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History of Silk Road
The first major step in opening the Silk Road between the East and the West came with the expansion of Alexander the Great's empire into Central Asia. In 329 BC, at the mouth of the Fergana Valley in Tajikistan he founded the city of Alexandria Eschate or "Alexandria The Furthest". This later became a major staging point on the northern Silk Route.
In 323 BC, Alexander the Great’s successors, the Ptolemies, took control of Egypt. They actively promoted trade with Mesopotamia, India, and East Africa through their Red Sea ports and over land. This was assisted by a number of intermediaries, especially the Nabataeans and other Arabs.
The Greeks remained in Central Asia for the next three centuries, first through the administration of the Seleucid Empire, and then with the establishment of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Bactria. They continued to expand eastward, especially during the reign of Euthydemus (230?00 BC) who extended his control beyond Alexandria Eschate to Sogdiana. There are indications that he may have led expeditions as far as Kashgar in Chinese Turkestan, leading to the first known contacts between China and the West around 200 BC. The Greek historian Strabo writes “they extended their empire even as far as the Seres (China) and the Phryni?/I>Chinese exploration of Central Asia
Zhang Qian (138?26 BC)
The next step came around 130 BC, with the embassies of the Han Dynasty to Central Asia, following the reports of the ambassador Zhang Qian (who was originally sent to obtain an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu, in vain). The Chinese emperor Wu Di became interested in developing commercial relationship with the sophisticated urban civilizations of Ferghana, Bactria and Parthia: “The Son of Heaven on hearing all this reasoned thus: Ferghana (Dayuan) and the possessions of Bactria (Ta-Hsia) and Parthia (Anxi) are large countries, full of rare things, with a population living in fixed abodes and given to occupations somewhat identical with those of the Chinese people, but with weak armies, and placing great value on the rich produce of China?(Hou Hanshu, Later Han History).
The Chinese were also strongly attracted by the tall and powerful horses in the possession of the Dayuan (named “Heavenly horses?, which were of capital importance in fighting the nomadic Xiongnu. The Chinese subsequently sent numerous embassies, around ten every year, to these countries and as far as Seleucid Syria. “Thus more embassies were dispatched to Anxi [Parthia], Yancai [who later joined the Alans ], Lijian [Syria under the Seleucids], Tiaozhi [Chaldea], and Tianzhu [northwestern India]?As a rule, rather more than ten such missions went forward in the course of a year, and at the least five or six.?(Hou Hanshu, Later Han History). The Chinese campaigned in Central Asia on several occasion, and direct encounters between Han troops and Roman legionaries (probably captured or recruited as mercenaries by the Xiong Nu) are recorded, particularly in the 36 BC battle of Sogdiana (Joseph Needham, Sidney Shapiro). It has been suggested that the Chinese crossbow was transmitted to the Roman world on such occasions, although the Greek gastraphetes provides an alternative origin.
The Roman historian Florus also describes the visit of numerous envoys, included Seres (Chinese), to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, who reigned between 27 BC and 14:
The "Silk Road" essentially came into being from the 1st century BC, following these efforts by China to consolidate a road to the Western world and India, both through direct settlements in the area of the Tarim Basin and diplomatic relations with the countries of the Dayuan, Parthians and Bactrians further west.
A maritime "Silk Route" opened up between Chinese-controlled Jiaozhi (centred in modern Vietnam [see map above], near Hanoi) probably by the 1st century. It extended, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the northeastern coast of the Red Sea.
Ban Chao (97?02)
In 97 Ban Chao crossed the Tian Shan, Pamir Mountains and across part of the Silk Road with an army of 70,000 men (comprised entirely of mounted infantry and light cavalry) in a campaign against the Xiongnu insurgencies harassing the trade route. Traversing the domains of Parthia, he went as far west as the land encompassed by present-day Ukraine, pursuing those fleeing Xiongnu tribes into the doorstep of Europe, where advanced Asian composite-bow technology made its appearance in the west. The Xiongnu eventually regrouped over an extended period of time, and they eventually became known as the Huns by western accounts. Ascertaining that the Xiongnus no longer pose a threat to the Han Empire, Ban Chao turned back eastward and headed to the shores of the Caspian Sea. It was during his encampment here, where he reportedly sent an envoy named Gan Ying to Daqin (Rome). Gan Ying detailed an account of the western countries; although he may likely reached only the Black Sea before turning back.
