The Silk Road

The trade routes linking the Mediterranean with eastern Asia

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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What Is the Silk Road - The Basics

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

Learn about the types of items traded along the silk route, more about the famous family that named the trade route, and basic facts about the silk road.

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Silkworms and Mulberry Leaves
Silkworms and Mulberry Leaves. CC Flickr User eviltomhai.

While this article does provide the legends of the discovery of silk, it is more about the legends about the invention of silk manufacture. It's one thing to find the silk strands, but when you find a way of producing more reliable and comfortable clothing than the skins of wild mammals and birds, you've come a long way towards civilization.

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Asia Under the Mongols, 1290 A.D.
Map of Asia Under the Mongols, 1290 A.D. CC Flickr User Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL.

More details on the Silk Road than just the basics, including mention of its significance in the Middle Ages and information on cultural diffusion.

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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. There were other paths as well, with deserts, oases, and wealthy ancient cities with lots of history.

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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.

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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.

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Arsacid Military Costumes
Image ID: 1619753 Costume militare degli Arsacidi. (1823-1838). NYPL Digital Gallery
Going from west to east in about A.D. 90, the kingdoms controlling the silk route were the Romans, the Parthians, the Kushan, and the Chinese. The Parthians learned to control the traffic while increasing their coffers as Silk Road middlemen.