Places on the Silk Road

Places along the trade routes linking the Mediterranean with eastern Asia

The trade route bridged the Old World, linking China with Rome. This vast geographic area was crossed by land, primarily along the routes that earned the name Silk Road for one of the principle commodities. Cities where people traded prospered. Deserts were treacherous; oases, welcome lifesavers. Learn about places along the ancient Silk Road.

Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road
Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road. CC Flickr User Kiwi Mikex.

The silk road is a name coined by German geographer F. Von Richtofen in 1877, but it refers to a trade network used in antiquity. It was through the silk road that imperial Chinese silk reached luxury-seeking Romans, who also added flavor to their food with spices from the East. Trade went two ways. Indo-Europeans may have brought written language and horse-chariots to China.

Most of the study of Ancient History is divided into the discrete stories of city-states, but with the Silk Road, we have a major over-arching bridge.

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Cities of the Silk Road

Cities of the Silk Road
1Constantinople 2Aleppo 3Damascus 4Jerusalem 5Tabriz 6Baghdad 7Basra 8Isfahan 9Ormuz 10Urgench, 11Marv 12Bukhara 13Samarkand 14Kesh 15Kabul 16Taxila 17Kashgar 18Khotan 19Delhi 20Agra 21Dunhuang 22Karakorum 23Chang'an 24Guangzhou 25Beijing. c 2002 Lance Jenott. Used with permission of Silk Road Seattle.

This map shows the major cities along the major routes of the ancient Silk Road.

Ukrainian Steppes
Ukrainian Steppes. CC Flickr User Ponedelnik_Osipowa.

The Silk Road has also been called the Steppe Road because much of the path from the Mediterranean to China was through endless miles of Steppe and desert, in other words, Central Asia. This was the area that produced the indomitable horseback tribes whose names struck terror in the settled areas of the ancient world.

Not only did the silk road bring traders in contact with other parts of the continental landmass, but nomadic pastoralists from northern Eurasia (like the Huns) migrated south into the Roman Empire, while other Central Asian tribes expanded into the Persian and Chinese empires.

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'Empires of the Silkroad'

Empires of the Silk Road, by C. I. Beckwith, Amazon

Beckwith's book on the Silk Road reveals how inter-related the people of Eurasia really were. It also theorizes on the spread of language, written and spoken, and the importance of horses and wheeled chariots. It is my go-to book for almost any topic that spans the continents in antiquity, including, of course, the titular silk road.

Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road
Taklamakan Desert on the Silk Road. CC Kiwi Mikex at Flickr.com

There are oases located on two routes around the vast inhospitable Chinese desert that served as important trading spots on the Silk Road. Along the north, the route went by the Tien Shan Mountains and along the south, the Kunlun Mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. The southern route was most used in ancient times. It joined up with the northern route at Kashgar to head into India/Pakistan, Samarkand and Bactria.

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Bactrian Camel and Driver. Tang Dynasty. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Bactrian Camel and Driver. Tang Dynasty. Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Paul Gill

Part of the Oxus civilization, Bactria was a satrap or province of the Persian Empire, then a part of Alexander's and his Seleucid successors, as well as being part of the Silk Road. The environment of Bactria was complex. There were areas of fertile plains, desert, and mountains. The Hindu Kush lay to the south and the Oxus River to the north. Beyond the Oxus lay the Steppe and the Sogdians. Camels could survive deserts, so its fitting that certain camels be named for it. Traders leaving the Taklamakan Desert headed west to it from Kashgar.

Map of Ancient Syria
Map of Ancient Syria. Public Domain. Samuel Butler Atlas of the Ancient and Classical World (1907/8).

During the period of the Silk Road, Aleppo was an important trading stop for the silk and spice-laden caravans on the route from the valley of the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea, with a command of both north-south and east-west routes.

Ukrainian Steppes
Ukrainian Steppes. CC Ponedelnik_Osipowa at Flickr.com

One route along the silk road went through the Steppes, and around the Caspian and Black Seas. Learn more about the variety of people who lived in this area.

White felt hat, ca 1800–1500 B.C.
White felt hat, ca 1800–1500 B.C. Excavated from Xiaohe (Little River) Cemetery 5, Charqilik (Ruoqiang) County, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, China. © Xinjiang Institute of Archaeology

"Secrets of the Silk Road" is a traveling Chinese interactive exhibit of artifacts from the silk road. Central to the exhibit is an almost 4000-year-old mummy, "Beauty of Xiaohe" who was found in Central Asia's Tarim Basin desert, in 2003. The exhibit was organized by the Bowers Museum, Santa Ana, California, in association with the Archaeological Institute of Xinjiang and the Urumqi Museum.