in this article, we will talk about that how did the Silk Road Actually Work? All the way back in the 2nd century BC, the Han Dynasty served as the 2nd Chinese imperial dynasty to date and had ambitions to accomplish more than just that. Initially hoping simply to resolve the recurrent issue of conflict with the Xiongnu tribes along the north and west borders, the Han emperor, Emperor Wu, decided in 138 BC to send an envoy off to try and form some type of alliance or garner support from the Yuezhi in the west.
As he traveled through Central Asia, the emissary, Zhang Qian witnessed for the first time a variety of new people and cultures and was particularly fascinated by the Da-yuan people. To be specific, Qian was drawn to the horses of the Da-yuan. Although the Han Dynasty had long been using horses in warfare, and even as far back as during the 11th century BC Shang Dynasty cavalry and chariots were popular, the horses of Da-yuan appeared to Qian to be far superior to those that were bred in China.
Admiring their size, strength, and speed, Qian returned to Emperor Wu and informed him of these magnificent beasts. As a result, Wu decided to purchase some of these western horses and in a short matter of time, with the help of their new horsepower, the Han Dynasty was able to address the Xiongnu threat.
Impressed by the success of Qian’s journey west and the collaboration it inspired, Emperor Wu decided to take things a step further, triggering the official opening of the Silk Road in 130 BC, connecting the East to the West through a network of trade routes spanning roughly 4,000 miles from end to end, reaching from the Han in China to the tips of Europe.
This was not the first such road, or more accurately, roads, to create an international trade route though. In fact, it was the Persians under Darius I and the Persian Empire who had created the original. This was known as the Royal Road and it stretched from Susa, which lies in modern-day Iran, all the way nearly 2,000 miles to the west in Sardis, which is today a part of Turkey.
The Persians would also add smaller routes to the main one which reached parts of the Indian subcontinent and northern Africa as well, and this network came to be roughly 300 years prior to the opening of the Silk Road. Although later outdone by the Silk Road, the Persian Royal Road was quite impressive in itself, and the writings about its messengers, provided to us by Herodotus, would later form the basis of the United States Postal Service creed.
Nonetheless, the Silk Road would soon be the ultimate route or routes for messengers, merchants, and explorers alike. The roads were used in a few manners, with the main being for commercial trade. Despite the fact that the term we know it by now was not actually coined until the late 19th century, the Silk Road did, in fact, serve as a major contributor to the trade of silks throughout the regions.
it spanned over. For a long while, silk only came out of China due to the fact that it was the Chinese who had discovered how to harvest the material from the cocoons of silkworms and had strategically hidden this discovery from the rest of the world. Thanks to the creation of the Silk Road network though, the material and products produced from it could now be sold all throughout the path to Europe, and it was the far west Romans, in particular, who really fell in love with this Chinese commodity.
This near-obsession with silk that the Romans developed would actually also prove to be a prime example of how the Silk Road not only spread goods from west to east and east to west, but also brought culture and new ideas to each state that it touched. In the case of Rome and silk, the remarkable demand for the product within the empire eventually put Rome in a position of an “unfavorable balance of trade”,
which deeply bothered the emperors. While nothing would ever be done to rectify this before the 476 fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire, or the Byzantines, would take on the burden and it would be their emperor who now put an end to it. After discovering the source of this infatuating material, Emperor Justinian sent two men undercover as monks into China to steal enough silkworms to start a new production stream of silk back in Byzantium.
The expedition worked, and now the Eastern Roman Empire could save itself from the same high-priced silk-induced trade imbalance of their Western counterpart… Silk was still not the only popular export along the Silk Road though. Additionally from East to West, products such as teas, dyes, spices, porcelain, paper, gunpowder, and medicine were all frequently traded.
Paper and gunpowder would go on to make significant impacts in the contemporary European world, with gunpowder changing warfare as they knew it, and paper soon becoming the primary canvas for writing. As the Eastern trade changed the Western culture and world, the West did the same for the East.
Western merchants would sell goods like glassware, textiles, animal furs, certain foods such as fruits or honey, live animals, rugs and blankets, armor, and horse-riding necessities. Here alone we see the inspiration for new thinking and new ways of life being passed along the network of trade routes, and this does not even include the spread of religions and ideologies that would occur thanks to the merchants and travels themselves.
And yet, all of this was done whilst most merchants, messengers, and the like, never went across the whole Silk Road network. In reality, the vast majority of the traders especially would only go part way, sell or trade their goods to another merchant, and then that man would go and do the same. This created a large system of middlemen and also allowed for the opening of new businesses.
Inns and resting places for the common caravans would soon begin popping up along the routes, and on the less legal side, robbers became frequently employed. There was one man who would travel from one end to the other though, and he would later make the road famous through his writing about the journey.
It was Marco Polo who spent three years alongside his father, aged only 17, traversing the Silk Road until they finally reached the Chinese palace of Kublai Khan in 1275 AD. The Polos would stay in Asia for years more, where the young man traveled to places, he’d never seen and met people and cultures he’d never imagined. When Marco Polo yet again traveled along the Silk Road, this time to return home to Venice in 1295, he brought back with him all of the knowledge and experience that he had gained from his time.
in Asia and shared it all with the European world in his book, “The Travels of Marco Polo”. Language, culture, religion, discovery,and so on and so forth were all shared along the Silk Road, making the ancient trade network an invaluable part of history and our world today. Even disease spread along the routes, and many historians point to the Silk Road in particular as being the possible culprit for the spread of the devastating Black Death in the 14th century.
Yet, the Silk Road only lasted for another hundred years… This is because after the Ottoman Empire conquered Byzantium, the Ottomans all but entirely cut off any trade with the west and shut down the Silk Road. Looking for ways around this, many Europeans began to explore the seas instead, hoping for a means around the blockage on land.
This birthed the Age of Discovery, lending soon to the eventual European expeditions to the New World that would shape so many countries as we know them today. In many ways, it was the Silk Road itself that can be credited for these monumental moments in history, as it was the possibilities provided by the incredible trade network that would give Europeans a craving for further exploration and global trade, which would send them to the seas in response to the Ottoman intervention.
Thus, the Silk Road worked in a plethora of ways. It served, obviously, as a hub for international trade and commerce. Additionally, these routes would open up new journeys for explorers, allow for easier passage of messengers from East to West, and through all of this helped to share and exchange cultures, languages, religions, ideas, development, and sadly even disease.
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