What Was the Silk Road?
The Silk Road was actually a network of trade routes extending from seaports on the eastern Mediterranean Sea, through China and parts of India. This vast network was used on a regular basis from about 130 BCE to 1453 CE when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with the west and closed the routes. Parts of the Route were actually established as early as 500 BCE and is called the Persian Royal Road. The Persian Road enabled envoys to quickly deliver messages by using a system of postal stations and fresh horses. Herodotus mentions the Road in his histories. During the Han Dynasty of China ( 202 BCE-220 CE), stronger and larger western horses began to be used. This helped the Dynasty defeat its enemies and inspired the Emperor to open the Silk Road. Over the years, more routes were created which led to the system of roads used by traders going east and west. The route stretched from China through India, Asia Minor, up through Mesopotamia to Egypt, parts of northern Africa, Greece, Rome and Britain.
The Silk Road gets its name from the West's desire for fine Chinese silk, especially by wealthy Romans. Paper, a Chinese invention and gunpowder were also traded. Spices were also in demand. By the time of Augustus ( 27 BCE-14 CE), trade between China and the west was brisk and firmly established. At first, Augustus considered silk clothes as immoral, but over time that attitude changed. Silk remained popular in Rome and in the Empire until its fall in 476 CE. The eastern part of the empire (Byzantium) continued to trade for silk and other goods. The trade finally ended with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in 1453 CE.
Perhaps more important than trade in goods, was the exchange of culture, religion, art, technology, language and science. Well known individuals traveled along the Road. Marco Polo used it in the 13th century to visit the court of Kublai Khan. Chinese technology and science were more advanced than in the west. The knowledge gained by westerners enriched their understanding of science
During the 19th century, western geographers travelled along the remains of the Road. In fact it was the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen who designated the routes as the Silk Road or Silk Route. Archaeologists began to find way stations and other sites, such as religious shrines. Today, travellers take trains that follow parts of the Routes. Tours are popular, especially with students of history and geography.