World History 1 190 - 12.2.1 Travel and Exchange along the Silk Roads

By the first century BCE, China had become firmly established as the eastern end of the Silk Roads, with Rome as the western end. The Romans also traveled by sea to secure the goods that came through the ports of western India, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, as well as trading through key centers in Syria such as the great caravan cities of Petra and Palmyra, the Nabatean city famed as the main entry point for Chinese silk and eastern incense. In exchange for such goods, the Roman provinces of North Africa traded Roman glassware, wool, gold, and silver through intermediaries in the Middle East and central Asia and even into India (Figure 12.14).

A map shows land in white and water in blue. Europe is labelled in the northwest, Africa in the southwest. East of Africa, Arabia, Persia, India and China are labelled, in that order. Thin purple lines indicating “Maritime route” run east from the waters south of China, south of India, south of Persia, and Arabia, and up and down the eastern coast of Africa. One runs up the western coast of Arabia and heads toward Europe. Orange lines indicating “Land route” are shown starting in China, heading west just north of India and through Persia, ending at a purple line northwest of Arabia. The orange lines pick up in the northern part of Africa and crisscross the continent connecting at small white and orange unlabeled circles throughout.
Figure 12.14 The Silk Roads network was not a single route but many, including caravan routes that linked to the main trading regions, oasis towns, and overseas routes—the so-called Maritime Silk Roads—throughout the Indian Ocean. (credit: modification of work “World map blank shorelines” by Maciej Jaros/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Before they reached the Romans, trade goods from the east were largely in the hands of the Kushan Empire. The Yuezhi confederacy in Bactria had unified to form this empire, trading with both China and the Indian subcontinent and providing a conduit between the two, particularly from the city of Taxila. The Kushan Empire managed to stabilize the trading routes connecting the Parthian western leg of the road with that of the central Asian steppes, spreading its control halfway down the Indian subcontinent in the process and ideally positioning itself to handle trade between India, China, and the Mediterranean.

By the third century CE, many empires using the Silk Roads had begun to decline, including the Romans, the Kushans, the Parthians, and the Han. The Kushans and Parthians were replaced by the Sasanids in Persia, who also annexed the northern portion of the Kushan Empire. The Gupta soon controlled the southern portion of India. The Mediterranean world was changing too; the Silk Roads’ new trade destination was the surviving Eastern Roman Empire, known as the Byzantine Empire from the late fifth century onward, following the fall of Roman dominance in western Europe. These new players continued and extended the trade network.

Long-distance trade during the early and later Middle Ages was fraught. The Silk Roads were not a four-thousand-mile-long superhighway outfitted to bridge eastern and western markets from Rome to China but rather a series of interconnected roads, many ill maintained, that were built up over time and eventually linked dozens of oasis towns and market cities such as Palmyra in the west and Bactria in the east. It is most useful to imagine it as a network of “legs” on a journey, along which merchants and traders traveled via caravan with their wares, pausing to rest at caravansaries along the way. Goods changed hands many times over these long distances, being exchanged between merchants who each traveled only part of the “road,” and their price increased the farther they went from their origin.

Buddhism arrived in China sometime during the period known as the Six Dynasties (220–589 CE). Monks traveling the Silk Roads between northern India and Afghanistan brought its universalizing message of a lifestyle open to all and offering salvation to any willing to listen, and they found a receptive audience among countless merchants traveling between China and central Asia. Over time, Buddhist monks established themselves in small communities and set up monasteries at a string of oases the length of the Taklamakan Desert—a chain that ran all the way to the Great Wall in northern China. At one of these, Yungang, weary travelers were greeted by five huge Buddhas carved from the cliffs and surrounded by tens of thousands of statues representing Buddhist deities and patrons (Figure 12.15). This great religious complex offered not only an opportunity to rest and recover but also an entry point to the Chinese market.

