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Along the Silk Road

Connecting West and East in Prehistory


Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Andrzej Wrotek
The Pamirs (The Roof of the World), Kyrgyzstan

The Pamirs (The Roof of the World), Kyrgyzstan

Ben Paarmann

The Silk Road (or Silk Route) is surely one of the oldest routes of international trade in the world. First called the Silk Road in the 19th century, the 4500 kilometer (2800 miles) route is actually a web of caravan tracks connecting Chang'an (now the present day city of Xi'an), China in the East and Rome, Italy in the West beginning in the Han Dynasty in the 2nd century BC up through the 15th century AD.

Routes of the Silk Road

The Silk Road contained three major routes leading westward from Chang'an, with perhaps hundreds of smaller ways and by ways. The northern route ran westward from China to the Black Sea; the central to Persia and the Mediterranean Sea; and the southern to the regions which now include Afghanistan, Iran, and India. Its fabled travelers included Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, and Kublai Khan. The Great Wall of China was built (in part) to protect its route from bandits.

Historical tradition is that the trade routes began in the 2nd century BC, the result of the efforts of Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty, who commissioned Chinese military commander Zhang Qian to seek a military alliance with his Persian neighbors to the west. He found his way to Rome (called Li-Jian in documents to the time). One extremely important trade item was silk, manufactured in China and treasured in Rome. The process by which silk is made, involving silk worm caterpillars fed on mulberry leaves, was kept secret from the west until the 6th century AD, when a Christian monk smuggled caterpillar eggs out of China.

Trade Goods of the Silk Road

While important to keeping the trade connection open, silk was only one of many items passing across the Silk Road's network. Precious ivory and gold, food items such as pomegranates, safflowers, and carrots went east out of Rome to the west; from the east came jade, furs, ceramics, and manufactured objects of bronze, iron and lacquer. Animals such as horses, sheep, elephants, peacocks, and camels made the trip, and most importantly perhaps, agricultural and metallurgical technologies, information, and religion were brought with the travelers.

Archaeology and the Silk Road

Recent studies have been conducted on key locations along the Silk Route at the Han Dynasty sites of Chang'an, Yingpan, and Loulan, where imported goods indicate that these were important cosmopolitan cities. A cemetery in Loulan, dated to the first century AD, contained burials of individuals from Siberia, India, Afghanistan, and the Mediterranean Sea. Investigations at the Xuanquan Station Site of Gansu Province in China suggest that there was a postal service along the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty.

Some archaeological evidence suggests that the Silk Road may have been in use long before Zhang Qian's diplomatic journey. Silk has been found in the mummies of Egypt around 1000 BC, German graves dated to 700 BC, and 5th century Greek tombs. European, Persian, and Central Asian goods have been found in the Japanese capital city of Nara. Whether these hints ultimately prove to be solid evidence of early international trading or not, the web of tracks called the Silk Road will remain a symbol of the lengths to which people will go to stay in touch.


Dani, Ahmad H. 2002 Significance of Silk Road to human civilization: Its cultural dimension. Journal of Asian Civilizations 25(1):72-79.

Liu, Z., et al. in press. Influence of Taoism on the invention of the purple pigment used on the Qin terracotta warriors. Journal of Archaeological Science.

Yang, Xiaoneng. 2004. Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century: New Perspectives on China's Past. Yale University Press, New Haven.

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