The Chinese army made an alliance with the Parthians and established some forts at a distance of a few days march from the Parthian capital Ctesiphon, about 30km south of Baghdad, with plans to hold the region for several years. In 116, the Roman Emperor Trajan advanced into Parthia to Ctesiphon and came within one day's march of the Chinese border garrisons, but no direct contacts are known.
The Roman Empire
Soon after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, regular communications and trade between India, Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, China, the Middle East, Africa and Europe blossomed on an unprecedented scale. The party of Maës Titianus became the travellers who penetrated farthest east along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean world, probably with the aim of regularizing contacts and reducing the role of middlemen, during one of the lulls in Rome's intermittent wars with Parthia, which repeatedly obstructed movement along the Silk Road. Land and maritime routes were closely linked, and novel products, technologies and ideas began to spread across the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. Intercontinental trade and communication became regular, organised, and protected by the 'Great Powers.' Intense trade with the Roman Empire followed soon, confirmed by the Roman craze for Chinese silk (supplied through the Parthians), even though the Romans thought silk was obtained from trees. This belief was affirmed by Seneca the Younger in his Hippolytus and by Virgil in his Georgics. Notably, Pliny the Elder knew better. Speaking of the bombyx or silk moth, he wrote in his Natural Histories "They weave webs, like spiders, that become a luxurious clothing material for women, called silk."
The Senate issued, in vain, several edicts to prohibit the wearing of silk, on economic and moral grounds: the importation of Chinese silk caused a huge outflow of gold, and silk clothes were considered to be decadent and immoral:
The Hou Hanshu records that the first Roman envoy arrived in China by this maritime route in 166, initiating a series of Roman embassies to China.
The main traders during Antiquity were the Indian and Bactrian Traders, then from the fifth to the eighth c. the Sogdian traders, then the Persian traders.
The unification of Central Asia and Northern India within Kushan empire in the first to third centuries reinforced the role of the powerful merchants from Bactria and Taxila . They fostered multi-cultural interaction as indicated by their 2nd century treasure hoards filled with products from the Greco-Roman world, China and India, such as in the archeological site of Begram.
The heyday of the Silk Road corresponds to that of the Byzantine Empire in its west end, Sassanid Empire Period to Il Khanate Period in the Nile-Oxus section and Three Kingdoms to Yuan Dynasty in the Sinitic zone in its east end. Trade between East and West also developed on the sea, between Alexandria in Egypt and Guangzhou in China, fostering the expansion of Roman trading posts in India. Historians also talk of a "Porcelain Route" or "Silk Route" across the Indian Ocean. The Silk Road represents an early phenomenon of political and cultural integration due to inter-regional trade. In its heyday, the Silk Road sustained an international culture that strung together groups as diverse as the Magyars, Armenians, and Chinese.
Under its strong integrating dynamics on the one hand and the impacts of change it transmitted on the other, tribal societies previously living in isolation along the Silk Road or pastoralists who were of barbarian cultural development were drawn to the riches and opportunities of the civilizations connected by the Silk Road, taking on the trades of marauders or mercenaries. Many barbarian tribes became skilled warriors able to conquer rich cities and fertile lands, and forge strong military empires.
The Sogdians dominated the East-West trade after the 4th century AD up to the 8th century AD, with Suyab and Talas ranking among their main centeres in the north. They were the main caravan merchants of Central Asia. Their commercial interests were protected by the resurgent military power of the Göktürks, whose empire has been described as "the joint enterprise of the Ashina clan and the Soghdians"  . Their trades with some interruptions continued in 9th century. It is occurred in 10th century within the framework of the Uighur Empire, which until 840 extended all over northern Central Asia and obtained from China enormous deliveries of silk in exchange for horses. At this time caravans of Sogdians traveling to Upper Mongolia are mentioned in Chinese sources. They played an equally important religious and cultural role. Part of the data about eastern Asia provided by Muslim geographers of the 10th century actually goes back to Sogdian data of the period 750-840 and thus shows the survival of links between east and west. However, after the end of the Uighur Empire, Sogdian trade went through a crisis. What mainly issued from Muslim Central Asia was the trade of the Samanids, which resumed the northwestern road leading to the Khazars and the Urals and the northeastern one toward the nearby Turkic tribes .
