It would not be an exaggeration to say that travel thrived on the Silk Road between 114 BC-1450 AD, primarily due to the high quality horses that were bred on the steppes of Central Asia. While the name ‘Silk Road’ owes it origins to the Silk that was traded from China, the name itself was coined by the German Ferdinand van Richthofen in 19th century, however, it gained popularity only in the 20th century.
Silk Road was a series of trade routes that connected the East and the West. In fact, it refers to not only overland routes but the maritime routes connecting Asia with Middle East and Southern Europe. These routes were developed over centuries, used, discarded and revived many times. Archaeological excavations all over the world have pointed towards the extent of the spread of this trade network. For example, Roman era coins found in coastal cities of India are testimony to the centuries old trade links between India and Rome. Ancient burial sites are often treasure troves for historians and archeologists. Many trade documents that have survived from those times elucidate that a highly sophisticated and organised trading process existed back then. The impact of Globalisation was felt even 2000 years ago.
It is said that the Silk Road formally opened up for trade between the East and the West during the reign of the Han dynasty in China which ruled China between 206 BC to 220 AD. The Persian ruler Darius I , during the Achaemenid empire, established the Persian Royal Road from Susa to Asia Minor. This was almost 300 years before opening of the Silk Road. The Persians later expanded this route to connect Mesopotamia to India Subcontinent as well as North Africa via Egypt.
The expansion of the Achaemenid empire in Persia and subsequently of the Greek empire of Alexander the Great gave a further impetus to the Silk Road. The fortune of the Silk Road was closely tied to the empires rising and falling around it. During the medieval era, the Mongols can be credited with reviving the road. A lot of their prosperity was due to their control over the major trade routes.
It is interesting to note that the Kushan Empire founded in early 1st century AD in Bactrian territories eventually spread to encompass present day Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern parts of India (Sarnath, Benares etc.). The Kushan empire reached its greatest extent during the reign of Kanishka. It was a syncretic empire and many rulers worshipped Greek deities, were followers of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. During the Kushan empire, the influence of Buddhism was at its peak. Remains of many monasteries and Buddhist inscriptions have been found along the Silk Road. The coins of this era had Greek and Hindu deities as well as Buddhist imagery. Coins with images of Hindu God Shiva have been found. Goddess Nana, a Kushan Goddess is shown as seated on a lion with four hands. As an Indian, I can’t miss the resemblance to Hindu Goddess Durga in any of her martial forms. This culture of syncretism may not have been possible without the travel routes that facilitated movement of people and ideas. Kushan empire was also a beneficiary of economic prosperity owing to the Silk Route.
The Silk Road exchanged commodities, ideas, literature, art, religious beliefs and even diseases. Wars were fought and won. Empires rose and fell. To understand the history of the Silk Road, its people and cities is to understand the history of the world.
Please join me in this journey. I have drawn upon works of historians, researchers and academicians to whom I am indebted. What I would like to offer readers is my unique perspectives and insights to this fabulous history.
- Peter, F. (2015). The Silk Roads-A New History of the World. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
- Susan, W. (2015). Life Along the Silk Road. Oakland, California: University of California Press