Author : Ahmed Haseef Shakil
What is the Silk Road?
The term ‘Silk Road’ in a narrow sense refers to an ancient overland trade route formed in the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC – 9 AD). This route stretched 4,350 miles from Chang’an (today’s Xian) to western China, central Asia, and even to Europe, enabling these regions to have better communications in diplomacy, business and culture.
It is the world’s oldest and longest trade route.
- Chinese Name: 丝绸之路
- Chinese Pinyin: Sī Chóu Zhī Lù
- English Translation: Silk Road
- Length: 4,350 miles (7,000 kilometers) with 2,485 miles (4,000 kilometers) in China
- Active: The 2nd Century BC to the 1st Century AD
- Location: From Asia to Europe passing through China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
- Chinese Regions along the Route: Shaanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Xinjiang
The name ‘Silk Road’ originates from the silk trade between China and the rest of the world. In those days Silk was considered as a very lucrative commodity of that time and its production mechanisms were a well-kept secret.
The name was first coined by Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872. Although the term was coined in the 19th Century, it wasn’t until the 20th Century that it gained widespread acceptance.
The Silk Road had many several routes but the three main are as follows:
The Northern Route started from Xi’an, an ancient capital of China that was moved further east during the Later Han to Luoyang.
The route traveled Northwest through the Chinese province of Gansu from Shaanxi province and split into three further routes, two of them following the mountain ranges to the North and South of the Taklamakan desert to rejoin at Kashgar, and the other going north of the Tian Shan mountains through Turpan, Talgar, and Almaty (in what is now southeast Kazakhstan).
The southern route is also known as the Karakoram Route. It was mainly a single route running through the Karakorum Mountains. It still exists as the international paved road connecting Pakistan and China and is known as the Karakoram Highway.
It ended on various sea points crossing modern day Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, from where the goods then got exported to Europe and North Africa.
The southwestern route is believed to be the Ganges/Brahmaputra Delta.
According to Bin Yang, especially from the 12th century the route was used to ship bullion from Yunnan through northern Burma, into modern Bangladesh, making use of the ancient route, known as the ‘Ledo’ route. The emerging evidence of the ancient cities of Bangladesh, in particular Wari–Bateshwar ruins, Mahasthangarh, Bhitagarh, Bikrampur, Egarasindhur, and Sonargaon, are believed to be the international trade centers in this route.
The Silk Road was not only important in terms of transporting goods across but also in spreading ideas, culture and notably religions.
Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam all spread across Eurasia (Europe and Asia) through trade networks that were tied to specific religious communities and their institutions.
Zoroastrianism, Manicheism and Nestorianism were called the “Three Foreign Religions” in the Tang Dynasty.
- Islam: From the seventh century AD, Arab muslims traveled to China by the Silk Road or the sea route to spread Islam. In the Tang Dynasty, Guangdong Province and Quanzhou were the strongholds of most Islamic believers. Islam had a profound effect on spiritual beliefs in China.
- Buddhism: In the first century BC, Buddhism was introduced into Yutian (Now Hetian). From there, it quickly spread throughout the vast Western Regions. It was not until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220) that Buddhism infiltrated the inland of China. In the following centuries, many monks played important roles in the development of Buddhism in China. These included monks such as Zhu Shixing in the Three Kingdoms (220-280), Fa Xian and Kumrajva in the Jin Dynasty (265-420), Song Yun and Hui Sheng in the Northern Dynasties (420-589) and Xuan Zang in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). They traveled on the route to ancient India to study sutras, contributed greatly to the propagation of Buddhism.
- Zoroastrianism: From the fifth century BC to the first century BC, Zoroastrianism spread into the Western Regions of China. It was regarded as the earliest religion passing to this area. It was once the state religion of Persia. After the rise of Arab Empire, Zoroastrianism was forced to move to the east. The religion developed rapidly during the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) and the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). After the Song Dynasty (960-1279), this religion had largely disappeared although its practices were carried on by the Uygurs (Uigurs) and the Tajiks.
- Manicheism: is a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and ancient Greek ideas. In contrast to Zoroastrianism, it was very popular among the common Chinese people. Though it was prohibited by the Tang Dynasty, it had a great influence on people.
- Nestorianism: a school of Syrian Christianity, has many dogmatas and doctrines different from traditional Christianity. In 635, it was introduced into China via the time-honored Silk Road. Tang Emperor Taizong, Li Shimin ordered people to build a temple to practise Nestorianism. The temple was variously called Persian Temple, Roman Temple and Daqin Temple. After a 150-year development during the Tang Dynasty, the religion began a downwards decline. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), its followers could only be found in some parts of the Western Regions, Mongolian Grassland and border areas.
Famous Travelers on Silk Road
In history, many renowned people left their traces on the most historically important trade route, including eminent diplomats, generals and great monks. They crossed desolate deserts and the Gobi, passed murderous prairies and went over the freezing Pamirs to finish theirs missions or realize their beliefs.
Following were the most famous of them:
- Ban Chao
- Ban Yong and Fu Jiezi
- Marco Polo
- Zhang Qian
Revival of Modern Silk Road Economic Belt
A ‘One Belt One Road’ strategy was proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Based on the ancient trade route, it would create the world’s longest and most promising economic development zone. With this initiative, the old trade route once again displays its vigor and dynamism to advance economic cooperation and cultural communication among Eurasian countries.