A side of a rocky mountain is seen with blue skies and sparse clouds in the left background. The left side of the hill shows square and rectangular openings and a brown fence about halfway up. On the right, two large figures are carved into the sides of the mountain. The one on the left is a head and torso. The figure wears a domed hat, has large ears with elongated lobes, and wears robes. The figure on the right is seated on a throne, smiling, with a domed hat, almond shaped eyes, and long robes and shin armor with shoes. They hold their right hand up in front of their chest. A small green bush and placard are seen in the right bottom forefront of the image as well as a short fence.
Figure 12.15 These huge statues of Buddha were carved along the Silk Roads by the Northern Wei dynasty in China around the fourth century. They clearly demonstrate the importance of trade routes in the spread of culture and ideas. (credit: “Yungang Grottoes 2008” by Mirinda K./Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Many legs of the Silk Roads were perilous in the extreme. For example, upon departing Chang’an, the Tang capital and eastern terminus of the network, travelers almost immediately confronted the Gobi, the largest desert in Asia. Its terrain is compacted and rocky and thus ideal for long-distance travel by camel, but the lack of water necessitated the establishment of caravansaries, usually about a day apart along the road connecting China to the central Asian interior. To geographic and environmental hazards, travelers could add warring tribes and roving bandits and thieves. A menace since the beginning of the Silk Roads, robbers targeted the convoys of precious cargoes as they headed across open and unprotected terrain. While small armies and groups of archers accompanied some larger and better-funded caravans, and caravans sometimes merged into “super-caravans” for safety, these were the exceptions, not the rule. Most travelers undertook a caravan journey at great risk to themselves and the goods they carried.

Despite its dangers, however, the overland route was more appealing for many than the alternative, a hazardous and costly voyage across the sea. Pirates lurking in coastal waters harassed ships on the Maritime Silk Roads, and shifting weather and poorly charted waters posed enormous challenges to even the sturdiest vessels and hardiest merchants. The loss of a ship to a sudden storm or shallow reef (as happened repeatedly at the Gelasa Strait in Indonesia) could mean not only the deaths of crew and passengers but also the ruin of the merchants whose goods were sunk. To most merchants and traders, the risks posed by seaborne trade, not to mention the cost of hiring a ship and its crew, made it the less appealing of the two Silk Road routes open to them. As land empires such as the Sasanian Persians’ realm in central Asia grew more stable, the overland route became even more attractive.

Link to Learning

Read the short article “Unearthing the Islamic Relics of China’s Medieval Port City” for more information about the importance of trade to the spread of religious ideas.

The Sasanian Persians were able to provide a great deal of security, allowing for more peaceful and effective trading. Much of their power in fact relied on and was derived from this trade. The Sasanian Empire was soon displaced by the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, however, which came to control trade and produce textiles and other goods of its own to sell along the route, although demand for Chinese silks continued. In 750, the Umayyads in turn were overthrown by the Abbasids (749–1258), a new Islamic dynasty that sought to expand eastward from the Middle East even as the Tang dynasty drove westward from China. The Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad, along the Tigris River in what is modern-day Iraq. This change streamlined their dominance of the Silk Roads, letting them use the Persian Gulf to effectively bypass the Red Sea, which was the seaborne trade route closest to the former Umayyad capital in Syria.

Despite their ambitions, the Abbasids’ eastward expansion was halted in 751 when a combined Arab-Tibetan army met Tang forces in the Battle of Talas River near the town of Atlakh (Figure 12.16). Initially a stalemate, the battle turned in favor of the Abbasids when Turkic forces that were allied with the Tang switched allegiances and joined the Abbasids. Although the Abbasids were victorious, the engagement marked the end of expansion for both empires.