The Silk Road gave rise to the clusters of military states of nomadic origins in North China, invited the Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, and later Islamic religions into Central Asia and China, created the influential Khazar Federation and at the end of its glory, brought about the largest continental empire ever: the Mongol Empire, with its political centers strung along the Silk Road (Beijing in North China, Karakorum in central Mongolia, Sarmakhand in Transoxiana, Tabriz in Northern Iran, Astrakhan in lower Volga, Solkhat in Crimea, Kazan in Central Russia, Erzurum in eastern Anatolia), realizing the political unification of zones previously loosely and intermittently connected by material and cultural goods.
The Roman Empire, and its demand for sophisticated Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century. In Central Asia, Islam expanded from the 7th century onward, bringing a stop to Chinese westward expansion at the Battle of Talas in 751. Further expansion of the Islamic Turks in Central Asia from the 10th century finished disrupting trade in that part of the world, and Buddhism almost disappeared.
The Mongol expansion throughout the Asian continent from around 1215 to 1360 helped bring political stability and re-establish the Silk Road (vis-?vis Karakorum). Between 1325-1354, a Moroccan muslim traveller, Ibn Battuta passed through the present day Middle-east and took the Silk Road from Tabriz, the first major city in the region to open its gates to the Mongols. In the late 13th century, a Venetian explorer named Marco Polo became one of the first Europeans to travel the Silk Road to China. Westerners became more aware of the Far East when Polo documented his travels in Il Milione. He was followed by numerous Christian missionaries to the East, such as William of Rubruck, Benedykt Polak, Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, Andrew of Longjumeau, Odoric of Pordenone, Giovanni de Marignolli, Giovanni di Monte Corvino, and other travellers such as Ibn Battuta or Niccol?da Conti. Luxury goods were traded from one middleman to another, from China to the West, resulting in high prices for the trade goods.
However, with the disintegration of the Mongol Empire also came discontinuation of the Silk Road's political, cultural and economic unity. Turkmeni marching lords seized the western part of the Silk Road ?the decaying Byzantine Empire. After the Mongol Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Road became economically and culturally separated. Accompanying the crystallization of regional states was the decline of nomad power, partly due to the devastation of the Black Death and partly due to the encroachment of sedentary civilizations equipped with gunpowder.
The effect of gunpowder and early modernity on Europe was the integration of territorial states and increasing mercantilism; whereas on the Silk Road, gunpowder and early modernity had the opposite impact: the level of integration of the Mongol Empire could not be maintained, and trade declined (though partly due to an increase in European maritime exchanges).
The Silk Road stopped serving as a shipping route for silk around 1400.
The great explorers: Europe reaching for Asia
The disappearance of the Silk Road following the end of the Mongols was one of the main factors that stimulated the Europeans to reach the prosperous Chinese empire through another route, especially by the sea. Tremendous profits were to be obtained for anyone who could achieve a direct trade connection with Asia.
When he went West in 1492, Christopher Columbus reportedly wished to create yet another Silk Route to China. It was allegedly one of the great disappointments of western nations to have found a continent "in-between" before recognizing the potential of a "New World." In 1594 Willem Barents left Amsterdam with two ships to search for the Northeast passage north of Siberia, on to eastern Asia. He reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, and followed it northward, being finally forced to turn back when confronted with its northern extremity.
The wish to trade directly with China was also the main drive behind the expansion of the Portuguese beyond Africa after 1480, followed by the powers of the Netherlands and Great Britain from the 17th century. As late as the 18th century, China was usually still considered the most prosperous and sophisticated of any civilization on earth, however its per capita income was low relative to western Europe at that time. Leibniz, echoing the prevailing perception in Europe until the Industrial Revolution, wrote in the 17th century: “Everything exquisite and admirable comes from the East Indies?Learned people have remarked that in the whole world there is no commerce comparable to that of China?/I> (Leibniz).
In the 18th century, Adam Smith, declared that China had been one of the most prosperous nations in the world, but that it had remained stagnant for a long time and its wages always were low and the lower classes were particularly poor :
In effect, the spirit of the Silk Road and the will to foster exchange between the East and West, and the lure of the huge profits attached to it, has affected much of the history of the world during these last three millennia.
In the 1960s and 1970s a substantial number of people traveled the Hippie trail, from Turkey to Nepal. While not quite the classic Silk Road, it was an overland passage that at least paralleled the ancient route. In the early 21st Century tours that follow parts of the original Road are fairly common.
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