Invented in China around 5,500 years ago, silk was the slipperiest, most mysterious material in the ancient world. Fashioned from the twisted threads of the cocoons of the mulberry silkworm, the fabric’s process of production was protected by the state for several thousand years.
That said, the secrecy of silk manufacturing didn’t mean that the material remained restricted to China for all of antiquity. In fact, traces of the finished fabric made their way west well before the strategies of sericulture were smuggled out of China, inspiring an impressive network of trade known as the Silk Road.
Though this ancient network would eventually crisscross the entire continent of Eurasia, its foundations trace back to 130 B.C., when the Chinese imperial court welcomed trade with the West for the first time. Once opened, this network would nurture all sorts of commercial and cultural interactions, acting as an avenue for individuals from far-flung worlds to mix and mingle.
This is what you should know about the Silk Road’s start, more than two millennia ago.
What Was the Silk Road?
A collection of constantly changing commercial routes, the Silk Road was a network of trade that transported silks, spices and other commodities from East to West and vice versa throughout much of antiquity, from around 130 B.C. to around A.D. 1450.
Spanning as many as 6,000 miles at its maximum, this mishmash of routes ran all across Eurasia, through mountains, deserts, steppes and seas. Of these routes, the most famous reached from China to Central and West Asia, all the way to the shores of the Mediterranean, where some ships set sail for Rome.
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What Was Traded on the Silk Road?
The network takes its name from the trade of silks, though the textile wasn’t traveling the Silk Road alone.
Other important items that traversed these routes included salt, spices, teas and medicines. And while many of the most successful merchants peddled precious stones, precious metals, paper and porcelain, others sold fruits, flowers, animals, glassware and gunpowder.
Alongside this merchandise, Silk Road merchants also carried cultural commodities. Toting their religion, science, art, architecture and technology, these traders spread ideas, cultures and customs, which were repeatedly remade and remodeled as they moved.
This process of intellectual syncretism accelerated as more and more individuals took to the roads, including soldiers, migrants and missionaries, as well as merchants. And as they passed from trading post to trading post, disease did, too, with bursts of bubonic plague and parasitic infection periodically tormenting Silk Road populations.
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Naming a Network
People, products, philosophies and pathogens all toured the Silk Road, but academics almost always site silk as the epitome of the exchange between East and West, so much so that the textile now embodies the entire network.
And that’s because the fabric fueled the network’s formation, over 2,000 years ago.
Who Started the Silk Road?
Since its invention, silk was seen as something special. Super adaptable, the textile served its wearers well in the winter and the summer weather. Super absorbent, it soaked up dye without difficulty. Admired for its durability (with single strands being several times stronger than steel), silk was also appreciated for its shine.
Thanks to these traits, the material became massively popular for people of prominence within China, who coveted the woven threads as a cloth as well as a currency. But, as silk started to trickle down through Chinese society, word of the fabric’s wonders started spilling beyond China’s borders, slowly but surely.
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The first traders that sold silk transported the textile outside of China only occasionally, with the initial traces of the trade appearing in the tombs of ancient Egypt around 1070 B.C.
But, even though these first forays into selling silk abroad boosted the demand for the fabric, it took almost 1,000 years more (and trouble in the frontiers) for Chinese sellers to truly accommodate the foreign desire for silk.
Around that time, the Chinese state sustained a shaky balance with the tribes that lived along its borders, but its biggest adversaries among those tribes were the nomadic Xiongnu. Burdened by their frequent invasions into China’s frontiers, the Chinese court initiated a massive military campaign against the Xiongnu in 133 B.C.
Aiming to improve China’s prospects in this fight, the court sent a young officer named Zhang Qian into Central Asia to forge alliances. And though Zhang returned without any success in his search for allies, he had collected all sorts of important insights into the culture and commerce of the West.
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Zhang spotted an appetite for Chinese silk wherever he went, but he also stumbled across populations that produced tempting products of their own. And in the Fergana Valley of modern-day Uzbekistan, he found a product that was particularly worth wanting: a strange variety of “heavenly horse,” which would prove valuable in the campaigns against the Xiongnu.
With the possibilities of westward trade thus revealed, the Chinese court sent out mission after mission to foster trade in Fergana, as well as India, Parthia and Rome. Following preexisting paths, including the Persian Royal Road and the Steppe Routes, and forging their own, these missions marked the official start of the Silk Road.
Traders On the Silk Road
Soon Silk Road traders were transporting their wares at an astonishing scale, though they rarely traveled the whole route themselves. Instead, a string of successive middlemen from all corners of Central and Western Asia moved merchandise across small segments of the network in caravans.
Braving the bleakest terrains and toughest bandits, these merchants trudged along the Silk Road up until A.D. 1453, when Ottoman taxes, tolls and boycotts blocked much of this trade between East and West. But by then, the tangled network had already made its mark, broadening ancient minds and clothing ancient bodies in shining, shimmering silk.
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