A map is shown with land in beige and water in blue. The Caspian Sea is labelled in the northwest. In the northeast, an area is labelled “Uighurs Khanate.” South of that in the east, an area is labelled “Tang Empire” in red and south of that an area in the southeast is labelled “Tibetan Empire.” In the west, an area south of the Caspian Sea is labelled “Abbasid Caliphate” in red. West of the Caspian sea, there is a label for Alans and far east of the Sea is a label for the Kimek tribes. South east of the Caspian Sea are labels for these areas, from west to east: Khorasan, Chaj, Turgesh, Ferghana, and Karluk. East of the Abbasid Caliphate are labels for these areas, from west to east: Tocharians, Gilgit, Baltistan, and Pala. Cities labelled with a black dot include, from west to east:  Tabaristan, Jurjan, Marw, Khwarezm, Sogdiana, Samarkand, Yuezhi (Balkh), Shule, Suyab, Yutian, Qiuci, Beshbaliq, and Dunhuang. The city of Talas, marked with a red dot and labelled in red is located in the middle of the map. A solid orange line indicating “Tang tribes” runs from the city of Talas east to the city of Qiuci and then back to Talas by a more northern route. A green arrow indicating “Arab tribes” begins in the northern part of the Abbasid Caliphate and runs east to Samarkand, then east toward Talas. Two green arrows begin in Sogdiana and one heads south to Samarkand while the other heads east to Talas. Three purple lines indicating “Tibetan tribes” begin in the Tibetan Empire and head north, one toward Gilgit, one west of Yutian, and one toward the Tang Empire.
Figure 12.16 Note the centrally located site of the 751 Battle of Talas River, between the Abbasids in the west and the Tang in the east. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Throughout the rise and fall of these empires and others, control of trade routes, particularly the Silk Roads, was paramount. For example, people from the central Asian steppes exchanged hides, wool, and livestock for Chinese manufactured goods such as lacquerware, silk, floss, paper, porcelain, and iron tools. These goods and commodities were then traded for similar items along the way, eventually reaching buyers as far away as the Sanhaja tribes of West Africa and the Egyptians and Ethiopians in East Africa. The Silk Roads were never as vital to the Chinese economy, however, as they were to the others. The domestic Chinese economy was large enough to meet all the needs of the state and its people without imports, frustrating European powers intent on breaking into the Chinese economy well into the modern period. At the same time, there was great desire for Chinese goods by western peoples, meaning that the balance of power in trade was almost always skewed in favor of East Asia.

The silk that gave the Silk Roads their name may have originally come from China, but it was not long before many other states began raising silkworms and processing the silk thread from their cocoons into luxurious cloth. The Byzantines, legend has it, acquired silkworms clandestinely in the sixth century when Christian monks visiting China spirited some cocoons away in hollowed-out walking sticks. Much of the labor of producing silk fell to women, who grew the mulberry trees needed to feed the silkworms, unraveled the cocoons, and wove the threads into textiles. They were vital to the trade that led to Chinese dominance of the luxury goods market that the Silk Roads were so famous for. The men were responsible for the upkeep of the tree farms and the sale and exchange of the finished products. Many rural and even urban areas survived by producing silk cloth in this way, like the cottage industries that thrived later in Europe.

Beyond the Book

The Art of Papermaking

Before the invention of paper, the key writing material in China was bamboo strips, which were very bulky and took up a great deal of room (Figure 12.17). For centuries, however, the Chinese had been perfecting the art of papermaking. During the second century CE, craftspeople took the bark from the mulberry tree (whose leaves were fed to silkworms) and pounded the fibers into a pulp. By spreading the mixture as sheets to dry, they created paper. Later they discovered they could add hemp rags or fishing nets or any number of similar items to the pulp to strengthen the paper, which was then sometimes called parchment. Unlike bamboo, paper and parchment could be rolled up and were much easier to carry.

An image of six bamboo pieces is shown with Asian script written on them from top to bottom. The bamboo at the left is faded and the second bamboo is broken into two pieces at the bottom.
Figure 12.17 This set of bamboo strips dating from the Warring States Period (fifth to third centuries BCE) illustrates how writing was achieved in China before the invention of paper. (credit: “Strip no. 22 of Kǒngzǐ Shīlùn” by Shanghai Museum/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Before the Battle of Talas River in 751, some of this paper had already made its way to Mecca in Arabia. Some Chinese prisoners of war from the battle were said to be papermakers who were taken to Samarkand and Khurasan, where they began to build paper mills. Evidence suggests this may be merely a legend, however, and that papermills were probably already in existence in Samarkand by this time. Nonetheless, the first paper mill in the Abbasid Caliphate was built in 794–795, and Spain began producing paper as early as the tenth century.

  • What does the story of Chinese papermaking suggest about the ways in which ideas and technologies can be diffused to other cultures?
  • How was this diffusion of ideas and technologies connected to, but not a product of, trade via the Silk Roads?

Link to Learning

Watch this video to view a specialized technique of papermaking that differs from the one discussed in the preceding “Beyond the Book” feature.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax