The ancient Silk Road actually refers to a vast network of interconnected trade routes that were historically used to connect the Far East with the Mediterranean and various trading centers in between. While it has been named famously for its silk trade, it was used for an immense trade of other commodities that were traded between the East and West. Not only were ancient goods passed along the routes, but also new inventions, technologies, and ideas were exchanged along the Silk Road.
The Silk Road does not, of course, refer to one specific route between the East and West. A couple major pathways evolved over time such as the Northern Silk Road and the Southern, but each of these routes were strewn with tangential routes leading back and forth over mountains, deserts, etc…to trading posts throughout Asia and the Middle East all the way to the Mediterranean. While trading had occurred since Prehistoric times, this network was one of the world’s earliest and most important that connected a vast tract of land—literally spanning the entire Asian continent.
The origins of the trade network coincide with the Han Dynasty’s silk trade beginning in c. 202 B.C. While initially silk was traded only within Chinese boundaries, merchants began to trade with Central Asian tribes along border stations. Alliances were needed to protect the trade caravans from raiders forging new relationships between China and nearby Asian tribes. Silk was an important item traded early on, but other luxury items like glass, jewelry, porcelain, lacquered items, spices, edible items, perfume, medicine, and even slaves were among the wares passed along.
Besides the production of silk and the increasing wish of the Chinese to trade it, the conquests of Alexander the Great also helped make the Silk Road possible. His conquests and expeditions that may have led as far as Chinese Turkestan are among the first historical contacts between people of the East and West. The fact that large land masses remained under the control of Alexander and later trade-friendly empires provided the trade routes with some stability and protection. The Silk Road was not only important to the economies of the Far East and the Mediterranean, but also to many important stops in between situated in such places as Arabia, Egypt, and elsewhere.
The ancient Silk Road greatly expanded during the Roman Empire when trade mushroomed to levels never before known in the world. The Romans were eager to block any impediments along the trade routes and to keep the flow of goods regular. Silk was extremely valued by the Romans who spent immense quantities of gold for it and other luxury items from the East. The Silk Road declined in use at the end of the Mongol Empire when warring and raiders made overland trade dangerous. This decline also coincides with the decaying state of the Byzantine Empire in the West. The Black Death also had a damaging effect on trade during the last days of the Silk Road.
Although trade as it was known in the heyday of the Silk Road was suspended prompting Western nations to search for new routes to the East, many of the stops along the Silk Road grew into major political centers like Beijing, Samarkand, Tabriz, Erzurum, Karakorum, and many more. The Silk Road was instrumental in the development of civilizations like the Persian, Egyptian, Chinese, Arabian, and Roman. When the continuous routes of the ancient Silk Road finally disappeared, the West began to replace land trade with maritime trade; the search for sea routes to the East eventually blossomed into Age of Discovery.