The Silk Road
Ancient trade route that linked China with Europe.
Originally a caravan route and used from с 100 BC, the 4,000-mi (6,400-km) road started in Xi'an, China, followed the Great Wall to the northwest, climbed the Pamir Mtns., crossed Afghanistan, and went on to the eastern Mediterranean Sea, where goods were taken by boat to Rome. Silk was carried westward, while wool, gold, and silver were carried eastward. With the fall of Rome, the route became unsafe; it was revived under the Mongols, and Marco Polo used it in the 13th century.
Sometime around 600 bce, horseback riding had begun to spread on the Eurasian steppe, and by the 400s bce, nomads on the north border of the agricultural zone had learned to combine horsemanship with archery to become masters of the horse as a military machine. It is about this time, when these cavalries emerged, that our story of organized trade and communication along the steppe thoroughfares begins,for it was nomads on the Central Asian steppe who brought West and East together.
In the fifth century bce, seven agricultural states in what is now eastern China were fighting each other for supremacy. In addition to fighting with each other, three northern states, the Qin, Zhao, and Yan, also had to cope with frequent incursions of nomadic cavalry. Nomads from the steppe raided villages and towns, looting millet
and wheat, the major grains of north China, and silks, which were common in China but considered rare and precious among nomads on the western steppe.
From antiquity, Chinese societies of the Yellow River Valley and the Yangzi River Valley had treasured jade more than gold. Most of the jade items found in their rulers’tombs were made of materials from Khotan, an oasis on the southern edge of the Takla Makan Desert in modern Xinjiang. The Yuezhi had been middlemen between China and Central Asia in ancient times. During the Warring States period, when the northern Chinese desperately needed good horses to supply their cavalries, they naturally turned to the Yuezhi.
In addition to silk diplomacy, the Qin emperor fended off the constant Xiongnu raids by linking the walls previously built by different states to form the Great Wall, which ran all along the border between agricultural China and the steppe. The Qin Dynasty (221–207 bce) ruled with strict and cruel laws and exhausted its people with many large projects, including the Great Wall, which caused unrest in the country. It was soon replaced by the Han Dynasty (206 bce–220 ce), whose rulers also faced a persistentthreat from the Xiongnu on its northern borders. The early Han Empirehad just emerged from a devastating civil war, which had ended the Qin Dynasty, and was in a completely defensive position. Gaozu and the next few emperors resorted to diplomacy to appease the Xiongnu. They sent princesses of the Han court, some genuine,some not.
Meanwhile, the Han campaign against the Xiongnu outside the Great Wall continued. After several successful military expeditions sent onto the steppe by Wudi, the Xiongnu were no longer a direct threat to the farmers along the north borders of China. However, since the oases were surrounded by sandy deserts, maintaining a sustainable agriculture required a constant struggle against threatening sand dunes. To stabilize the dunes and maintain irrigation channels would require a large investment of time and resources in planting vegetation.Routes passing through deserts and oases are better suited for camels than for horses. The Hexi Corridor was one of the domains of Central Asia’s domesticated two-humped camel (also known as the Bactrian camel to distinguish it from the one-humped Arabian camel).
For the Han elite, the exquisite products from the West inspired a curiosity about and admiration for the Roman Empire. In the lands between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, agents of both the Romans and Parthians profi ted from the trade that moved along the Silk Road. These merchants included those who plied the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, and those who traveled overland from oasis to oasis. They had the most to lose from any direct Chinese contact with Rome, and presumably they were eager to discouragesuch ties.