The Silk Road is not a single road, but rather a network of routes extending from the Far East to Europe, including such storied cities as Alexandria, Tyre, Samarkand, Herat, and Xanadu. One cannot overstate the impact of the Silk Road on the cultural exchange between East and West. Trade along these routes—essentially a highway between two of the world’s largest empires (China and Rome) running through a third (Persia)—contributed to the cultural development of China, India, Persia, Arabia, north Africa, and all of Europe.
The Silk Road became more than crude caravan tracks in the second century BCE, when Zhang Qian, an emissary of the Han Dynasty, made the trek across the deserts of western China and through the Hindu Kush mountains to what is today Afghanistan. Learning of new lands to the west, he convinced Emperor Wu to expand Chinese trade routes. By the time Marco Polo set upon his famous journey to Asia in 1271, the Silk Road was at its peak. Only when Vasco de Gama became the first explorer to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in the late fifteenth century did the Silk Road’s influence begin to wane, as Europeans traders took to the quicker, less dangerous sea route to India.
The name “Silk Road,” coined by the German academic Ferdinand von Richthofen a century and a half ago, is somewhat inaccurate. Silk was not a major commodity until it became fashionable in Rome, where it was worth its weight in gold (The Roman Senate, in fact, tried to ban the material, on the grounds that its purchase was depleting the imperial gold reserves); by then, the Silk Road had been operating for centuries. Indeed, the highway facilitated the exchange of almost anything: nephrite jade and lapis lazuli and silk, music and art and poetry, Christianity and Buddhism and Islam. Genghis Khan used the route in his conquests of the early 1200s, and it was the Silk Road traders who carried the Black Death to Asia in 1347.
The decline of the Silk Road was marked. The once-bustling streets of the Silk Road lay empty, and the cities that sprung up along the route are ruins buried in the sand. Many of these ancient places are known only by the coins they left behind.
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