We tend to use the phrase “the Silk Road” as if it were the Route 66 of East-West commerce. In fact, it is a metaphor. German geographer Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen (1833-1905) invented the name in the late nineteenth century, long after the overland luxury routes between Asia and the West had been supplanted by the sea trade. Instead of a single “Silk Road”, trade between China and the West traveled over a network of hazardous routes that led from China across Central Asia and then over the Iranian plateau to Baghdad and Damascus, or through the Syrian desert to the Mediterranean. The routes shifted as empires and markets rose and fell or stretches were rendered unsafe by armed nomads, bandits, war, disease, or tax collectors.
The Chinese had produced silk for several thousand years and traded with Central Asia for about a century when Rome discovered silk and what we think of as the Silk Road began. Rome first encountered silk in 53 BC in a battle with the Parthians outside of Carrhae. According to Plutarch, the Romans were blinded when the Parthians unfurled their embroidered banners, “shining with gold and silk.” Within sixty years of the defeat at Carrhae, the Roman Senate passed sumptuary laws forbidding men to wear silk. Roman critics grumbled about the effects of silk on Rome’s morals–and its trade balance. Romans paid for unwoven Chinese silk in gold, weight for weight; Pliny the Elder estimated that Rome lost 45 million sesterces a year to the silk trade. (To put this in context, a loaf of bread cost about half a sesterce. Forty-five million is a lot of sandwiches.)
Goods traveled all the way from Asia to Europe and from Europe to Asia; traders did not. First the Parthians, then the Sassanians and finally the Islamic kingdoms of Central Asia, blocked direct trade between China and the West–something that both the Chinese and the Romans complained about bitterly. The wealth of the silk trade created thriving cities and prosperous kingdoms throughout Central Asia. Well aware of the importance of the merchant caravans, Central Asian rulers built networks of caravansaries along the roads that linked the major cities: fortified inns that offered secure accommodations for merchant caravans that might include as many as 1,000 camels.
In the thirteenth century, the major routes of the East-West trade came under the control of the Mongols. Markets and producers that had been separated by hostile powers since the fall of Alexander the Great’s short-lived empire were once again linked under a single government. The Mongols boasted that a young woman could walk from one end of the empire to the other carrying a pot of gold on her head without being molested.* For the first time, merchants like Marco Polo were able to travel the entire length of the trading routes from Europe to China and back, though not many did.
The death of the Mongol ruler Timur** in 1405 was the beginning of the end of the Silk Roads. His successors were not able to hold together the vast Mongol empire. The Khanates disintegrated into a handful of warring Central Asian states, unable to control or protect the East-West trade.
China, too, was in a period of upheaval. The death of the last Mongol ruler of China is 1386 was followed by the rise of an ethnically Chinese ruling dynasty for the first time in centuries. The Ming rulers wanted to cleanse China of the corruption of foreign rule and restore traditional Chinese values.*** In 1426, the Ming Emperor Yongle closed China’s borders to the northwest.
China’s borders were closed, but caravans continued to travel west for another hundred years. The Silk Roads met their end when European discoveries in navigation and shipbuilding opened up the sea route to India. The sea route was faster and less expensive. The caravans that traveled the Silk Roads were no longer needed to bring silk and spices from the East to the markets of Europe. Slowly the Silk Roads withered until only the romance remained.
* I have my doubts.
**You may know him as Tamurlane, the Anglicized version of a jeering nickname given him by his enemies– Timur-i-lang, Timur the Lame.
*** [political rant redacted]