the Khan would not let him leave for many years.

And of course, one of the defining moments in Western Civilization, the Renaissance, would not have taken place if books, technology, ideas, and goods from the Chinese, Indian, and Arab world had not traveled along the Silk Road and into Europe, including Greco-Roman texts thought to be lost that were preserved in Arabic by the Muslim world.