A Short History of the Silk Road
The Silk Road is one of the greatest and most important trade routes of all time. It was the overland route that connected China and the East to Europe and the West. Our present name of the Silk Road was coined by the geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1870.
The Silk Road began in the 2nd century BCE with the diplomatic missions of Zhang Qian sent by the Han Emperor.
Zhang Qian was sent to seek out an alliance with a nomadic tribe against the Xiongnu who were hostile towards the Han dynasty. After many encounters and delays, Zhang Qian finally managed to return to China without succeeding in establishing this alliance. However, he brought information back to China about the cultures and kingdoms of Central Asia that he discovered, and provided these cultures with their first contact with China. This contact created a demand for goods and materials at both ends of the route, and trade began to be established. Eventually, the trade route reached South West Asia and the Mediterranean, where Silk and Eastern goods became in very high demand in the Roman Empire.
The Silk Road was largely fragmented and very few merchants travelled the whole route. Goods were passed from one merchant to another until it reached the final buyers, most often the nobility of Europe. As most of the area was unstable or hostile, due to raids by nomadic tribes and unrest in the established kingdoms along the route most importantly during dynastic struggles in China and Persia - the route was quite dangerous and the supply of silk and other goods was often limited.
It was not until the Mongol Conquests of the 13th century CE that the Silk Road was united. Despite their villainous perception, the Mongols were actually the most influential in the Silk Road's history. Marco Polo made his historic journey to Yuan China during this time, and brought back one of the first accounts of the East to Europe in centuries. As nomads who had depended on trade for some of their essential materials, the Mongols were very aware of the value of trade and took steps to help it flourish. With the stability of the Mongol Empire, merchants could travel the entire route and the Khans established ortoghs, group caravans funded by several merchants so that if the caravan was lost, these merchants could absorb the loss instead of individual merchants going bankrupt. The roads themselves were improved, to facilitate the movement of the army as well as of trade. The Mongols also spread ideas from the various regions they controlled throughout their empire, for example paper money was spread to the Middle East and then onwards. This stability provided far more silk to Europe, resulting in lower prices and a much increased demand, as less wealthy nobles could now afford silk whereas previously the cost of silk reserved it for Royalty.
When the Mongol Empire collapsed and fragmented, the Silk Road returned to its disconnected state, causing the price of silk to rise again.
However the high demand for silk and other goods still existed. This provided strong motivation for European explorers and merchants to search for another way to China, and resulted in the Age of Exploration, the sea route to China, and Christopher Columbus's voyages to the New World at the end of the 15th century CE.
The Silk Road was still an important trade route, and provided much wealth and power to the Ottoman Empire and the trading networks of Venice and Genoa. However, as sea transport increased in efficiency and lessened in cost, Europeans acquired more of their eastern goods by sea, and the Silk Road diminished.
The Silk Road is one of the primary factors that has shaped the world of the past and created the world of today. Without it, many ideas would not have spread throughout Eurasia, and the Europeans would not have embarked on their Age of Discovery and Exploration that propelled them to their position of power.