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A Silk Road Caravan

Was the Silk Road indispensable to the large empires? And is it still relevant today?

January 1, 2001

Was the Silk Road indispensable to the large empires? And is it still relevant today?

The Silk Road has reached an almost mythical status in history as the center of ancient cultural and economic exchange. However, some scholars believe that the importance of the land trading routes that made up the Road has been exaggerated. Was the Silk Road indispensable to the large empires? And is it still relevant today? We take a closer look at the reality behind the symbolic power of the Silk Road.

Just how long was the Silk Road?

Depending on how one measures it, the Silk Road was about 7,000 miles long.
(Washington Post)

Was it simply a strait path the whole way?

The Silk Road is not really a single road, but a chain of roads, paths and other means of passage from Xi'an in China to the Mediterranean Sea.
(Washington Post)

And how old is it?

It may be well over 10,000 years old — evidenced by Chinese silk found in Egyptian mummies as far back as the tenth century B.C.
(Washington Post)

How did it get its name?

The Silk Road received its name in 1859 from German scholar Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen — centuries after the caravan route stopped being used.

When was the heyday of Silk Road commerce?

The art and civilization of the Silk Road achieved its highest point in the 8th century. Western civilization began to reach China in the late 6th century with the assistance of Arab middle-men. In China, the Tang Dynasty had united the country and its capital, Changan — which is present day Xi’an — had a population of two million people and an estimated five thousand foreigners.
(University of California at Irvine)

Any other times?

The Silk Road also flourished during the Mongol Khanate of the 13th and 14th centuries. The Mongols, who ruled a vast empire, safeguarded a northern Silk Road land route that crossed the Eurasian steppes. (Silk Road Project)
(University of California at Irvine)

How long did it take to travel the ancient Silk Road?

A round-trip journey taken in ancient times along the Silk Road from China to Rome took two years.
(Financial Times)

Did people often travel the whole distance?

On the ancient Silk Road, caravans never completed the entire route. Goods were dropped at weigh stations, where they were picked up by other caravans. They transported them to the next city — until they reached their final destination.
(Washington Post)

What did that do to the price of the goods being transported?

Goods that traveled along the ancient Silk Road increased in price at each city along the route to its destination — as new transporters picked up the goods and moved them further from their original destination.
(Washington Post)

What is an example of cultural exchange facilitated by the Silk Road that still has relevance today?

Knowledge of winemaking passed eastwards from the Middle East to China, while the idea of noodles moved the opposite direction.
(The Economist)

What else was exchanged?

Transfer of technologies such as gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, mathematics and ceramic and lacquer crafts occurred both directions. Often, the recipients had no clear idea as to their origins — due to the large amounts of time it took to cover the vast distances .
(Silk Road Project)

Was it the most important link between Europe and Asia?

Cheaper, easier sea routes were the main reason why the importance of the Silk Road declined as early as the 1st century.
(Hugh Pope, Suns of the Conquerors: Rise of the Turkic People)

Is there a new Silk Road?

The old Silk Road connected civilization centers such as Persia (Iran), the Levant (Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) and Mesopotamia (Iraq). Nowadays, the "New Silk Road," includes Dubai, Beijing, Mumbai, Chennai, Tokyo, Doha, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Riyadh.
(New America Foundation).

What is linking these cities?

For 30 years, East and South Asian investors have been significant investors in the Middle East — competing for management and investment contracts, many in the energy sector — while capital has gone in the other direction.
(The Globalist)

What about Central Asian cities along the Silk Road?

Today, Baku, now the capital of Azerbaijan, is still a battleground over oil and natural gas from the Caspian Sea. During the 19th century, Azerbaijan was a "way station" on the ancient Silk Road and was central to the battle for regional dominance between Russia and Britain.
(Financial Times)

How have Turkish cities along the Silk Road fared?

Turkey's "Anatolian Tigers" — today's fast developing manufacturing cities such as Kayseri and Malatya in the Southern Anatolia region — are all along the ancient Silk Road.
(Wall Street Journal)

If the Chinese and European empires were once the end destinations — and key influences — of the ancient Silk Road, what would be the pivot point of the new Silk Road today?

Dubai might well become the unofficial Middle-East capital of the new Silk Road. In Contrast, Iran — once a central force — is now lagging behind.
(Harvard University)

And finally, how did the Western interest in Chinese silk lead to war?

In 1839, the first Opium War began when Chinese customs officials at Canton destroyed a large quantity of opium that British merchants were trying to smuggle into China in order to buy tea and silk.
(Stanford University)