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Silk Road – Connection between the East and West

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The Great Silk Road was a caravan road connecting East Asia to the Mediterranean from Ancient times into the Middle Ages. It was used for exporting silk from China, hence its’ name. The term was introduced by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877.

Ancient contacts between China and the Mediterranean

Conquests by Alexander the Great greatly expanded the knowledge of the West and the East about each other, creating the prerequisites for establishing trade relations. China began to export silk and then import purebred Arabian horses, which were significantly superior in quality than Chinese undersized horses.

The Old North Road was established during the reign of Emperor Wu, who sent his dignitary Zhang Qian in search of their enemies that had migrated to the west. During the journey in 138-126 BC, he reached Bactria and saw horses in the Fergana valley that amazed him with their beauty. He reported to the Emperor and advised him to exchange silk for the beautiful horses, as well as sweet fruit and wine. Thus, Zhang Qian managed to establish relations between China and the Hellenistic states of Asia, as well as gather information about Parthia and India. In the year 121 BC, the first caravan left China. Trade along the established route was interrupted by uprisings in that area during 17-27. After the establishment of peace, trade continued, but along a new path – the South road. In addition, some of the goods went along the Indian Ocean.

The Golden Age of the Silk Road

During the journey from east to west, silk and spices passed through dozens of hands. In this regard, historians talk of the travel of goods and technology and not people. Transportation was mainly donkeys and camels. The number of camels in the caravans varied from 3 to 300. Thanks to intensive trade in the Tang state, a taste for Central Asian outfits and products developed.

The intensity of trade ties declined after the Romans were displaced from the Middle East and Arab conquests began. During the occasional Byzantine-Iranian wars, the rulers of Persia blocked caravan routes to inflict maximum damage on the Byzantine economy. Difficulties with the delivery of goods arose during the early Arab period, especially after the defeat of the Chinese in the Talas battle, which forced them to leave Central Asia.

Further development

A difficult period for trade was during the 8th-10th century. Instead of old silk roads, the river routes and trails through the East European Plain were used. The main traders were Khazars and Scandinavian-Varangians. The influx of wealth from the East accelerated the stratification in these lands and led to the formation of the states.

One of the routes of the Great Silk Road was laid along the North Caucasus. This was due to attempts by the Persians to block Byzantine trade ties by imposing high duties on Greek merchants. Caravans from China and Central Asia started going around Persia. They began to circle the Caspian Sea, not from the south, but from the north – moving through the Northern Caspian to the North Caucasus.

After the creation of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, the entire length of the Silk Road turned out to be in one state. There was a need for the revival of land trade along the ancient routes. European travelers such as Marco Polo, with the assistance of the Mongols, made their way to the East and back without hindrance. The western section of the road in the XIV-XV centuries was controlled by Venetians and Genoese. By the 15th century, the silk road had fallen into disrepair due to the resumption of military conflicts in Central Asia, which caused the development of maritime trade, which led to great geographical discoveries later.


Silk was the main, but by no means the only, commodity that was transported along the transcontinental route. Military equipment, gold and silver, semi-precious stones and glassware, leather and wool, carpets and cotton fabrics, exotic fruits-watermelons and peaches, sheep and hunting dogs, leopards and lions, were exported and imported. From China, caravans were transporting porcelain and cosmetics, tea and rice. In the traveling bags of merchants, one could find elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, spices and much more.

The Great Silk Road played an important role in the development of economic and cultural ties between the peoples of the Near East, the Caucasus, Central Asia and China; for example, it served as a conduit for the expansion of technology and innovation, including art and religion. Almost all the technology spread from China to the west, and not in the opposite direction.

Plans for reconstruction

In the 1960s, the USSR made the transcontinental transport market between Europe and Asia along the Trans-Siberian Railway. However, the political situation and the problems of logistics and different track widths prevented the full use of the route. The corridor began to acquire its modern look and significance in 1990 when the first link between China and the USSR was put into operation. On January 11, 2008, China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany entered into an agreement on a project to optimize the cargo transportation between Beijing-Hamburg.

Within the framework of the Chinese strategic program “One belt and one way”, a number of projects creating sea and land routes between Europe and China under the common name of the New Silk Road are being developed. The land routes are united by the name “Economic Belt of the Silk Road”. On the southern land route, a railway route through Pakistan is being built. On the northern route, the railway line China-Mongolia-Russia is being built. The project “Sea Silk Road of the XXI Century” provides the ASEAN countries and the territory of South China with access to the port terminals in the territory of China. These new projects give life to this great ancient road and establish new ties between east and west.

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