The Silk Road

The Silk Road is considered one of the most important trade routes in history. Though no longer in use, for over 1,000 years these conjoined routes crossed 4,350 miles and dominated the trade of the ancient world.

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Return Clearing (AD 1368-AD 1644) by Anonymous, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)National Palace Museum

Spanning from China to the Mediterranean Sea, linking West to the East, the Silk Road carried knowledge, culture, information, explorers, and armies back and forth along its route. It had a huge impact!

History of the Silk Road

Beginning in the year 130 BC with the Han Dynasty, the Silk Road actually built upon previously established routes forged during the Persian Empire between 500–330 BC which was then conquered between 334–323 BC by Alexander the Great. 

It was the Han Dynasty seeking allies in their war with the Xiongnu (the Huns), which would bring about The Silk Road.  

The Persian Royal Road

The precursor to the Silk Road, during the Persian Empire, courier routes had been established from Susa (modern-day Iran) to the Mediterranean Sea. Along the route, outposts were established where fresh horses would be waiting so that couriers could travel quickly.

The Dayuan

After the Persian Empire fell to Alexander the Great, the city of Alexandria was built in 329 BC. The Dayuan People were descendants of Alexander's soldiers left in the City of Alexandria who intermarried with the local populace. 

Han Dynasty

The Han Dynasty spanning 4 centuries is considered to be the “Golden Age” of Chinese history. During this time, paper was invented, the largest Chinese historiographic work “Records of the Grand Historian” was written, and the Silk Road was opened under Emperor Wudi.  

Key Figures

The Silk Road had tremendous impact upon the cultures and nations of its day. 

Yet along its way there would be those who would have an equally big impact upon the route itself and influence not only who and what could travel along its paths, but also bring about its prosperity and prevent its demise. 

Zhang Qian (200–113 BC)

An explorer and emissary for the Han Dynasty during the reign of Emperor Wudi, he journeyed into Dayuan, where he gained knowledge of the Dayuan peoples and their “heavenly horses.” These horses encouraged the Emperor to open further trade with the West. 

Marco Polo (1254–1324)

This Venetian-born explorer spent 17 years serving Kublai Kahn as a diplomat of the Mongolian Empire. His book, The Travels of Marco Polo, renewed Western interest for the wealth of the Orient as well as trade along the Silk Road. 

Genghis Khan (1162–1227)

Founder of the Mongolian Empire, Genghis had a huge impact on the renewal and longevity of the Silk Road. During the Mongolian reign, 75 percent of the Silk Road fell under Mongolian control which served to unify the warring nations and bring about peacetime.

Key Dates

The Silk Road spanned over 1,000 years outlasting empires, disease, wars, and famines. It saw the rise and fall of the Han Dynasty, the Mongol Empire and the Roman Empire, and even lasted until the beginning of the British Empire.

Much happened in these formative years for the world and the Silk Road ran through them all.

202 BC–220 AD, The Han Dynasty

The Han Emperors’ continued expansion and exploration of their empire truly led to the Silk Road’s route being firmly embedded and established as the trade route between East and West. The 5th Han Emperor Wudi, played a foundational role after his acquisition of Dayuan horses.

1347–1352, The Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague started in Asia and China around 1346 AD. It spread along the Silk Road by infected rats accompanying the trade caravans. Within a year, the plague had reached Europe. It is estimated 25 million people died due to the plague.  

1453 AD, Rise of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire controlled the western end of the Silk Road and began taxing goods. They also imposed religious rules on traders crossing their lands. These 2 barriers eventually led to the closing of the Silk Road as Europeans took to the sea. 

Influences of the Silk Road

While known for being a trade route, the Silk Road had an even bigger influence on the ancient cultures of its day. Connecting from Asia to Europe, it was undeniably a “cultural bridge,” introducing new religions, technologies, and customs between the East and the West.


Many religions spread throughout Eurasia during the nearly 2,000 years of the Silk Road. Traders built shrines and temples to maintain their beliefs while missionaries used the routes to spread their faith. 

Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam were spread and formed during this time.

Languages and Arts

Many customs traversed the routes as well, including languages and the arts. Merchants had to be able to communicate with others in order to buy and sell their wares. The East and West also traded cultural samples of art, architecture, music, dancing, and theater performances. 

Commerce and Trade

The Silk Road was first and foremost a route of commerce and trade, and created a melting pot of goods that transferred from one country to another. 

One of the biggest goods to be traded along this route was silk (hence its name, the Silk Road), yet many other items of value, like spices from India, glass from Samarkand, and woolen goods from Central Asia were traded as well. Everything could be of value along the silk route.


Gunpowder was invented in the 9th century in China. When it was acquired by the Arabs, it was perfected and would soon revolutionize weaponry.


China was the first country to produce silk fabric and breed silkworms. Previously unheard of in Europe, it was widely speculated the silk must be picked from trees, and the lack of such trees in Europe created high demand, especially among the social elite. 


The invention of paper is often attributed to Ts'ai Lun during the Eastern Han Emperor Ho-di’s reign in 105 AD. Up until that time, writing was done on bamboo, silk, or papyrus, which were heavy or expensive. Paper was light, fairly easy to make, and durable. 

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